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The data gap: bringing a knife to a gunfight

Mark Murrell

We live in a world defined by data. Everywhere you turn these days, you see stories about AI, machine learning, algorithms, big data, realtime analytics, and more. The image of the modern corporate enterprise is something more like what’s in the image above.

That's been a growing trend for nearly a decade now, and it's been getting increasing media attention ever since the infamous story of Target's algorithm determining which of its customers were pregnant back in 2012. In the past few years the march of technology has entered the trucking industry as well, with a sudden influx of vendors offering products powered by big data and machine learning. ECMs, ELDs, trailer sensors, and a variety of other internet-of-things devices collect a lot of data, and the prevalence of good mobile service makes it easy for that data to be saved to the cloud (another term that's become commonplace in the past few years). As a result, there's a lot of information being compiled, and an ever increasing variety of ways to parse, analyze, and act on the insights being revealed by that data. In the battle to improve safety and operating efficiency, the trucking industry has increasingly powerful weapons.

Except in one area of the business.

That place is the safety department. Or, more specifically, the tracking of driver training within the safety department.

That part of the fleet hasn't yet seen this massive technological shift. Instead, it's still using many of the same tools it was using 20 years (or longer) ago.

As someone who spends a lot of time talking to trucking companies, and exploring their different programs through Best Fleets to Drive For, it always surprises me when I see that contrast. Fleets may have all the latest tech on their trucks and many modern systems to assist with safety and analyze the data, but in this one area very few have changed their processes in the past decades. That always fascinates me.

Driver Training Today

Today's driver training departments regularly use a range of different tools to deliver content (classroom, online, simulators) but the tracking of that activity still routinely relies on paper. Some fleets are more diligent than others when documenting the individual activities, but most of that documentation is still done through paper files. For example:

All of these are then commonly stored in a "driver file" in a physical filing cabinet somewhere in the terminal. If there are multiple terminals, they may each have a filing cabinet with files for their specific drivers.

In some cases, I do see attendance at meetings and completion of simulator sessions saved in an Excel file, but that's uncommon. When Excel is used, the file is often kept on one specific PC so it's not much different from a paper file in a physical cabinet.

(I fully recognize that many of our partners in the insurance world are still trying to get some of their fleets even up to this level, but that just underscores how vast the chasm is between what's happening with driver training and what's happening elsewhere in the business.)

This kind of activity tracking has many, many deficiencies.

Problems with Paper

The most obvious problem with paper is that it's fragile and unreliable. It's easy to lose or misfile, and easily damaged by water or fire. It can't easily be shared, unless it's copied or scanned (which is also rare) so you need to have the physical item to get the value out of it. If there are multiple terminals then paper files could be spread across the country with no easy way to consolidate them.

Even when the files are present and readable, they're often little help. How much does a signature on a sign-in sheet really tell you about someone's experience at an event? Did they stay for the whole thing? Did they learn anything? Can you demonstrate they learned what they were supposed to?

Even things tracked in Excel have challenges since it's so easy to edit (intentionally or unintentionally) at any time.

For anyone who's had to prepare for an audit, paper files are no friend. Compiling, organizing, and keeping track of them to ensure they're returned to the right place afterwards can be a huge, time-consuming headache. Preparing for a court case is even worse.

All of those are well-known weaknesses of paper-based tracking, but there's another huge gap that people rarely think about, and it's one of that really highlights how antiquated this approach is - it doesn't support continous improvement.

If all the data is captured in paper files, it's nearly impossible to do any kind of analysis on it. You can't look at the driver training program as a whole and see where it's working and where it needs to improve. You can't easily see the areas where students need additional support, the areas that can be shortened, or the things that can be cut completely. You can't see which instructors are performing best and which ones need help. You can't correlate training activities to on-road performance because there's effectively no actionable data being collected on the training.

In today's world, that's a huge gap. All that data is being collected in other areas of the business. Fleets can see in fine detail which drivers have the best fuel efficiency, speed management, lane keeping, braking habits, and plenty more. They can combine different data points to create risk profiles for drivers, allowing them to focus trainer efforts where it can be most effective. They can see where all their equipment is at any given time and analyze patterns to improve efficiency.

Against all that, tracking training activity with a stack of papers is bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Digging into Training Data

There are, however, some better options. There are ways to capture that data in online systems and use it to help improve the driver development program and overall risk profile of the fleet. We've been working on adding activity tracking and data analysis tools into our system for a few years now, and some of our partners have added similar features as well. Here are some ways to start using those tools to capture more training data online, and make good use of it afterwards.

Standardized Testing

For classroom events like orientation or quarterly meetings, have a standardized online test at the end to validate that the learning objectives were met. The test doesn't have to be long, but it does need to test the material covered during the session. The best ones I've seen require people to look up answers in their driver handbooks or reference guides, providing some extra engagement. There are some immediate benefits to doing this:

Tracking of Classroom and Practical Activities

Classroom and practical training can be tracked online as well, so students can be tied to events which are then tied to specific instructors. With even basic registration management, you can easily quantify which drivers are most diligent about attending and which aren't. Much like the standardized tests, you can also track results by instructor to see who's having the best effect on students. Uploading road test checklists provides the supporting evidence of the road test, and allows you to see what was done each time.

With all of it online, it's available from anywhere, as needed, and you never need to worry about losing it. Some additional benefits:

Those are two simple ways to get started, but even just doing those opens up a bunch of opportunities. More data to analyze, more insights into program effectiveness, and more ability to tie that into performance data from other systems for an even clearer picture of what's happening in the fleet.

When it's time for an audit, both of the options above make life much easier. Generating reports from an online system in advance of the audit, or creating them dynamically while it's happening, is much easier than spending days compiling paper files. It also tells a much better story if you ever find yourself in court and need to show what you did, when, and how well it was tracked.

Other parts of the fleet, and even other safety functions, have benefitted greatly from online systems that track and analyze data continously. Driver training doesn't have to be left out of that. It's time to put away the knife and pull out the pistol.