Market Trends

Is Technology 'Dumbing Down' Fleet Managers?

March 4, 2013

by Mike Antich - Also by this author

While technology has transformed fleet management from a craft to a science, it has also created the risk that, ultimately, technology may “dumb down” fleet managers. In the past, fleet managers would personally perform the calculations and engage in the “cerebral sweat” to accomplish almost all fleet functions. Nowadays (and increasingly so in the future), sophisticated fleet management systems perform these calculations and analyses in a “back room” setting with the fleet manager only seeing the end result, not the process. I see this as a future concern, especially for inexperienced brand-new fleet managers, and so do others.

“Since fleet management companies (FMCs) are increasingly developing solutions to take the administrative burden off of their clients, the fleet manager has fewer opportunities to observe first-hand operational issues or efficiencies. They run the fleet by exception and reports supplied by the lessor,” said Michael Bieger, senior director global procurement for ADP. “As this increasingly happens, the new fleet manager becomes dependent on the FMCs to provide strategic ideas and direction because he or she will not have the day-to-day contact with the work of managing a fleet.”   

Bieger does not believe this is a fait accompli; rather, he offers it as a cautionary tale about the future of the fleet manager position. For instance, if a fleet manager is dependent on managing a fleet by exception and summary reports, does it position him or her to truly be strategic in their thinking? This is analogous to the outsourcing of product manufacturing that has occurred over the past several decades. This has resulted in lost in-house expertise by not staying current with innovations in manufacturing processes because a company is no longer in the manufacturing business, but simply contract management. This can ultimately become a strategic deficit. A recent story about Apple illustrates this situation. According to the news story, Apple is designing a yet-to-be-released iPhone, which is extremely sophisticated and complex and the designers were not certain whether the product could be manufactured as designed. It had to go to the manufacturing outsourcer to see if they could develop a manufacturing system to build the phone. Although Apple is a highly innovative company, some would say this lack of manufacturing expertise is a strategic deficit. This could be similar to the fleet manager of the future, who may come up with “strategic ideas,” but needs their outsourcer to determine whether the ideas are feasible to implement.  

“Technology is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, with the time constraints and lack of sheer manpower, it’s very convenient to have systems in place to pull the data and prepare the analysis.  On the other hand, you lose some of the knowledge on where those numbers come from and the in-depth knowledge of what the numbers mean,” said Rachel Johnson, CAFM, fleet specialist for Region Americas for Konecranes, Inc. “If you have a business management or accounting degree, it’s not a concern because you have already learned those types of analyses. However, if you don’t have that background, it’s important to pursue continuing education, either through the NAFA CAFM program or others.”

The Counter Arguments
Without a doubt, fleet management has changed immeasurably since its inception, due to the advances in technology. The list of the positive impacts of technology far outweighs the disadvantages. However, there is a legitimate concern about our growing over-dependence on technology. If you don’t think we’re too dependent on technology, watch what happens the next time there is a power outage, your server goes down, or phone battery dies.

As the technology of the future becomes more intuitive and predictive, it ultimately poses the risk of diminishing the stature of the fleet manager by making technology the real value-added in fleet management, not the individual. But, not everyone agrees with this scenario. The counter-argument is that technology frees up the fleet managers to learn new skills in other related areas.

“Granted, technology has taken the fleet manager out of the day-to-day business of defining policy, consolidating specifications for a selector, and managing most day-to-day operations. But, at the same time, it has allowed the fleet manager to grow in other areas, such as analytics, forecasting, reporting, risk awareness, logistics, benchmarking, and fleet financials. Considering the complex market, the changing and fast-moving nature of our industry, and the demands from customers and executive management alike, a good fleet manager needs to be a master of each one of these capabilities,” said Jim McCarthy, director, Vehicle Management Services, CSCM, a division of Siemens Corp.

Technology also allows fleet managers to be more granular in fleet decision-making. “Technology gives us the facility and desire to drill down further than would have been possible 20 to 30 years ago,” said Bob Stanton, fleet manager for the City of San Antonio. “Technology, in my view, is not contributing to the ‘dumbing down’ of the fleet manager. Instead, the broadened skill levels required for success may be muting or even masking the specific fleet-related skills still needed for success.”

Regardless of your perspective on the impact of technology, one point is certain; if you don’t make a concerted effort to expand your skill set, you run the risk making yourself obsolete.

Let me know what you think.

[email protected]


  1. 1. Don Thomson [ March 08, 2013 @ 08:54AM ]

    Good article, Mike. I run a municipal fleet, and I don't have fleet management company between my and my customers/equipment. The advances in information technology have been a true blessing for me, as for most fleet managers, I believe. Anything that runs on a computer delivers its own set of problem that arise from the computer itself, the software and the network. The data that we can pull out of a fleet management system, however, gives us the opportunity to get deeper into both problems and successes, in less time, than we ever could before we had these systems.

    We still have to analyze how the numbers were produced so that we understand how things are working. If we merely parrot the numbers that come out on a report, we're not doing a large part of our jobs. It's like a mechanic putting a test instrument on an vehicle with a driveability probem reported. If the instrument tells the mechanic that one of the emissions components is reporting out of spec, I don't have him automatically throw away the component and replace it. He needs to dig deeper, using his store of knowledge and experience, to find out what's causing that reading. It may in the end turn out to be a fault in that component, but it could also be the result of other issues upstream.

    The fleet manager is in the same situation with what rolls out of our fleet management systems. When I tell my boss that fleet availability is up for the fleet, she's going to ask me: for which departments, which types of equipment, and to what causes I attribute this improvement. And if I'm waiting until someone else asks these questions, I'm not being proactive in understanding what's going on in my operation. The point you made about us still needing all the old skills, and adding layers of new competencies on top of them, is excellent. Thanks. --- Don Thomson CAFM, City of Salem, Oregon

  2. 2. John Brewington [ March 08, 2013 @ 08:57AM ]

    A copy of this article should be on every fleet manager boss’s desk as well as the “C” level person responsible for fleet. Fleet Management Companies (FMC) have convinced many organizations that outsourcing fleet management is an economical and desirable approach to managing vehicles and equipment. I content a more strategic approach using in-house expertise and selected outsourcing is way more advantageous for most organizations. Why? Because no one knows a fleet, its objectives, and the challenges it faces better than those closest to it. Outside sources may be interested in your business, but have you ever heard of an FMC suggesting someone should rebid their management contract – remember they have a vested interest in retaining your business and the income steam it produces. Turning more control over to an outside source is somewhat like hiring the fox to provide security at the hen house. Using software to manage data or even having outside sources help run a fleet is not necessarily evil to me, the most important parts are the knowledgeable overview of the reports generated and the oversight or those providing services to your fleet. Well-rounded, educated fleet managers will continue to be in demand by organizations willing to spend the funds necessary to effectively manage their fleets in the future.

  3. 3. Steve Kibler [ March 12, 2013 @ 11:02AM ]

    Ooooo, another stimulating left-brain exercise, Mike. I tend to agree with Bob Stanton, technology is the compass which points the fleet manager in the right direction. Technology doesn’t make the decision to move a certain direction, the fleet manager does. S/he generally uses experience and past failures to decide the new heading hoping to steer around those unseen obstacles. Technology generally points out the human errors already being made; wrong tool for the job, poor training, poor supervision or costly performance. Pretty much anyone in management can use technology to extrapolate the present logistical errors and correct them but only an experienced fleet manager, who has learned from mistakes already made, can recommend the best course of action. I believe technology used correctly can only enhance the credibility of the fleet manager’s strategy moving forward.

  4. 4. Donna Bibbo [ March 13, 2013 @ 03:57PM ]

    Technology is Dumbing Down Everyone

    Technology is “dumbing” down everyone, not just fleet managers. No one has to do any thinking, and therefore, has no idea how the answer was arrived at—they just accept that it’s the correct answer. Many times it isn’t. I make it a point to do calculations and follow up on technology-supplied answers to make sure I understand how the answer was derived and whether I think it’s correct or not. After all, Garbage In, Garbage Out!

    Donna Bibbo
    Manager, Fleet and Travel
    Novo Nordisk
    Princeton, N.J.

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