Once you have a well-established routine in working with your CMMS, the importance of having a user-friendly help facility is far from top of mind. But the moment you attempt anything out of the ordinary, such as an obscure annual procedure or generating an ad hoc report for your boss, there’s nothing like sophisticated help functionality to get you through the process with minimal frustration and errors.
Comprehensive help features most often are associated with training CMMS newbies or helping established users explore new functionality. However, the software world has progressed dramatically in the area of learning and productivity aids for users, all under the umbrella of "help." Modern CMMS packages even interact with users to point out better ways to accomplish a task, or introduce users to new features that might be of relevance to a given procedure they’re struggling to perform. Help functions also assist in troubleshooting a problem, or simply finding information in the most efficient and effective manner.
Thus, there’s a large assortment of help features available to users of today's CMMS packages. Described below are some of these features, ranging from the very basic to the more sophisticated.
Although they exist, it would be difficult to find a CMMS package sold today that is completely void of any help functionality. Most CMMS packages have, at a minimum, some combination of traditional features:
Electronic user manual: The most basic, traditional help available with any software application provides users with an electronic version of the old paper-based user guide. This electronic user manual might be launched as a PDF file when you activate help using a function key or by selecting “Help” on a menu. The quality and level of detail within the electronic manual varies dramatically, but the key differentiator with other forms of traditional help is that this help isn’t context sensitive. This means the help screen opens to the same page, regardless of which screen or field the user happens to be on when help is launched.
Screen-level help: Instead of, or in addition to, the electronic user manual, many of the basic CMMS packages have context-sensitive help geared to each screen. For example, pressing F1 might activate a window that lists each of the fields on the current working screen, with a simple explanation of each.
Field-specific help: A somewhat more advanced CMMS offers context-sensitive, field-specific help, which allows users to access more detailed information about a given field. Perhaps you could click F1 when your cursor is on a field for which you are seeking help to open a window that provides an explanation of its function. Note that some vendors have a less sophisticated means of providing this functionality – they simply reproduce the screen-level help, but with the specific field in question moved to the top of the screen for easier reference.
Menus and function/hot key help: Look for a CMMS package that provides help not only for fields, but for every menu item, function key and hot key (e.g. F3, Ctrl-A, Alt-F7). This assists users in navigating through the system more efficiently.
Procedural help: One of the most important help facilities is how-to or procedural help. This requires considerable thought and work for the CMMS designer. Accordingly, only the more sophisticated packages seem to have mastered this functionality. The better procedural help should provide quick, sufficient detail for users to determine how to complete a range of tasks, such as closing a work order, calibrating an instrument and generating a custom report.
Traditional help tools: Most traditional help comes with one or more tools to assist in locating, understanding and processing help information. Help tools to look for include:
- Table of contents (with hyperlinks to each topic)
- Index (with hyperlinks to each topic)
- Search capability (including wildcards)
- Screen shots (embedded within the help to show what screens should look like)
- Examples (to better understand explanations within help)
- Embedded hyperlinks (which provide cross-references to additional detail, either elsewhere within help or on the Web)
- Customization capability (allowing users to add their own explanations or examples)
- Print facility (to produce a cheat sheet, such as some procedural help screen)
As maintenance features and functions improved over the years, so too did the CMMS help facility. Modern software has some incredibly advanced help features that dramatically reduce the learning curve for users and provide a significant productivity enhancer. Many of these features are described briefly as follows:
Jump: As you move around within help searching for a specific screen, field or procedure, this feature allows users to jump back into the corresponding location within the application, as opposed to the original point of entry into help.
Bubble help: When the cursor hovers over a given icon, field label, menu item or hyperlink, a short explanation pops up in a comment “bubble” next to the cursor.
Embedded help panes: This is similar to bubble help, except that the short explanation always appears in the same location, rather than next to the cursor. The help might appear, for example, in a narrow window pane that runs along the bottom of the screen.
Tips: Some CMMS packages have an optional feature that provides users with handy tips about using the application more efficiently. Tips usually appear each time you logon to the system (e.g. tip of the day), but a few packages make context-sensitive tips accessible to users at every screen.
Tutorials/computer-based training: One handy feature for getting up to speed quickly on a given module or procedure is to run an electronic tutorial or computer-based training segment that might be available on your CMMS.
Animation: Unlike tutorials or computer-based training, animations aren’t really interactive. Instead, users are shown a computer simulation that steps through a sample procedure.
Wizard or coach: This feature guides users through a given process with the aid of prompts and explanations along the way. More advanced packages activate an optional wizard when it’s clear the user is struggling. For example, if an error message or warning appears, the wizard provides assistance in correcting the problem.
Workflow: The CMMS workflow engine is far more powerful if integrated into the help facility. This facilitates users in navigating through a complex CMMS.
Troubleshooting/diagnostics: One of the emerging help features is providing automated assistance to users on recognizing and reacting to user-defined problems. For example, if the average lead time on delivery of a given part is say, more than 20% greater than the existing lead time, the computer will suggest an adjustment.
Online help: Some CMMS vendors provide a wealth of supplemental help functionality on their Web sites. This online help can include:
- Supplementary media material such as articles, white papers, Web casts and press releases
- Knowledge bases of information such as known errors or omissions, and information posted by users such as work-arounds
- Downloads of add-ons, updates, additional software
- Expert assistance using chat or e-mail exchange with the vendor
- Training tools, videos and tutorials
- Communities of interest using bulletin boards or chat capability with other users having similar backgrounds and interests
- Links to other Web sites that might provide further information
(Editor’s note: The Plant Services CMMS/EAM Software Review, posted at www.PlantServices.com/cmms_review, provides a side-by-side comparison of more than a dozen popular software packages.)
E-mail Contributing Editor David Berger, P.Eng., partner, Western Management Consultants, at email@example.com.