For years, the construction industry has talked about closing the divide between the office and the field. This divide stems from how construction companies typically view their work: from either an operational or financial perspective. However, consider a middle ground that allows both sides to collaborate and yield a better informed view of the project. Because project managers often work with one foot in the office and one in the field, they can offer their middle ground perspective to gain a better understanding of collaborative project management. 

Project management can be broken down according to the way it is approached by different groups, including financial, operational and project managers. Individuals in each group use different tools, methods and technology in their approach to the construction project. Each perspective is valid and important, but potentially contrasting views do not foster teamwork. By separating project management into its primary components, project managers can serve as an agent for harmonizing contrasting views. 

Deconstruction
Employees have different perspectives of project management depending on the work they perform. An operations manager’s definition of project management most likely will focus on logistics, resource management, scheduling and subcontractor management. Operational staff typically use more generic software tools, such as Microsoft Excel, that they can customize for their needs, along with a collection of construction-specific, single-purpose software applications.

Meanwhile, a CFO or controller will have a financially oriented definition focusing on job cost, over-billing, under-billing, retention and cost to complete. The tools of their trade are less generic, but still vary from basic accounting systems to more advanced enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

At best, this dichotomous approach results in less-than-optimal coordination and collaboration in an organization. At worst, it means significant duplication of effort, dual data entry and conflicting reports on job status. Construction-specific ERP systems can prevent a significant amount of duplicate entry and generate reports using one common set of data in a single database.

However, having a back-end flow of data between applications that are still fundamentally different in their presentation of information does not address the larger issue. Different groups still use applications specific to their needs and view project data through the prism of their role in the company. A better understanding of the true health of projects and the ability to look past the symptoms to the root causes of problems requires a more holistic approach. 

Common Ground

On a typical day, a project manager will look at job cost projections versus actuals, project schedule variances, jobsite reports, project logs, vendor payment histories and many other issues that bridge the gap between the office and the field. Because project managers are responsible for the flow of work and the flow of money through a project, they need software that blends the financial and operational sides of the business.

The project manager’s point of view can unify the two sides of the construction business. If information tools can function equally well on both sides of this divide, and go a step further and blend the information in a way that is useful to everyone, technology can play a role in reconstructing the approach to project management. 

Reconstruction
Historically, software using the middle ground approach has focused on producing a project activity log based on information that is typically input by and reviewed by project managers. However, if financial and operational data is fed into a unified project application, the project log becomes a launching pad for a much richer and more powerful project management tool. Everyone involved in construction projects can use the same application to view and manage the aspects of a project for which they are responsible and still see how their work affects overall project health. Similarly, they can see how the work performed by others impacts their areas of responsibility.

A unified approach to project management software is different from an integrated approach in an ERP system. Integration moves data between significantly different applications. Unified project management combines data from multiple sources and provides a platform to dive into the details and documents relevant to an individual’s role. This platform provides the project manager with all the data needed to keep a job on track while improving visibility for everyone involved—from accounting through field operations. 

New Ground
Until recently, construction software inadvertently reinforced the divide between the financial and operational approaches to project management. Accounting and business management applications are designed for the work environment in which they are used: the office. In this environment, applications can afford more complex menus, more sophisticated number crunching and more elaborate report generation. This translates into the need for more powerful desktop machines for heavier client-side computing and the assumption that the user will have peripherals, such as printers, mice and monitors, at their disposal.

In contrast, software designed for construction operations staff, particularly field operations, typically places a premium on ease of use, such as simple data entry screens, pre-built templates and access via mobile devices.

As a result of these different design requirements, two distinct types of applications are used by the people working on either side of a project, leaving the project manager in the middle to pull all the information together. Cloud computing provides a common platform for all these players to use that supports the complexity of business information management needed in the office and the simplicity of data capture and usage needed on the jobsite.

The chief characteristic driving change in project information management is that cloud computing frees users from dependency on place and product. With data and applications served up as a utility, users do not need specific devices loaded with specific operating systems or database engines. The controller in the office using a desktop can access the same processing power and wealth of data as the construction manager using a tablet on the jobsite. This freedom means creating a common place where financial and operational data are tracked is now feasible.

Detailed analyses and reports created and used in the office can be made available to staff in the field. The quantity and quality of data that can be captured in the field can be considerably expanded and used to support better business decisions. Everyone can work off a common project tracking dashboard and then drill into the data and use the applications specific to their role.

As always, technology is not the cure-all for better project collaboration. Companies that deploy cloud computing technologies and adopt unified project tracking systems also must work internally to encourage staff to take a new approach to the way they view and process information. The good news is companies that successfully do both are set up to break down internal communication barriers and let everyone involved contribute fully to the success of every construction project. 


John Chaney is president and cofounder of Seattle-based Dexter + Chaney. For more information, call (800) 875-1400, email jchaney@dexterchaney.com or visit www.dexterchaney.com.