The CEO of a mid-size contractor in Texas who authorized $55,000 for a business intelligence (BI) dashboard had high hopes it would provide a direct line of sight into his firm’s projects. His expectation was that the solution would identify trouble spots and measure project performance against set benchmarks.

The firm’s IT group selected a leader in the BI market, but quickly discovered details that got lost in translation (or overlooked) during the requirements gathering phase. It also exposed significant data quality issues. As a result, instead of providing an easy way for senior decision-makers to obtain insights directly from multiple information systems, the BI tool requires one person to drive the dashboard for the CEO—and that is only after several employees clean and prepare data imported from Excel spreadsheets.

Needless to say, this didn’t meet the CEO’s expectations, and he isn’t alone. AEC companies know their project data holds invaluable insights into their businesses, but too often executives can’t get the BI dashboards they need to solve real problems.

Following are five ways to extract valuable results from a business intelligence investment.

1. Look For AEC Industry Expertise
A big-name BI provider isn’t always better. For example, a firm evaluated a BI solution recommended by its enterprise resource planning vendor. It was costly to implement and cumbersome to use. And despite its expense and sophistication, it lacked anything specific to the construction industry.

Most BI vendors design solutions for the widest possible audience, and leave it to the client to figure out how to extract the right data in the right format and visualize it in ways that are meaningful to users. Resist the allure
of sexy technology, as it’s likely not aligned with an AEC company’s needs. Look to partner with a provider that can navigate the construction industry’s intricacies and guide the technology choice.

2. Select a Provider That Isn’t Beholden to a Vendor

Select a BI solution that acts like Switzerland: willing to work with any data source out of the box. The most insightful dashboards combine data from financial systems, such as Sage 300, Starbuilder and Viewpoint, as well as with construction project management systems, such as HCSS, Newforma, Procore and Trimble. They also should work with customized applications built using Access, Excel and SQL software.

The goal is to get a dashboard that provides more value from existing systems, without jettisoning what is already in use.

3. Develop a Data-Driven Culture
Implementing a dashboard won’t suddenly make a firm data-driven; that culture change needs to come from the top. In some situations, great BI tools are put in place, but aren’t used well because the employees entering the data do not think anyone is paying attention. Once they realize senior managers will see the employees’ data in BI dashboards, project managers begin to take data entry seriously.

4. Build a Consolidated Data Model for Deeper Insights Into the Business
Dashboards and visualizations are really just the tip of the iceberg: the user interface piece. The real work is connecting to the data sources and building a data model that helps uncover deeper insights.

It’s trivial to connect one system and present that data; it’s infinitely harder to combine multiple systems and make it seamless and easy for the user. And yet, the true promise of BI is to meld data from completely different systems (e.g., RFI and vendor management) into a meaningful data model so users can see emerging issues at a glance.

For instance, one company created a dashboard that tracked and then ultimately benchmarked RFIs by project stage. The firm noticed a contractor was generating a number of RFIs that exceeded the standard deviation. Upon investigation, it turned out the contractor was documenting everything in preparation for the possibility of a lawsuit. Once the firm realized this, it was able to address the contractor’s concerns before it got to the point of litigation.

Simple dashboards can’t implement cases that identify these kinds of scenarios.

5. Stop Using Excel as a Communication Tool

Architects, engineers and project managers tend to use Excel for everything, so whenever a report or dashboard visualization falls short, they simply create what they need in Excel.

But Excel doesn’t travel well, and once files are disconnected from the source data, it can lead to unexpected results or wrong decisions. Leveraging historical context of data or fostering collaboration among extended team members are definitely not Excel’s core capabilities. 

Marc Krichman is president of Lantern Data Systems. For more information, visit