Technology solution providers have been helping construction companies improve their workflows, reduce inefficiencies, increase productivity and enhance overall profitability since the advent of computing. In the past decade, the internet has accelerated the adoption and acceptance of new solutions for project collaboration, data sharing, equipment auctions and asset tracking. It also has spawned a new generation of cloud computing software and apps for tablets and smartphones. To keep contractors up to date on the latest trends in technology, Construction Executive
asked the industry’s leading solution providers for their insights and advice.
President & CEO
Dexter + Chaney
Internet-based software delivers independence from place. Add the web, and applications can be independent of operating systems and hardware. So while it can be defined in many ways, the most beneficial type of cloud-based software is also web-based software. Are web applications right for your business? Here are three considerations:
- Ease of use. Software designed using familiar web protocols and standards results in applications that are easier to use and faster to learn. Companies looking to expand the use (and usefulness) of their business software can deploy web-based applications faster with less internal resistance.
- Access. Many online applications place hardware requirements on the user or require special access software. Companies that have staff using a variety of devices, including tablets and smartphones, should look to web browser-based applications to maximize access from anywhere, using any device.
- Cost. In addition to unburdening the IT department, going to the cloud can mean reducing the frequency of upgrades to client/server hardware and software. But hosting software in the cloud isn’t free, so if purchasing, understand the hosting fees; if subscribing, understand what bandwidth and storage limits or charges you may face.
Moving to cloud-based applications does not necessarily mean giving up the option of purchasing software. You may even choose to host your own cloud to serve up web-based applications. As always, look for vendors that provide options that fit current business needs and accommodate growth in the future. Richard Lee
President and CEO
Bluebeam Software, Inc.
The construction industry is excited about cloud technologies and for good reason. Cloud solutions offer many benefits. First, as team members travel between offices, jobsite trailers and the field, online technologies enable professionals to access project information remotely, at any time. Second, cloud solutions incorporate version control, ensuring the most current revision is being accessed. Third, project team members can share project data outside their corporate firewalls, streamlining communication and promoting collaboration.
How to leverage the cloud depends on the problem being solved. The best cloud solutions are only part of the answer. If you work in the office, where connectivity is guaranteed, cloud solutions work. Take your PC to the field and you may find even the most tech-enabled jobsites cannot ensure wi-fi connectivity 100 percent of the time; 4G disappears under several floors of concrete. Where do you go from here? The trick is to check out the files you need, work offline in the field, and when you gain access to the cloud, check in the files you’ve edited or redlined. What if you work across offices with several partners (consultants, subcontractors or owners) with access to files that are unpredictable? What if several parties are working on the same file? Set up a collaboration session that persists over time and use a common file format; partners can now work on the same file, on their own time.
The cloud is not the total answer, but it is a solution to part of a larger problem. Bassem Hamdy
Chief Marketing Officer
When choosing a new system, more of the same is not the answer. Many organizations look for a lower cost solution that offers a slight improvement from their existing platform. This mode of decision-making will never result in a breakthrough return on investment. Any organization that is looking to upgrade their system needs a platform that allows full business process automation. Organizational effectiveness is dramatically enhanced through an improved alignment of workflow with business objectives. An intelligent workflow engine helps users create sophisticated, customizable and flexible workflows that improve the timeliness of transaction processing and customer response time. By automating processes (e.g., sending messages and communications to all project stakeholders), an intelligent workflow engine enables users to receive, analyze and respond to notifications through messaging systems and ensures the project delivery process keeps moving forward.
When looked at individually, system implementation and staff training costs can seem daunting. However, when judged against the significant marginal returns that result from upgrading to a true end-to-end business process solution, implementation and training costs pale in comparison. By increasing efficiency across all business functions, business process automation guarantees that all project stakeholders meet the needs of a competitive business environment that demands organizations be interconnected at all times. Zane Sharpe
To justify the costs of implementation and training associated with a new software system, a contractor has to look at soft cost as much as hard cost when evaluating alternatives. Identifying where your personnel’s time is spent versus where you intended their time to be spent is a large part of the process. When making a software selection, contractors must ensure they are working with a software company that has people who understand how to manage construction projects, know how contractors make money, understand workflows, and can build a customized implementation and training approach.
Too many contractors select systems for the featured bells and whistles. While these features may be appealing, they may not impact a contractor’s performance and bottom line. Make sure you choose software that your firm will utilize to its fullest capacity. Many firms invest in a costly technology solution and end up using less than 10 percent of its capabilities. This can happen as a result of poor training and implementation, but it’s often the case that the contractor simply bought more technology than they really needed.
Finally, because every construction project presents unique challenges, contractors can justify their investment by selecting a flexible system that can be customized to their specific needs and business processes. If investing in software allows a contractor to refocus employees’ time on responsibilities and activities that are more beneficial to the company’s bottom line, then the investment in software and training has been justified. Eric Newton
Senior Vice President, Construction
The cost of fuel has become a big issue for contractors during the last few years. While many government contracts have fuel escalation clauses, most private contracts do not. The price of fuel impacts a contractor beyond just the cost of over-the-road vehicles and off-road equipment. It’s important to have appropriate analytical and control procedures in place to manage fuel costs. Contractors that do not implement these types of procedures may see excessive fuel costs compared to contractors with the proper controls and analytics. Common best practices include:
- Limit the number of fuel purchases per day.
- Get exception reports for non-standard fuel purchases.
- Watch after-hours and weekend purchases.
- Require odometer entries at the point of sale.
- Monitor MPG reports.
- Use multiple fueling options (retail, bulk and mobile fuelers) to reduce risk and maximize fueling efficiency.
- Implement a price protection plan.
- Use a GPS system to track vehicles.
- Monitor excessive idle time.
- Know how and when to purchase fuel.
- Insert fuel price escalation clauses in public and private contracts when possible.
Contractors that use these types of procedures and controls can reduce their fuel cost up to 10 percent within the first year. With margins decreasing and costs rising, this is one way contractors continue to drive the bottom line results they need to succeed and survive in this economy. Just because fuel costs are trending higher doesn’t mean the bottom line has to trend lower. Martin Christopher (Chris) Buzz
Vice President, Finance and Services
On Center Software
Most contractors are just trying to make it through the downturn—taking on more jobs, working for less profit, trying different types of work, breaking even on jobs and reducing their workforce. Contractors are looking in two directions: keeping the doors open and looking for a path to the future. The roadmap includes identifying ways to cut costs, reduce waste, boost productivity, lower risks, eliminate theft, retain top talent, and return to profitability.
Analytics and controls are required in the office as well as in the field. Assets that need to be protected include top-performing people, equipment, machinery, materials, software, finances and customers. Retaining key employees is an ongoing management challenge. A formal feedback process, including letting top talent know they are valued, helps ensure their loyalty.
Theft of equipment is a significant challenge for contractors. Comprehensive inventory controls, thorough jobsite tracking, and project management reduces waste and theft. When disgruntled employees leave, the company exposure includes stolen software licenses, financial records and customer lists. Analyzing and reporting which employees use automation tools and access data records on a regular basis lowers the risk of intellectual property theft. With software and data loaded on a variety of devices, the damage can be catastrophic without controls and reporting. Risk mitigation should be reactive and proactive—passive and aggressive. Track activities, usage and behavior.
Protecting the contractor’s property is the foundation to a secure future in business. It’s the end of the workday: Do you know where your assets are?
Vice President and General Manager
Sage Construction and Real Estate
Real-time updates and the constant connectivity offered by mobile and cloud-based technologies can help a company improve operational efficiency and increase cost-effectiveness. Having constant access to information from the back office, no matter where you are, can help inform supervisors in the field and assist them as they manage construction projects in any location. Field-based reporting technology also can cut down on errors and paperwork by automating the payroll and time systems, letting workers clock in and out via their phones. It is important that companies find a solution that serves users well in both the field and back office settings.
Contractors should look for a comprehensive cloud-based solution that includes web-based tools as well as strong project management and service management software to address the evolving needs of their company and the construction industry. This will help companies better manage their projects, communicate between team members and vendors, and deliver information whenever and wherever it’s needed—in the office, on the jobsite or at a client’s office. Having the ability to keep workers out in the field instead of anchored to the jobsite trailer office helps companies increase productivity and profitability. John Meibers
ComputerEase Construction Software
There are many benefits to giving project managers and superintendents field-based tools for accessing and entering project information. The ability to monitor job costs, create and answer RFIs, enter daily logs, record employee time and initiate change requests from the field allows the project team to work more efficiently. This ensures critical project information is captured in real time, which improves communication between the office and field and streamlines time-intensive tasks, such as payroll processing.
Now is a great time to consider reporting and data entry applications for the field because there are so many options on the market. But having too many choices can lead to confusion. Should you choose a cloud-based or self-hosted system? Is it better to make the full software available in the field or offer specialized applications that simplify data entry? Do your field employees use notebook computers, or do they need applications that run on smartphones and tablet devices like the iPad? These are just a few questions you might want to consider.
As you can see, it’s difficult to find a one-size-fits-all solution for the field. When evaluating field-based technology, your best option is to choose a trusted vendor that will confidently answer your questions while offering you a fully integrated suite of field-to-office solutions that can be tailored to meet your functionality needs, budget limitations and hardware preferences. Tim Kryszak
Executive Vice President, Operations
Many savvy construction executives have discovered the key to buying and selling specialized and high-value construction equipment is through online auctions. But, the savviest contractors know the most valuable auction marketplaces utilize state-of-the-art technologies that offer flexibility, security and convenience. The next time you’re evaluating your marketplace options, I recommend looking for and asking about these three key technologies that will ensure you realize the highest sale prices and experience the most efficient, convenient acquisitions.
- Buyer and auctioneer vetting. Choose a marketplace that offers the industry’s most secure and trustworthy bidders and auctioneers. A rigorous vetting process will ensure safe online transactions for both the buyer and the seller.
- Sales reach and flexibility. Realizing the highest sale prices on equipment requires flexible selling formats that reach the most valuable buyers. Choose a marketplace that offers global reach with live auction simulcasts, advanced timed auction formats and classifieds.
- Worry-free payment processing. Whether you’re buying or selling assets online, a secure and convenient payment processing solution with PCI compliance is a must. This is paramount to protecting personal information.
When you’re buying and selling specialized and high-value equipment online, finding a marketplace that has all three of these technologies ensures the best experience.
President & CEO
Any construction executive looking at investing in an end-to-end, multi-function software solution should first consider the practices and processes they want to improve. Think about how you want the solution to work, determine who needs what functionality, and define what will make it an effective solution and how that will be measurable. Determine the best solution that will speed the time to benefit.
When evaluating products, ask these questions: How cost-effectively can I deploy it? How fast can I train and implement this? How quickly can it be part of my processes? It’s critical to realize that sharing data and documents easily and accurately is of utmost importance. Using multiple systems requires a license for each user on each system, which is costly. Multiple systems require each user to know how to use each system. A project manager who wants to see plan files also may need access to the estimating system, which necessitates staying trained and knowledgeable on this separate system.
A single solution allows each user to work with every part of the system, as permitted. The user interface is consistent across applications and data sharing is seamless. Furthermore, implementing one solution for all is less complex for a business of any size to undertake. When the technology is easy and fast to implement, the contractor can quickly improve profits and streamline business practices. That further echoes the ultimate goal of shortening the time to benefit. Jim McFarlane
President & CEO
When shopping for a software solution that is truly enterprise wide, ensure the prospective vendor can adequately meet all of your needs. Trying to adapt software components from multiple vendors can lead to a lack of integration. Software that is well integrated eliminates double entry, provides better reporting and gives you more control. Don’t only consider the modules you require today; ensure you can grow and add functionality as your needs evolve and expand.
Avoid applications that update information in batches. Solutions that update accounting and project management information in real time allow you to respond to situations immediately. If you can pinpoint issues quickly, you can take steps to correct them before they become serious problems.
Learn about the hardware infrastructure needed to host the application. Ensure the software relies on an industry-standard operating system and database. Opting for components not in the mainstream will limit the number of qualified technicians available to help maintain the application, deal with hardware issues and assist in recovering your system in case of disaster.
Look for a vendor with a track record of embracing evolving technologies. Smartphones and tablets are becoming ubiquitous, and you will want to ensure that any software you choose can take advantage of these devices. Find out if the application can be accessed from a web browser or hosted in the cloud.
Finally, cultivate a strong relationship with the vendor. When your needs change, you may not have to look any further. Fred Ode
CEO and Chairman
I’ve been hearing about contractors looking for an enterprise-wide, multi-function technology solution—or what I like to call the “Holy Grail”—since 1981. And it just hasn’t happened yet because it’s almost impossible to create a system that can do it all and, more importantly, can do it all well. Sure, in a perfect world, it could happen. For example, a medium-sized contractor that earns less than $50 million in revenue a year is willing to spend six figures on a system, and they have the experts and technology in place to support it, then it could be possibility. But I would tell contractors looking for an enterprise-wide solution to be realistic. Even if you do find a system that can do it all, it’s going to be expensive, and its functionality will probably fall short in more than a few areas. Plus, each contractor is different, and each runs their business differently (e.g., an electrical contractor versus a heavy highway contractor) so it’s unlikely that one system will fit all.
Instead of compromising functionality in certain areas of an enterprise system, contractors may be better off finding best-of-breed systems (accounting, estimating, etc.) that work the way their business works. Anymore, most best-of-breed systems integrate with one another, so you’re getting the best of both worlds. Invest in the tools that will best serve your business and increase your profitability—even if they’re not the “Holy Grail.”