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For years, the construction industry has talked about closing the divide between the office and the field. The perception that this divide exists stems from how construction companies typically approach their work.  At the highest level, construction projects are usually viewed from two perspectives: operational and financial. However, there is a third perspective to consider, a middle ground that offers a better informed view of the project and a place where both sides can collaborate. This place is inhabited by the people who stand on both sides of the operations and financial management divide: the project managers, who often work with one foot in the office and one in the field. Their role offers a perspective that can be used to gain a better understanding of project management.

To achieve this perspective, one can begin by breaking project management down according to the way it is approached by different functional groups: financial managers, operational managers and project managers.  The roles of these groups are reflected in their involvement with their company’s projects. Within each group, individuals use different tools, methods, and even technology in their approach toward the construction project. Each perspective is valid and vital, but the resulting contrast of views does not foster collaborative work within the organization. By separating the discipline of project management into its primary components, one can see how the role of the project manager can serve as an agent for harmonizing the contrasting views.

Deconstruction
The business of construction management revolves around the project. However, if different people within a construction company are asked what project management means to them, the responses are likely to be different depending on the work they perform.

If an operations manager is asked to define project management, the response will most likely focus on tasks such as logistics, resource management, scheduling, and subcontractor management. Operational staff typically uses more generic software tools like Microsoft® Excel that they then customize for their needs, along with a collection of construction specific, single-purpose software applications.

Ask a financial manager such as a CFO or controller what project management means, and the response is naturally going to include financially-oriented considerations such as 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 within an organization. At worst, it means significant duplication of effort, dual data entry, and conflicting reports on job status.

Software vendors have addressed the worst-case scenarios by delivering systems that provide integration between the financial and operational applications they offer. Contractors who use construction-specific ERP systems can avoid a good deal of duplicate entry and can 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 project problems requires a more holistic approach.

Common Ground
Now consider the unique perspective of the project manager, straddling the divide between financial and operational management. Ask them what activities define their work and the response will likely include a mixture of concerns involving both finances and operations.

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 they are responsible for both 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 construction project manager’s point of view has the potential to be a middle ground unifying the two sides of the construction business. If information tools can function equally well on both sides of this divide - if these tools can then go a step further and blend the information in a way that is useful to everyone - then technology can play a role in reconstructing the approach to project management  which involves everyone in the project regardless of their role.

Reconstruction
What happens when managers in both the office and the field can access one system that is designed with the project manager’s “middle ground” at its core? Everyone sees the data they need for their work and how that data impacts the overall success of the project.

Historically, software that has lived in this middle ground has been focused on producing a log of project activity based on information that is typically input by and reviewed by project managers. However, if both financial and operational data is fed into a unified project application, then the project log becomes a launching pad for a much richer and more powerful project management tool. Everyone involved in construction projects can use this unified 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 project responsibility.

A unified approach toward project management software is different from an integrated approach within an ERP system. As mentioned, 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 they need to keep a project on track while also improving visibility for everyone involved from accounting through field operations. In this way, project tracking software has the potential to unify all sides of the construction business.

New Ground
If this unified approach to managing project information is positioned to make a significant impact on project management, then why is it only now emerging? The answer lies in cloud computing technology and its effect on the approach toward construction software design.

Until recently, construction software has inadvertently reinforced the divide between the financial and operational approaches toward project management. Accounting and business management applications have been designed for the work environment where 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, has typically placed a premium on ease of use. Simple data entry screens, pre-built templates, and access via mobile devices are all trademarks of applications built for these users.

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 with the task of pulling all the information together. Cloud computing has not changed the work that these different project players perform. What it has done is provide a common platform for all these players to use that supports both the complexity of business information management needed in the office and the simplicity of data capture and usage needed on the job site.

The chief characteristic of cloud computing that is driving change in project information management is the fact that the cloud frees the user from dependency on place and product. With both 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 has access to the same processing power and wealth of data as the construction manager using a tablet on the job site.

This freedom means that creating a common view of project information – a common place where both 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 of a common project tracking dashboard 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 who deploy cloud computing technologies and who adopt unified project tracking systems must also work internally to encourage staff to take a new approach to the way they view and process information. The good news is that companies who 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.
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