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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.

He hoped the “solution” could identify trouble spots and measure project performance against set benchmarks. The 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, their BI tool requires one person to drive the dashboard for the CEO. And that is only after numerous employees clean and prepare data they import from Excel spreadsheets.

This CEO isn’t alone. AEC companies all over the country understand that their project data holds invaluable insights into their businesses. Executives ask for BI dashboards to provide real value and solve real problems. Why aren’t they getting them?

Here are five best practices to get the results expected from a business intelligence investment.

1. Look for AEC industry expertise

Should a construction company select a big-brand BI provider that’s a household name? Bigger isn’t better in the construction industry. For example, a firm evaluated a BI solution recommended by its ERP 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. Try resisting the allure of sexy technology, as it’s likely not to be aligned with an AEC company’s needs. Look to partner with a provider that can navigate the intricacies of our industry and guide the technology choice.

2. Select a BI provider that’s not beholden to any individual vendor

Select a BI solution that acts like a 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’s a culture change that needs to come from the top. There are situations where 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. But once they realize senior managers will see the employees’ data in  business intelligence 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 real 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 at a glance emerging issues that need addressing.

For instance, one company created a dashboard that tracked and then ultimately benchmarked RFIs by project stage. They noticed a contractor was generating a number of RFIs that exceeded the standard deviation so they investigated. It turns 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 communications tool

Architects, engineers and project managers excel at Excel®, and they use it 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. Forget about leveraging historical context of data, or fostering collaboration among extended team members; these are definitely not Excel’s core capabilities.

The takeaway

These best practices are based on the struggles that AEC companies face. Executives will invest tremendous resources into a BI tool that doesn’t deliver the insights they need. When implementing a BI tool, be sure to get one that will pay for itself many times over.

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