Technology

The Rise of Business Intelligence in Construction: Part II

Contractors can build their business IQs with new tools and techniques. Here’s practical advice to implement business intelligence in a construction company.
By Matt Harris
June 21, 2019
Topics
Technology

Part I of this two-part series on business intelligence in construction covered the different aspects of business intelligence and analysis and their potential for the industry. Part II offers practical advice about implementing business intelligence (BI) in an organization.

Building “BI-Q” - Gather the Data

As with all things in information technology, improving a company’s use of business information starts with data, a resource of which most contractors have no lack. But quantity is not the only criteria to consider. Data is only as valuable as it is timely and accurate.

Building out a complete, timely and accurate data set as a foundation for better business intelligence is “step zero.” However, for some firms, this can be a significant challenge. Without even trying, contractors become inundated with plans, specs, contracts, invoices, project logs – thousands of data points from dozens of sources.

These data sources help contractors know what to do on the job, but do not necessarily help them know how best to do it. Data that helps a contractor work safer and more efficiently is usually data that the contractor needs to capture for themselves. A few of many types of data that contractors are capturing in real time and analyzing from their jobsites include:

  • job-costed labor hours;
  • tool and material inventories;
  • heavy equipment location and utilization;
  • job safety-related incidents;
  • job progress/percent complete; and
  • weather and environmental conditions.

Contractors do typically capture these and many other data points from their jobsites, but usually not in real time and often involving error-prone and time-consuming manual data entry. New data capture technologies are emerging to address this gap, among them:

  • IoT - The Internet of Things. IoT technology involves the connection of devices of all types to the internet, providing for some degree of monitoring and control. From mountable pressure and temperature sensors to internet-connected cranes, if there is something a contractor wishes to track on a jobsite, chances are there is a way to do it.
  • Drones. Much has been said about the value for the jobsite of these eyes in the sky. And, of course, they are a lot of fun to operate. But they also have great potential as tools to improve project tracking. For example, some forward-thinking contractors are using drone-based systems to perform regular and complete 3D scans of the work in progress to compare against the original 3D design plans, delivering very accurate estimates of a contractor’s percent completion on a project.
  • Special Purpose Sensors. More and more Internet-connected sensors are available for jobsite use. From basic temperature and pressure readings to the monitoring of vital signs through digitally-enabled PPE to help keep workers safe and healthy.

Choose Technologies

Regardless of the amount or types of data gathered from the field, the information technology choices a contractor makes to store, process and share this data are key to the ability to extract value from it. Three technologies in particular will impact a contractor’s ability to implement an effective BI strategy:

  • Cloud computing. The processing power and data storage capabilities of the cloud have broken bonds that have held back the utility of construction software. Deploying cloud-based systems means delivering access to information when and where it is needed. It also means freedom from dependency on specific hardware requirements, operating systems and regular updates and upgrades of both hardware and software. With today’s data centers providing security, disaster recovery and uptime that few on-premise systems can match, cloud computing is fast becoming a default IT approach for many contractors.
  • Mobility. While the cloud promises anywhere, anytime access to information, it is the explosion in mobile data technologies that helps it deliver on this promise. With the number of mobile devices in use in the U.S. now exceeding the population, it is a safe bet that all staff will have what is effectively a computer on their person at all times. This opens up numerous opportunities to get and give information between the office, the jobsite and all project participants. Building a mobile-enabled workforce of course comes with challenges. Can all staff be counted on to have and use their own devices (the “bring your own device,” or BYOD approach)? Or does it make more sense to issue company-owned and controlled devices? The answer depends on one’s business processes, budget and overall approach to technology; but regardless, there are multiple mobile device management (MDM) systems on the market to help contractors looking to better connect their jobsites.
  • Software platforms. Another technology consideration that can make or break the effectiveness of BI solutions is the type of business management platform or ERP system in use. Having one system—one data warehouse to query for business intelligence reports or business analysis predictions—is key to thee success of a BI strategy. When data is siloed in multiple locations and databases, reporting becomes less complete and predictions become less accurate.

A big part of the power of BI depends upon access to data collected in a common format and a single database. This does not mean that all departments can or should use the same applications to get work done, but it does beg the need for a common platform or ERP system that can serve up as many of the applications as possible. This single-platform approach also reduces the need for the integration work and inevitable rework needed to keep disparate systems working together.

Applying Intelligence

As with most new processes or technologies, contractors will get out as much as they put into the adoption of business intelligence in their companies. And as with most new things, it is advisable to walk before running. If the firm has yet to adopt personalized dashboards or other “BI basics,” it likely does not make sense to dive into the deep end of artificial intelligence. Here is a seven-step approach to building BI capabilities:

  1. Let business need be the driver. BI is just a means to an end, so start with specific business goals or challenges in mind, identify the data needed but do not have in order to address these objectives. For example, if the company has a fleet of heavy machines and equipment costs could be reduced through better usage tracking, then the first step is to identify the data needed in order to calculate the return on equipment investments.
  2. Put a plan in place to capture the data. From data entry on a mobile app to automated data feeds from an Internet-connected sensor, new technologies for capturing and communicating data between the field and office abound. In the above example involving equipment tracking, the contractor might decide on a combination of telematics with a mobile equipment app that machine operators can use to track usage of oil, gas and wearable parts.
  3. Evaluate the IT infrastructure. Consider a move toward cloud computing to help improve access to information, to better connect the office, the field and project teams, and in most cases reduce overall IT spending.
  4. Evaluate software platforms. Wherever possible, minimize the number of applications used that do not “talk” to each other. Consider implementing an ERP that includes multiple, construction-specific integrated applications that serve both business financial and operational needs. Be sure to understand if the vendor provides support for cloud computing, mobile data capture and, of course, business intelligence.
  5. Start with the BI basics. Most companies reasonably expect their business software to generate reports. Most make use of the canned reports served up by their software then often invest in custom report writing services to achieve the views they need into their businesses. Taking advantage of BI’s flexibility – allowing individual users to select the data sets, filter conditions and presentation of information – is the first step in liberating data and really putting it to work.
  6. Share the smarts. Dashboards are not a new idea, but when powered by BI, they can become very impactful tools. Custom dashboards can be created to give managers and executives up-to-date information relevant to their jobs and roles, presented in a manner that supports both high-level overviews and deep drill-downs.
  7. Look to the future. Much of the power of BI lies in its ability to serve up information in different ways to different users depending on their needs. This still requires that the users ask the right questions. However, sometimes contractors simply don’t know what they don’t know. More sophisticated solutions involve techniques that result in predictive analyses. By putting a company’s data through particular algorithms, they can uncover correlations between data sets that they did not know existed. For example, if the application of a predictive algorithm determines that condition Y nearly always occurs after some event X, and condition Y is undesirable, then they might want to take a hard look at event X.

As powerful as BI and predictive analysis can be for the construction industry, it is important to remember that it is just one of the means to an end – profitable and safe project delivery. Construction is a team sport and teams that stay connected—from groundbreaking to top out and from the office to the field—are the teams that tend to win.

Companies who embrace business intelligence to improve operations make smarter, data-driven decisions. And by sharing this intelligence across the firm, they help create a more collaborative, productive, and safer work environment for everyone.

by Matt Harris
Matt Harris is Vice President and General Manager at Portland-Ore.-based Trimble Viewpoint, a construction management division of industrial technology company Trimble. He is responsible for Trimble Viewpoint’s overall business, including its long-range strategy and execution while leading a global team who is passionate about making a difference with construction technology.

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