By Steve Antill, VP of Business Development, Foundation Software
It’s the way of emerging technology that, if it’s new, we want it. Today, for example, everyone wants to go to the cloud — and for good reason. But what’s important in a move like this is looking at what platforms your business is currently using for its software, how your software talks with one another, and where you hope to take your technology in the next three and five years.
This is because among all of the emerging technologies around the construction industry today, nothing is as critical for contractors as getting field operations, accounting and estimating on the same page and working toward the same goal. Disconnected workflows, overlapping technology and inefficient communication create everyday problems and long-term issues for construction companies. That’s why before you add another piece of technology, your business needs to begin thinking about a long-term IT strategy.
That said, it’s easier than you may think. Here’s how you can start building your technology in the direction of your future:
1 .Create a Map of Your Core Software
Before you add, know what you have. After all, the only way you can draw a map to where you want to be is if you first pinpoint where you are. Begin by identifying all of your core business software and whether each application is installed on your own servers, running on the vendor’s cloud, or hosted on a third-party cloud like Amazon Web Services (AWS).
Doing this before you add additional software should help allow you to figure out what next steps make sense for your company. This is an opportunity to think through what applications might be moved to the cloud or on-premises, as well as what might be replaced, retired, consolidated, or even managed differently.
Getting Software Moving in the Same Direction
This is true, first of all, with respect to where your software is and where it’s going. For example, if your company recently made a large investment in on-premises software or significant in-house IT infrastructure to support it, it may not make sense to move your other software to the cloud just yet. If most of your core business software is already on the cloud, however, most companies will want to continue moving in this direction.
Eventually, you want to put together a plan of where you want to be in the next year, three years and five years — running on internal servers or on the cloud — and begin to move and consolidate there. In the meantime, you have to know where you are and where you’re headed.
Controlling the Tech Sprawl
You also need to look at how your technology is working together. As new technology increases, businesses need to be especially aware of a problem called “technology sprawl.” This is when a company has more technology in play than it can manage effectively from an organizational perspective. The result will often be inefficiency and lack of communication between software — leading to anything from higher IT costs to manual reentry and erroneous data.
This kind of sprawl takes countless forms. It might occur when teams are using multiple tools or software applications to accomplish the same task — for example, if operations and accounting are using two different programs to track project financials. It also shows up where contractors store their business data locally on different hard drives instead of one central, secure and backed-up location. In both cases, as long as their software doesn’t communicate, they may have to manually reconcile their data to prevent costly errors—and that’s not managing effectively.
It’s important to look at sprawl from an overall company point of view. Each team or department may feel that they have the right mix of software and tools, and their workflows and communication may be smooth because they’re connected on the same platforms and trained with best practices. But from a higher altitude, you may be able to identify clear inefficiencies in how data moves from one department to another, such as operations to accounting, or see severe limitations on which technologies are even able to talk with one another.
Identifying Key Gaps
You’ll also be looking for gaps you should be aware of, where technology and processes are mismatched to each other, such as:
- workflows that aren’t being supported by current software
- technology that isn’t communicating with each other
- places where information or data might be falling through the cracks
- functionality that may be underutilized
It’s necessary then to step back, assess the whole picture and really determine the best way forward. It may not actually be finding the missing pieces of technology. It may be pursuing additional training for existing technology, consolidating or replacing technology, and, more often than not, realigning processes to bring the right people together to begin using what you have more successfully.
2. Locate Each Department’s Uses and Needs
Your entire company needs to be involved in the conversation — operations, office staff and leadership — to ensure that everything and everyone is accounted for in your IT strategy. Having mapped your company’s current technology with how your teams use them, interview end users to determine what processes are being supported well with technology and which are under-supported. Where is there disconnection? Find out what isn’t being used or what’s being underused and why.
This process can have several useful outcomes. First, it may reveal implementation issues that can be corrected for the future. It may also reveal mismatches between your technology and processes. Or, it may expose processes that need to be clarified, outlined and improved before new technology begins to amplify bad habits.
In the urgency to implement a solution to fix inefficiencies and gain a competitive edge, aligning processes to technology often gets pushed to the side, and this may be one of the most overlooked issues that every construction company needs to watch out for — especially where it can cause a disruption in workflows.
3.Bridge Your Office and Operations Workflows
Finally, it’s vital in your IT strategy to address any of the costly disconnection that can occur between estimating, operations and accounting experienced by many construction companies. The differences in how these staffs work need to be understood and reconciled before new technology is rolled out that accelerates their disconnection.
There are numerous places where companies experience their teams working off different pages on the same projects. The difference in cost code breakdowns used by the estimating, operations and accounting teams is one example which can cause troublesome issues, tying costs back to budgets and producing usable information for forecasting and estimates. Another commonly unaddressed issue is discontinuity between how project management and accounting each account for work in progress. In either case, technology on its own won’t be the solution; instead, companies need to first get their teams working on the same page.
Because project management, estimating, and accounting work differently, contractors need to be able to adapt to these realities and have strong processes to communicate when they occur — such as software integrations, percent-complete and change-order review meetings, and the tried-and-true method of just picking up the telephone.
Opening Lines of Communication
In construction, real-time changes may happen faster than some software-based processes will communicate them. And with the kind of precision required in construction accounting to cut the cost of error, respond to fade and protect thin profit margins, your lines of communication and processes for collaboration need to be up to speed.
This communication will occur more smoothly and effectively the more understanding and empathy there is for each other’s work and perspective in making the project successful. Everyone is working on the same “team” toward the same goal, and it’s critical to foster this sense between departments. By doing so, accounting may better understand why operations might have been working off an unapproved change order. Conversely, project managers might keep in mind how uncommunicated change orders can negatively impact financials if they don’t keep accounting in the loop.
Creating specified checkpoints and scheduled meetings with open dialogue over the course of a project cycle will be one place where a culture of collaboration is set between operations, accounting and estimating. If everyone feels supported in their contribution to the overall mission of completing jobs on-time, on-budget, as-specified and at a profit, additional lines of communication can open up, be identified, and be seized as opportunities. And if real-time communication becomes more natural, teams can be fully prepared to work together to leverage their technology for the benefit of the whole organization.
Technology for the construction industry is being developed and implemented at such a rate that contractors can’t afford not to be strategic — and while no single IT strategy will be one-size-fits-all, the groundwork to a truly unified IT strategy for your construction company should look the same. To get to where you’re going, you first need to identify where you are by mapping your core software. You’ll also need to locate each department’s needs and the technology that fits their uses. Finally, it’s critical to build the bridges between all sides of the construction project — estimating, operations and accounting — so that the technology you do bring on board can have everyone working well toward their common goal: take home profits.
Steve Antill is VP of business development at Foundation Software and Payroll4Construction.com, where he’s responsible for strategic market planning and new business growth. Steve invests his time building relationships across the construction industry with contractors, CPA firms, associations, and technology partners. For more information visit www.foundationsoft.com