Navigating Through the Technology Landscape of the Construction Sector
By Jon Witty, VP & GM, Sage Construction and Real Estate
Most construction companies don’t roll out the red carpet when it comes to making big investments in information technology. In fact most construction companies will invest in almost anything else, especially if it can be charged to a job. The construction industry traditionally spends less on IT as a percent of revenue than most other industries. Contractors thrive on building things, and the challenge is making the connection between smart IT investments and building the business! It’s no longer uncommon to see a backhoe driver checking drawings on an iPad or a project team working with sophisticated 3-D electronic building models so contractors’ will embrace technology once they see the practical value. For CIOs in construction companies, the goal is to show how technology expenditures will enable the quickest and largest return for their company, drive productivity and create competitive advantage. There are three big trends that CIO’s need to address: mobility, collaboration and data insight.
Mobilizing the Field
The downturn in the industry drove a tipping point in the adoption of mobile technology. This was the result of having to do work outside of the company’s immediate geographic area. This has continued and now while every construction company knows that money is made and lost in the field, there is a way to harness devices and software to help field management make better decisions and increase productivity.
So it’s not surprising to see that this year alone, 45 percent of contractors plan to increase their use of tablets, and 38 percent plan to increase their use of smartphones on the job, according to the Sage 2014 construction IT survey. Cloud-based applications for these mobile devices are also on the rise. According to the research, the top planned uses of cloud-based mobile applications include:
• Sharing drawings, photos, schedules, and documents
• Accessing customer and project information
• Accessing job cost and project reports
• Filing daily field reports
• Time and capture approval
The CIO’s challenge with mobility is to integrate technology that is both cost effective and enables better insight and collaboration. Software-as-a-Service applications plug into your current systems offering new capabilities to your field team so that they can access information anytime and anywhere.
The key to success will be making Big Data easily accessible and cost-effective for most contractors
The Convergence of Collaboration
Just one construction project requires hundreds of individuals from many different companies to complete thousands of tasks on time and on budget. Cloud-based mobile applications enable collaboration by allowing the most up-to-date information to securely flow between all authorized members of the building team. The challenge is that with many different software providers, most of the systems lack interoperability; the software systems don’t “talk” with each other.
That is where the Construction Open Software Alliance (COSA) steps in. The goal of this relatively new organization is to build a community of construction software developers and providers who support the transfer of cross-application data. Today COSA is working on a set of standards that software vendors can use to ensure the easy exchange of information such as time sheets and prequalification details.
This will allow companies to choose the software that best fits their needs while allowing the project team to easily share information with all key stakeholders: internal coworkers, subcontractors, suppliers and owners. Software interoperability will go a long way to remove the barriers in collaboration that many contractors face today and provide much greater productivity for all who are concerned.
Information versus Data—Gaining Greater Insight
In technology circles, there is a lot of talk about Big Data. The vast majority of construction firms, however, don’t yet have an appetite for Big Data or the cost and complexity to gain the insight. While this new information source promises to be a game-changer, few contractors today have the in-house IT infrastructure and expertise to harness and process the data into meaningful insight. That’s not to say that there aren’t some larger construction companies testing the waters of Big Data in some very interesting ways, but it is simply out of reach for most construction companies.
So what is “Big Data”? In simple words, it is part of a larger shift towards insight-driven decision making. Your construction company may already have methods in place that allow you to analyze and identify trends, and create projections for a variety of key performance metrics on anything from project profitability to company cash flow. But most of that analysis will be your data alone. The real business insight will come from comparing your construction company key performance metrics to other similar construction companies. This is where Big Data can offer a wider set of insightful information.
The key to success will be making Big Data easily accessible and cost-effective for most contractors. Cloud-based services—known for their affordability and ease of implementation— will likely be the answer. Opt in collection and sharing of benchmarking information, for example, could happen in the course of normal business when you and other construction companies use cloud-based business applications. Shared data will be aggregated to protect a company’s proprietary information and provide an opportunity for relative and realistic comparisons of cohorts. This is likely to be the next and most exciting aspect of technology for construction.
Today we are experiencing breakthrough in technology with regards to mobility, collaboration and data insight. The CIO who can guide their construction firm and show how to harness this technology in a cost effective way, while delivering value to the organization, will be highly sought after. The challenge will be to create strategies to maximize value while these systems evolve, provide greater interoperability and become readily available to small and midsize companies, not just large construction firms with greater IT resources.