The first part of this series looked at the primary IT trends occurring in the heavy/highway marketplace. We discussed some of the developments in trucking, drones, productivity tracking, fuel, and safety among others. In fact, between that article and this one, Command Alkon acquired Trimbles GPS solutions. This will change a number of strategies for Command Alkon as well as some of their alliance partners. This article will address what to do with all these developments; how to plan, execute, and change processes to better leverage new technology. This article will also discuss how to better tune IT to meet the changing needs of today’s heavy/highway contractor.
When deciding how and where to apply technology and IT spending, this author likes to think in terms of Risk and Inefficiency. Any process in a contractor’s organization can be measured, even if subjectively, based on the degree of risk a process contains and the degree of efficiency with which it is performed. Some processes, if low enough in volume or frequency, can be inefficient without much concern. Other processes can actually harbor considerable risk without it being readily apparent. Risk can come from things such as accidents, rework, lost productivity, or contractual problems.
A contractor should assess each of their key processes from beginning to end, looking carefully for inefficiency and risk. If spreadsheets, e-mails, or manual effort is involved, pay close attention as those tend to be symptomatic.
Truck tickets are a common problem. Often handled manually from the plants to the jobsite and then back to the office. These are sometimes still multi-part forms. (For those of you too young to know that reference, you will have to look it up.)
Many contractors have moved to an automated ticketing process whereby they don’t even receive invoices from vendors (truckers or brokers) and simply issue payment based on their own approved tickets; leaving the time-consuming reconciliation to the trucker or broker if they so desire.
IT leadership has been evolving slowly in our industry, from tending to the servers and data center to becoming a fully functioning CIO. This transition can happen organically through development, or externally by hiring from the outside. Either way, it needs to happen. One of the common complaints shared among the CEOs is that they don’t get enough leadership and vision from their IT departments. In the past, this may have been acceptable, but in today’s world vision and strategic thinking are critical. There are a number of decisions that need to be made; from security, policy, and training through enterprise solutions, budgeting, integration, and even movement to the cloud. There is no easy way to process and align all that needs to be completed while also managing the help desk or provisioning laptops. Most construction firms, heavy/highway included, have to upgrade their IT department to keep pace. While this does not mean wholesale replacement, it does mean rather deliberate development of personnel with an eye toward bringing the top-level IT role to the management suite.
That same IT leader needs to develop a new skill while they are keeping up with rapidly changing developments. They need to be able to steer the organization through these challenging times without having a number of people reporting to them. This is often done through the implementation of an IT steering committee or similar body within the organization that meets quarterly on IT direction. There are also policies and procedures that are implemented to sanction R&D efforts, commence software selection processes, and make other critical decisions that span the organization. IT must learn to support their organization with IT leadership rather than try to control everything that has a CPU.
Thankfully, contractors are starting to see value of a new position in the organization called a business analyst. A business analyst’s sole responsibility is working with teams and departments in the organization to improve processes and deploy technology. This can include helping implement software, document procedures, produce training material, and work with IT on integrations. This is a full-time job and the contractors that have hired people for this position have all been very pleased with the results, provided of course that the right skill set is hired.
One final development of note with regarding to underlying technology is middleware. Heavy/highway contractors are ideal candidates for this technology as they frequently have multiple solutions that need to integrate with one or more other solutions in the organization. Think about scale-ticketing, human resources (HR), equipment, estimating, and enterprise resource planning (ERP) just as a starting point. That is a lot of data that needs to move on a frequent basis from one platform or database to another. Middleware is software with the sole function of getting data from one system, validating it, and moving it into another system. There is more to this technology and it is covered specifically in the July/August 2020 issue of CFMA Building Profits.
The pace of new technology flooding construction is unprecedented and presents considerable opportunity for many contracting organizations. Contractors should know and understand the problems they are trying to solve before wading into the marketplace. Identify the high-value targets in your organization first, then determine which class of software solutions can address your requirements. Where possible, think broadly rather than narrowly. Point solutions can be great but left unchecked, you can end up with a slew of disparate solutions requiring lots of double entry. Select and implement carefully, maybe with the help of your new business analyst.
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CHRISTIAN BURGER is President of Burger Consulting Group, an IT consulting firm serving the construction industry, based in Chicago, IL. Christian has been a member of CFMA for 25 years, and he has been involved at both the local and national levels. He has written for CFMA Building Profits and presented at the national, regional, and chapter levels on technology. firstname.lastname@example.org