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Project Management Solutions and Field Automation: A Less Than Elegant Convergence

After twenty years spent automating the back office, contractors have more recently been turning attention to unleashing the power of technology on the field and operations. Part of the movement has to do with where the development capital was available and/or being applied. Previously, there was very little outside capital invested in construction technology. Most software developers were privately held and focused funding on back-office functions like accounting, billing, and payroll. Today, there are several large software conglomerates as well as many ambitious start-ups committed to automating functions in construction, back-office as well as field and specialized functions like estimating, HR, and timecard collection.

While prior decades saw a somewhat inverse relationship between investment in IT and value to the construction organization, today’s seeing a correction of sorts that has more IT investment being applied to changing the way construction is managed in the field and office. That being said, the technology investment is being applied to many different independent functions which, ultimately need to be integrated at some point.

This article looks at project management and field operations and the way in which technology solutions are evolving, overlapping, and competing for time and data.

Within the scope of project management solutions, there are at least five different platform types being used.

This amounts to dozens of products which specialize in one, several, or many of the standard PM/PE functions. The classifications are stand-alone PM solutions, PM applications within ERP, EDM solutions, owner driven programs, and collaborative platforms. And that does not include the fallback favorites of Microsoft Office productivity tools like Excel and Outlook. Each platform type brings with it particular advantages unique to the technology or platform. Collaborative platforms are particularly well designed for sharing, securing, and uploading and downloading files. PM applications that are part of the ERP solution are well integrated into their own ERP typically to handle the financial transactions but may not offer an easy way to collaborate with the external community. However, some ERP integrated PM applications that were once state-of-the-art are now struggling to keep pace in a rapidly changing environment that includes a new demanding tech savvy workforce.

Solution architecture is not a one size fits all.

Programs developed for ease of use and quick adoption may not be flexible or powerful enough. By the same token, solutions that are built for processing quantity using a few basic screens may not contain the necessary technology to deliver large files to a connected field device. Cloud-based applications may provide easier deployment but have the potential to be less capable when it comes to integration technology.

If the PM application were the only consideration, it would be a fairly simple decision process of aligning key benefits of the platform with the requirements and priorities of the company. But now with the additional pressures from other processes inside and outside the company it makes the choice of application more difficult.

Here is a look at what is happening during the project life cycle:

We began long ago structuring data from a project once it was created in the ERP solution. You could argue that some data was structured when estimating and bidding a project. And I would agree, provided you weren’t estimating in a spreadsheet. As time progressed, project data started getting structured within the early generation PM solutions. As the internet grew and became more mainstream, developers began to focus their attention on collaborative platforms, ideally suited for sharing data and processes between multiple parties within a project. As job site connectivity improved and field personnel became more tech-savvy, companies started to move data collection technology in the form of mobile devices into the hands of superintendents and foremen. Around a decade ago, BIM started moving from the marketing department to preconstruction and finally into the job site trailer. The model is collecting more and more detailed data that the field, operations, fabrication, project management, and procurement functions require. Owners are demanding more in terms of collaborative platforms during the construction process and a better document/record hand-off process at the end. Several outside agencies such as the U.S. Department of Labor, trade unions, and large institutional owners expect better compliance to various regulations.

The Construction Industry is moving further along with various integration frameworks and standards but still seems out of reach for the near term.

So just as ERP solutions could not continue as the center of the automation universe a decade ago, PM solutions may capture that center spot for a while within some companies, but it will eventually have to cede some ground to other critical operational solutions like BIM solutions.

IT and Operations need to spend time thinking about how all the field applications come together to share, manage, control, and process the immense amount of data involved in a construction project today. If not, IT will forever be running around after operations with a roll of duct tape trying to mend gaps in the automation fabric.

If you pull back from these functions, you realize that some of the processes:

  • Manage data (e.g., timecards)
  • Manage documents relating to risk (e.g. insurance certs and lien waivers)
  • Manage the presence, condition, and movement of assets (e.g., equipment)
  • Manage more complex processes with contract and financial implications (e.g., change orders).
  • Facilitate important communication and confirmation (e.g., submittals and RFIs).

Each of these processes would therefore benefit from having a solution and/or platform uniquely designed to its requirements. But there is a limit to their number since having ten or twenty solutions in the field would be hard to maintain, ultimately inefficient, and expensive.

So to plan at this level, IT has to be involved to provide their expertise as it relates to the underlying platform, tools, and technologies that make something a supportable solution that will meet expectations not only today but also remain a viable platform going forward. However, since IT does not process RFIs and submittals you cannot rely on IT alone.

Operations including field personnel must be involved as well as they are the subject matter experts with regard to the day-to-day functions that will drive value from the solutions.

Without a doubt, when planning, senior management should be involved as well as they can speak to the organization’s long-term vision and business objectives and have knowledge of financial considerations, changing markets and customers that others may not. They are also the group that can push for adoption of technology, or not, depending largely on the extent to which they feel compelled that it is important. Finally, they are the ones best positioned to evaluate the company’s risk tolerance.

Planning your organization’s IT solution strategy and deployment is essential.

The many competing solutions, underlying technologies, and confusing marketplace messaging is preventing companies from blindly moving ahead with significant purchases.

It would seem that one way to approach the planning would be to look at all the functions you need or want to automate, determine the best underlying technology for the majority of those functions and then select broad based solutions from strong vendors that provide services as well as on-going support. Get a look at their product roadmap to ensure that the direction they are taking the product or product(s) is consistent with where you are heading with your IT requirements.

Do you want more information? Please contact Burger Consulting Group and let’s talk about your project.

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