This week, research analysts at Gartner released the 'Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2015,' peering into the future of the tech world and the innovations therein. While contractors may not find value in every one of these developments, a handful of entries on the list could prove pivotal for construction firms in the coming year. Here are the five most relevant tech trends as they relate to construction project controls:
1. Mobile mastery: Enterprise mobility remains a critical discussion point for leaders in the construction industry, and Gartner confirmed that personal devices will continue to saturate the business environment throughout 2015. Contractors must hop on the mobile bandwagon now if they haven't yet done so.
"Phones and wearable devices are now part of an expanded computing environment that includes such things as consumer electronics and connected screens in the workplace and public space," said David Cearley, vice president and Gartner Fellow.
2. Analytics abound: While big data has conventionally been viewed as an IT entity separate from the core operations of the business, trends indicate that individual applications are beginning to generate enough information to warrant the development of isolated analytics ecosystems. This could bring huge insights to contractors seeking to expedite their project processes.
3. Apps coordinate: Disparate databases and out-of-sync applications don't do an enterprise any good on a busy, congested job site or in a hectic back office environment. With technologies such as consolidated construction software suites and cloud ecosystems that automatically synchronize data across apps, supervisors won't have to ever question whether their data is relevant.
4. Software-defined 2015: Companies that rely on legacy IT systems may find themselves frustrated by the amount of manual monitoring and labor required to keep assets running smoothly and at maximum efficiency. With software-defined networking, contractors can focus on executing key project checkpoints rather than wasting time and money in the data center.
5. Security gets smart: There's no telling when the next major data breach is going to hit, but contractors must always be on their toes to ensure they stay fully protected. 2015 will bring a host of new network defense tools that bolster the security of financial data, client info and private employee records. With the guidance of a third-party solutions provider, companies will be able to develop even stronger file protection profiles and promote security best practices throughout the enterprise.
Construction companies build their operations to be maximally averse to risk of all types, as even the most minor business disruption can send ripples across the enterprise and result in lost productivity. This is why IT needs to be resilient to interruptions, ensuring that end users have continuous access to key documents, executives can keep an eye on project progress and clients have as much insight as they need into contract checkpoints and financial statuses. Teaming up with a service provider that promotes high availability and disaster recovery capabilities is a must for success in this sector.
Putting systems to the test
While decision-makers have stepped up their continuity and recovery efforts dramatically over the past several years, there's still a lot left to be desired with regard to the testing and adjustment standards maintained by most construction organizations. A recent TechTarget question and answer session with IT thought leader Kevin Beaver affirmed that recovery testing is one of the most overlooked aspects of this strategic branch, with approximately four-fifths of organizations failing to put their plans under the actual stress and strain of a crisis scenario.
"The most important thing to remember is to make sure that your DR plan and your staff members have what's needed to recover your information systems and business functions in the event of an emergency," Beaver told the source. "This may be once a year, once every three years, or only after there have been major changes in the organization, its line of work, or its facilities."
How can a company know it's optimizing its IT investments? Building a strong recovery profile and frequently testing its capabilities is a crucial part of tech management in this cutthroat environment. Business leaders shouldn't be afraid to consult with their construction software providers and internal teams to make sure servers, storage and communications will hold up in any situation.
By now, nearly every construction executive has recognized the importance of integrating mobile tools on the job site - the advantages have been made clear by the huge momentum of the enterprise mobility movement at large. Due to the unique nature of the construction operation, however, there are a handful of mobile device management features that only apply to competitors in this industry. Here are five keys to mobile success as they relate to the specific needs of today's enterprise contractors:
1. Ensure BYOD for all involved: Mobile is all about agility, and clunky integration processes go against this core tenet of the trend. FierceMobileIT even pointed to IDC research revealing that one-third of enterprise devices will be employee-owned by 2017. That's why BYOD policies need to be upheld throughout the mobile environment, allowing end users to quickly leverage construction software tools and avoid tedious adoption learning curves. BYOD is also a major weight off of IT's back.
2. Develop dedicated channels: Today's construction software ecosystems are complex, with many modules forming the entirety of the solution. Without purpose-built channels of communication to connect teams with specific superiors, subcontractors and trade professionals, messages are much more likely to get lost in the fray. Vertically integrated software offers answers to this common issue.
3. Bolster connections with HQ: Too many contractors rely on conventional approval methods to move their projects along. This can lead to hours of wasted time and frustrated construction teams waiting for answers from headquarters. Mobile solutions should be able to expedite these processes by empowering both supervisors and employees with the ability to snap and send photos, correspond with decision-makers and get the green light on critical project checkpoints.
4. Centralize database collections: Employees may sport flashy mobile devices and cutting-edge software, but without centralized data sets to draw from, construction operations will likely fall flat. Mobile deployments must be linked back to reliable database resources to ensure the synchronization of teams across job sites and office locations.
5. Prepare for trends to come: While it has already come a long way, the enterprise mobile landscape is still in its infancy, especially on the construction site. Contractors need to maintain flexible attitudes when it comes to adopting unique new digital tools, and ensure their infrastructures are ready for adjustments if necessary. The guidance of a third-party service provider can offer the support a company needs to stay ahead of the curve while avoiding the pitfalls of the integration process.
The story is familiar to any contractor navigating the demands of the digital age: Employees, clients and project stakeholders all demand next-gen IT tools to be implemented on the job site and in the back office, but nobody can come to an agreement about which applications and services to integrate. A tenuous compromise is formed, but soon enough, staff members begin to download unauthorized apps onto their personal devices and use them for work-related purposes. Before long, it's too late for IT to identify and remove all of the unprotected services swamping the infrastructure.
A fragmented legacy
This is the saga of shadow IT, and for many business leaders, it is a reality they live day in and day out. Not only does this behind-closed-doors approach to software heighten risk in a variety of security and privacy areas, it also indicates a grave absence of communication between executive leaders, IT teams and end users. If shadow IT reveals anything about an organization, it's that its operations aren't very organized at all - end users have flipped the chain of command and hijacked construction software for themselves. An article from CIO recently highlighted this epidemic of the digital age.
"I used to call it dark IT," said CBS Interactive CIO Steve Comstock at Interop New York, according to the source. "It was basically the scary monster under my infrastructure, the data going somewhere that we didn't know about, the software being deployed that wasn't being managed."
Advantages to shadow?
Believe it or not, decision-makers can actually benefit hugely from looking into the patterns in their company's shadow IT movements and determining which apps are enhancing productivity and communication. In fact, examining these underground developments is one of the most reliable and efficient ways to map out the future of the infrastructure. When done correctly, tuning into the pulse of shadow IT collapses the gaps between the C-Level, IT administrators and the end users who actually leverage the apps for project execution.
For instance, a team dissatisfied with its current construction project controls may decide to try out a free app members discover on an online storefront. Within a few days, they've determined they can save a substantial chunk of time by simply employing this service. Rather than leaving the company's software to gather dust, IT leaders can take note of this change and switch out that piece of construction software for a more streamlined and intuitive application.
Gauging the preferences and desires of the modern workforce is a critical part of the overall construction software adoption process, providing a basis upon which executives can steer their deployments toward maximum efficacy and value. Without end user feedback, a company may not know if it's truly realizing the full potential of its current software suite, or missing out on a solution more tailored to its specific needs. Knowing the strengths, weaknesses and pain points of a deployment is key to mapping out a plan to improve any area of the IT environment.
This evaluative process is especially important for integral software platforms such as enterprise resource planning solutions, which often form the core of the contractor's digital arsenal. Leaders must understand which ERP components are delivering value while recognizing which aspects may be coming up short of expectations. InformationWeek recently pointed to a report from Epicor, highlighting the most common ERP problem areas for end users. Here are three of the most urgent demands that appeared in the responses:
1. Speedier adoption processes: Executives may think they're the only ones frustrated by tedious deployments, but end users are the ones who actually have to wade through slow adoption processes and scale steep learning curves. Simplicity was cited among the most prevalent demands for ERP users, according to the survey, along with speed of implementation.
Epicor technical strategist Erik Johnson explained that with an intuitive interface and plenty of third-party support, ERP can deliver fast, reliable value. In the context of construction management software, on-site employees should be able to easily navigate their way around a software suite without constantly referring to upper management or peers for guidance.
"We think the right strategy for ERP is to make it easy for users to surface the data and the transactions that they want to see," Johnson told the source. "They can click into the transactions and do the business tasks that they need to perform."
2. Social channels and connectivity: On the job site, social connectivity doesn't refer to Facebook and Twitter - it's a standard of communication under which employees, subcontractors, managers and clients can interact via open, reliable channels at any point in the contract life cycle. With the majority of Epicor's survey respondents citing collaboration as important to the future of their businesses, the time is now to give end users what they want. The source explained that this will require productive partnerships to be formed with third-party vendors.
"The need for social features is more acute with ERP because it cuts across all departments," Johnson said, according to InformationWeek. "Much as vendors have tried with attachments, email threads are too difficult to tie to data. CEOs don't always get social, but if you put it in the product, a community will eventually emerge."
3. Mobile functionality for all: Only half of end users have mobile access to the ERP data, Epicor pointed out. How can business leaders expect to maximize their construction software ROI if every other employee can't access key information when they need it most? Developing a sound mobile infrastructure is crucial to the success of all future ERP deployments.
Opening channels of communication between teams on a single job site is one thing, but synchronizing operations across construction zones, distinct subcontractor groups and executive boards is another story. In an era that requires maximal application availability and always-on communications, construction document management platforms need to be accessible by all end users to ensure IT investments are realizing their full collaborative potential. This is especially important for companies that simultaneously manage projects across the state, throughout the country and around the globe.
Are these the right files?
Without a digital platform that can support this highly integrated environment, contractors may still encounter the efficiency issues that plagued them in the past. For example, an on-site expert may not be able to synchronize his team's blueprints with a subcontractor working in the same construction zone, causing a miscommunication that results in an afternoon of lost productivity and a sizeable budgetary mishap. To keep operations humming along, documents need to be updated in an automated digital setting so that end users are always presented with the most relevant, recent information available.
A recent article from TechTarget highlighted the importance of having synchronized document resources, particularly in scenarios such as construction and manufacturing. Projects in these industries demand up-to-the-minute accuracy for all procedures, and digital data needs to be given top priority when it comes to remaining on schedule and on target. The source spoke with Richard Wetzel, co-founder and partner at Centric Projects, who revealed his company's techniques for improving data integrity during high-pressure periods of productivity.
"Once a week we do a search for any files with the word conflict in the filename to identify files that may be in conflict with one another," Wetzel told the news provider. "If files have specific problems, we say, 'OK, you two, there may be conflicts and you have to resolve them.'"
Software that automates
While Wetzel's approach to eliminating document redundancy may be effective, large-scale projects require a more efficient method than manual sorting and deleting. This is where synchronized construction management software solutions can be such a crucial asset to the modern contractor, automating these processes to cut down on time drains such as database combing and manual analysis. Construction teams that employ such tools can devote this saved time to achieving critical goals on the job site, driving efficiency in more innovative ways and delivering optimal results.
Contractors are in constant search of strategies that can cut down on wasted time, progress quickly from one project stage to the next and generally keep teams on the move. Here are five fast and easy ways to mobilize construction teams today.
1. Consolidate apps onto a single platform. Construction sites are already closely coordinated, often demanding several partners and subcontractors be on the job in overlapping schedules. This means even a slight miscommunication can result in a heap of lost time and money. By centralizing key applications onto one easily navigated platform, on-site employees can keep track of any and all happenings on the job site. This can help to minimize risk of wasted materials and other problems that arise from poor schedule coordination.
For example, a cement team may need complete a foundation in an afternoon but not know whether a subcontractor is coming in begin renovating the driveway. Cement trucks need to be moved out of the drive in order to accommodate the other teams, but this would delay the project by a few hours. With stronger construction site management tools, the partners could have been informed of the overall schedule and avoided this mishap.
2. Teach every employee the tools of the trade. Without offering a high level of insight into the functionality of mobile applications, how can decision-makers expect their employees to extract maximum value from their tool sets? While a lack of comprehensive training may not seem like a major oversight, the inconveniences and confusion that result from this type of situation can add up over time, leaving in-house teams and business partners fed up with steep learning curves.
Tech Page One recently pointed to an Accenture survey which found 65 percent of the 1,500 C-level executives surveyed are falling short of their mobility goals. Luckily, integrated app suites often run on similar user interfaces, making the adoption process a smooth one. Some thought leaders believe that movements such as BYOD will simplify this further by cutting out the need for additional hardware support.
"There has been a lot of innovation in this space over the past couple of years," said Sean Wisdom, Global Director of Mobility Solutions for Dell, according to the source. "There are new products and services that will help ease the implementation of a mobile strategy to a broader part of your organization.
3. Make sure apps can function offline. Always-on connectivity shouldn't be limited by the absence of a Wi-Fi connection, especially when it comes to construction project management software. Employees need to record updates as soon as possible in order to remain precise and timely, and this demands offline functionality for all applications in the suite. Teams should be able to make adjustments to BIM, ERP and scheduling databases without worrying about a Web connection on the job site - the best software updates automatically once Wi-Fi is found.
The construction industry requires contractors to work literally anywhere. Taking apps offline while retaining their value is a powerful asset for teams that can't always link up with home base.
An industry-leading contractor wouldn't let employees test out a new piece of equipment or technique on the job site, as this could result in safety hazards, a lack of management control and a shift away from best practices. While a similar philosophy of supervision should be employed in the context of IT, there is an alarming lack of vigilance in tech departments throughout the corporate environment. Construction management software must be treated as an integral component of a firm's operational footprint, not a digital experiment subject to the whims of employees and stakeholders.
Rather than living in constant tension between end-users, executives and IT teams, construction firms should focus their efforts on building an application environment conducive to everyone's goals and capabilities. Here are three pointers that can help contractors finally bring their construction project controls into harmony with every aspect of their organization.
1. Strategize at a high level: Too many decision-makers leverage software solutions without a clear vision of what they want to achieve. This often leaves companies stranded with expensive programs that don't lead them to the business outcomes they truly desire. Construction Global pointed out that close to half of all businesses fail to properly align IT spending with strategic priorities and enterprise needs. Close communication between various departments within the company, as well as IT service providers, must be orchestrated if an organization is to make optimal software decisions.
2. Centralize data resources: When shadow IT and other behind-the-scenes initiatives comprise the majority of a company's construction management software footprint, teams often suffer a lack of coordination due to disparate databases and a failure to synchronize across diverse applications. According to Construction Global, consolidating apps and database resources will fix many of the common problems experienced by today's business leaders, opening up channels of communication and reducing miscues.
"If nothing else, improving data quality will reduce your administration costs and will improve compliance and corporate governance," Andreas Bitterer, a vice president of research with Meta Group, told the source.
3. Track and analyze progress: TechTarget pointed to a Business Performance Management survey revealing 64 percent of decision-makers have no insight into the value of their software investments. Without a clear understanding of a construction solution's impact on daily operations, business leaders will have no way to improve upon the shortcomings of their current strategies. Metrics and analysis tools are a powerful asset to shore up the effectiveness of construction project management suites.
Construction companies that embark on long-term, multi-tiered projects are tasked with a variety of distinct challenges unique to this specialized area of the industry. These endeavors require the coordination of multiple stakeholders, many subcontractor relationships and client management that must remain a top priority at every project checkpoint. If one of these high-stakes contracts falls behind schedule or out of sync with financial expectations, a business will suffer the consequences of these oversights with weakened budgets and a damaged reputation.
This is why every firm needs modernized construction management software to tackle the big-budget projects that make or break a company. To confidently manage every branch of the contract, supervisors, on-site workers and executive leaders alike need an integrated suite of tools that gives them total control over their domain. While isolated applications and databases may prove effective for smaller-scale efforts, large-cap projects must be supported by solutions that bring everything together in an accessible, interconnected environment.
Aspects of the contract
A modern project blueprint is much more than drawings and measurements mapping out the physical appearance of a structure - these plans must include a series of highly detailed elements that give managers and stakeholders assurance in their budgeting, scheduling and procurement outlooks. According to a recent article from Area Development, contractors were given a roadmap of how a major project should be organized, taking into account components including cost and financial management, project controls and risk management, procurement and scheduling.
In the area of financial planning alone, project coordinators are responsible for handling the minutiae that affect the daily procurement, implementation and execution of materials and labor on the job site. These efforts must be orchestrated along with stakeholder preferences and the parameters of chosen subcontractors, who often bring unique conditions into the equation. The source pointed to the following sub-segments of the capital project management process, suggesting that there is a lot more to this area than meets the eye.
- Payment processing and administration
- Budgeting for every stage and service
- Cash flow reporting processes
- Estimating and forecasting
- Consistent project cost reporting
It's not only the variety of the financial requirements placed upon contractors that leads to project challenges - it's the accuracy and regularity with which managers are expected to deliver their reports to superiors and clients. With such constant pressure to bring quality and precision to their financial outlooks, business leaders must employ construction accounting tools that work smoothly with the rest of their IT infrastructure. This must include elements such as customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning and invoice processing, ensuring total integration of the software suite.
A precedent of transparency
High levels of accountability are a must across the enterprise, especially when a company is coordinating a major, long-term project. Such transparency, however, needs to be promoted in a more holistic sense in order to bring stakeholders, clients and subcontractors in sync with project objectives and sticking points. With construction management software that loops third-parties in on these progressions, a team can more successfully navigate big-budget contracts and build positive business connections.
While mobile integration may seem to be a logical step forward for contractors and design firms, actually incorporating a mobility strategy into daily enterprise operations is not such an intuitive process. For companies that have only just begun experimenting with policies such as bring your own device and mobile-enhanced app environments, maximizing the value of these investments requires a bit more guidance from end users and expert service providers.
In many cases, however, business leaders don't even know where to start making improvements to their mobility blueprints. For contractors that need a bit of direction to get their mobile enhancement efforts off on the right foot, here are four areas to focus on in order to bring their construction project management initiatives into line with mobility.
1. Improve end user education: Simply distributing devices and licenses to construction teams is not enough to reap the full range of benefits modernized solutions can provide. Administering a complete profile of training resources and user support tools is key to ensuring a quick turnaround from implementation to utilization. With the assistance of a third-party provider, educational efforts can be made easier with online portals and a host of customized materials. The faster a workforce can grasp the ins and outs of the construction project controls, the better.
Decision-makers must remember that not all training methods are created equal, with next-gen solutions demanding fast-paced, multi-platform educational support whenever possible. They should consider steering away from the lecture-based learning strategies of years past and embracing approaches such as online courses, social feedback-based education and other forward-thinking techniques. An article from Midsize Insider pointed out that in the area of cyber security especially, businesses need to promote best practices through a wide array of channels to get key points across.
"Awareness training performed as a seminar, aka 'death by monologue' or 'death by PowerPoint,' will not get the attention and retention needed to affect change," David Monahan, research director for security and risk management at EMA, told the news source.
2. Beef up privacy protection: When personal devices are incorporated into enterprise IT strategy, security is a two-way street. Executives must ensure a secure network to safely harbor sensitive data, just as employees need to feel confident logging into company infrastructure on their own smartphones and tablets. With personal information on the line, decision-makers must respect these boundaries with sound policies and limitations. This is especially important for first-time adopters just entering the mobile environment for the first time.
An article from Mobile Enterprise suggested that with the widespread integration of personal hardware in the workplace environment, it is more critical than ever to build strong regulatory guidelines aimed at cultivating end user comfort and data protection. The source pointed to findings from a Zix Corporation report, revealing 71 percent of respondents would avoid using personal devices for work if they knew their employer could remotely wipe their device. Policies should make staff members feel safe, rather than cornered into compliance with construction management software.
"For many employees, the personal data on their mobile device is priceless," said Zix Corporation CEO Rick Spurr. "In turn, it's vital for companies to have a BYOD solution that not only meets the security needs of business but also the convenience, control and privacy demands of employees."
3. Develop a support network: Entering the world of modernized construction software is a daunting enough task for most contractors, let alone the prospect of incorporating a fleet of mobile devices on top of this new infrastructure. Ensuring that third-party supporters are readily available to provide assistance is one of the greatest assets an organization can have when embarking on a mission to improve team mobility. Whether IT needs guidance in deploying new user licenses or encounters roadblocks in the adoption process, the best solutions vendors will be reliable partners every step of the way.
Contractors can't let the addition of a mobile strategy hold their operations back in any capacity. Developing a strong network of IT support is critical to make sure mobility projects hit the ground running.
4. Ensure mobile continuity: Disaster recovery is one of the most overlooked components of corporate IT at large, and when mobile solutions are factored into the equation, such strategies are often pushed even further under the rug. Mobile Enterprise noted research from the Disaster Recovery Preparedness Council, explaining that three out of every four organizations fail to fully prepare for an emergency situation.
"The proliferation of mobile computing is a large concern for businesses attempting to prepare for disaster," Chuck DeLouis, vice president of product management at Intronis Inc. told the source. "Organizations no longer have one main system to worry about, but multiple mobile devices that are often difficult to keep track of."
From an IT perspective, mobile resources should be given just as much attention as desktop workstations when preparing these plans. No application or storage unit can be left behind when recovering mission-critical assets.