Cloud computing has changed the way companies do business. Using the cloud, organizations can manage and store information on the internet rather than on local servers or computers, allowing them to move and exchange data from almost any connected location. That includes construction job sites, which were once left to the mercy of fax machines and overnight courier services.
But the construction industry is notorious for trailing other industries in adopting new technology. Is it ready for the cloud?
With the abundance of mobile devices on job sites, contractors are already tapping into the world of internet-driven, remote communication — even if they don’t realize it. According to a 2016 report from the Associated General Contractors of America and Sage, 59% of construction firms surveyed said they use or planned to use cloud-based software.
"If sufficient mobility capability exists, then the opportunity for cloud is there," said Jay Gagne, chief technology officer for Philadelphia-based data storage and IT management firm Razor Technology.
Considering the cloud
For example, many field supervisors use a smartphone to access email on the job site. To achieve this connection, large contractors use their own hosted services while smaller companies use third-party tools like Dropbox to share information. The challenge, of course, is finding an end-to-end solution. "What we're seeing right now is a proliferation of disjointed tool sets," said David Lawson, product architect at cloud platform company Evolve IP. "There's little strategy and almost no integration, and there's barely oversight."
Despite those growing pains, Lawson said, contractors will continue to manage more of their operations in the cloud for the same reason other companies do — to better connect personnel across diverse geographies.
"This mobility in the cloud offers construction organizations anything from time and material tracking to insight into daily project completion from anywhere in the world, as well as analytics and performance efficiencies,” Gagne said. Many cloud-based software companies typically offer relatively flexible and affordable monthly packages that can be tailored to the unique needs of a business.
There are even construction-specific offerings, like Procore's Construction OS, which helps contractors integrate and store project data in a single platform that's accessible to all team members.
The cloud allows for constant updates with limited or no user downtime and unproductive migration windows, Lawson said. Cloud solutions also make disaster recovery and business continuity planning a simpler proposition, Gagne said, especially for smaller companies that would not have the means to pay for such plans otherwise.
Implementing a cloud-based strategy
Contractors thinking of unplugging their communications should think of the cloud less as a destination and more as an operations support system. "We have to provide information to people who need it at a place of work, and the cloud enables that," said Frank Sarno, director of project controls at Mortenson Construction, in Minneapolis. "It's about enabling team members to get information when they need it."
That doesn't mean every team member gets access to every bit of information, he said. For instance, foremen don't need budget data, so their user access to programs in the cloud would be limited to things critical to their job, such as drawings, specifications and other project details. While it might have taken days for field personnel to receive updated blueprints and other project information using traditional modes of information exchange between the job site and the office, the cloud makes it possible for them to be made aware of changes in real-time.
Access to too much information can reduce productivity because people then must conduct a time-consuming search for what they need. "You need to be very deliberate in terms of who gets access to what, and you need to be consistent," Sarno said.
Keeping project data safe
Project documents include plenty of sensitive and proprietary information, so changing how those details are shared brings inherent security concerns.
"We think about that every day," Sarno said, adding that Mortenson is primarily concerned about phishing and a general lack of understanding around procedures for sharing information in the cloud. Managing staff members' access to confidential information is also a critical question for the firm when looking at cloud-based software.
For him, construction technology today is a shifting landscape. "We're trying to make sure we have the right security controls, especially around financials but also around customers' intellectual property," he said. "[We make] sure that security is top of mind rather than an afterthought. It's as important as any other thing we talk about at the job site."
Third-party apps, plug-ins and other software add-ins can be valuable for construction companies, and they're growing in number and function in the industry today.
But whether the programs are free or paid, it's important to understand where information the company puts into them is going and what the terms and conditions of the tool are, Sarno said. Knowing that could prevent a team from using something that's ill-protected, or it could simply make them aware that the tool's developer will start charging more for the product after a certain period of use.
"For the most part, people on the construction job site are very tech-savvy. As an organization, we need to simplify our processes through cloud-enabled devices."
Director of project controls, Mortenson
What Sarno is most concerned about regarding how construction companies use the cloud can be controlled by contractors themselves: data sprawl.
Say a project manager finds a quality-checklist app and starts to use that tool outside the framework of the systems the company already has in place. The project manager is able to perform their job well, and no one guesses they are using an additional tool. The problem arises when the contractor leaves the company. Their employer needs access to the information captured in the app and depends on the contractor being willing to export the data (if the app allows it) or share their log-in details to the app. That's more difficult than if the contractor had been working only in the designated software.
Sarno said Mortenson is deliberate in selecting new software to test but is open to incorporating it into the company's existing processes if it could be of value to everyone. "We don't want to stifle innovation," he said.
While the picture of sensitive data floating around in the cloud can be unsettling to some, the information is safer in the cloud than in the typical local computer setup. "If your data is on a physical device plugged in at your office, you likely don't have the amount or quality of protection that a cloud services provider safeguards your data with," Lawson said. "It can also be physically stolen — the device can be picked up and absconded with."
Will construction fully move to the cloud?
Sarno disagrees with those who say the construction industry is filled with technophobes. "For the most part, people on the construction job site are very tech-savvy," he said. "As an organization, we need to simplify our processes through cloud-enabled devices."
Regardless of their tech aptitude, onsite personnel want access to intuitive technology that doesn't require a lot of time to figure out. "They don't want to have to pull out a paper manual to figure out what they have to do [to use the technology]," he said.
The same goes for some of Mortenson's more tech-challenged subs. "If you can show them how to get to the right information so they know what to build, [they] jump on board and become some of our best [tech] advocates."