Talk the talk: How project management tech can boost communication transparency
When it comes to project management technologies in construction, global cost consultancy and project management advisory firm Rider Levett Bucknall follows a single guiding principle: don’t tell contractors what systems they need to use.
While the company has spent the last two years creating its own back-end cost forecasting and vendor invoicing software, executives say the final decision on project management applications is best left to those who are using the technology on the front lines.
"There are so many software applications in the construction industry, and we need to conform in many ways to the technologies that the contractors are using," said Paul Brussow, Rider Levett Bucknall executive vice president of North America. "To force them to use something different creates project difficulty. The focus of any construction should be building a building, not learning new software systems."
At any given point in project execution, collaborators are depending on business development and CRM software, estimating and pre-construction software, risk management software, BIM and visualization systems, accounting and bid management software, file storage and transfer applications, billing and invoicing programs and more.
And yet while most AEC firms have invested in dozens of different applications to increase productivity and efficiency across the broad spectrum of management tasks, a significant portion of projects continues to run over schedule and over budget. For project management to advance, stakeholders say that better efforts need to be made at integrating disparate technologies together and consolidating related project tasks into single, one-click platforms.
"There’s dozens of applications. Depending on the size of the company, up to 30 applications could be installed, some off the shelf, others home-grown, and they are all cobbled together with spit and shoe polish," said Bassem Hamdy, executive vice president of marketing and enterprise strategy for construction project management software company Procore. "So there is not a lot connecting either the business processes or the systems. That’s where some of the productivity issues in construction come from."
In fact, in a Dodge Data & Analytics SmartMarket Brief published in August 2016 in partnership with project management technology firm e-Builder, 93% of industry respondents said their construction projects are still exceeding their originally established schedules, and 85% are exceeding budget.
With construction companies adopting an increasing number of project management applications, vendors and industry tech executives alike say that accessing and leveraging the enhanced collaboration tools and systems are key to gaining a significant return on investment. While most software is being designed with simple, intuitive, mobile-first user interfaces, they're no mere plug and play solutions. Project managers looking to get the most from their technologies need to make a concerted effort to drill down into intermediate and advanced level usage to improve collaboration as well as job site productivity and efficiency.
Better communication, better technology
Despite the widespread availability of collaboration tools and technologies in the construction industry, productivity is still being stifled by a lack of communication among project partners. The Dodge Data & Analytics report, for example, surveyed 170 institutional and commercial project owners, and 44% admitted to not effectively engaging with other project stakeholders.
"We see firms investing in tools and technologies, and yet they are not involved, they are not collaborating, they are not leading processes or encouraging transparency," said e-Builder CEO Ron Antevy. "Well surprise, surprise, suddenly there is no impact on the success of a project. You have to be hands on with these tools and technologies for project management to advance and become more productive."
Not long ago, communication of project management action items on the job site was powered solely by walkie-talkies. "There was a rack of Motorola radios on the wall, and that was truly how you communicated. It was very, very limited," said Charlie Smith, project manager for Chicago, IL-based Pepper Construction Group, which has moved to a consolidated communications app after finding that smart phones alone weren’t making a substantial impact on project management.
Designed specifically for deskless workers, the Zinc app offers one-button push to talk, video and file-sharing, and text in a secure system that allows administrators to organize collaborators into different workgroups while tracking information flow for receipt and compliance. According to Zinc CEO Stacey Epstein, a key aspect of the app from a project management standpoint is the ability to dispense with email and communicate with any project collaborator, regardless of whether or not their their name or cell number is known.
"We all experience communication overload, and we’ve sought to consolidate so all communication can happen in one place," Epstein said. "People on a construction site aren’t sitting around checking their email. Everyone just wants to send a text. That is just human behavior these days. It doesn’t matter the profession or the demographic — communication needs to happen in a quick and easy way that invokes a fast and short response."
At Pepper, Smith said the consolidation of communication technologies onto a single app has engaged and empowered project management teams. "The beauty is when we can marry several different technologies into one unified message, get info out quickly to people, and allow them to decide whether or not they need more information," Smith said. "It’s hard to place an ultimate value on communicating in a way that allows people to make decisions the way they can when they are as informed as they can be."
Simplification of implementation
As project management technologies continue to proliferate, vendors and AEC professionals are likely to also wrestle with improved systems integration and implementation in order to maximize productivity — and therefore maximum return on investment — from the tools they elect to adopt.
On Oct. 12, Procore announced it had expanded its App Market place to include 25 additional third-party vendors that integrate with the firm’s project management software through an open API, bringing the total of third-party integrations to 60. "Whether you are $10 million or $10 billion in volume, you don’t want to spend dollars that you don’t have on IT infrastructure to provide integration," said Hamdy of the open platform model. "Integration continues to be constructions real eye sore, and interconnectivity through a standard off-the-shelf application levels the playing field."
At Skanska USA, the North American arm of the multi-billion-dollar global construction firm enjoys an integration team that vets and debugs project management technologies before they hit the field. "As a bigger company, we do have the ability to take the time and investigate technologies before we throw them out to the masses," said Lance Borst, a superintendent in the firm’s operations office. "Integrated services test that out before it gets to us boots on the grounds operations guys."
At the Novartis Cambridge extension project, Borst and his team utilized Autodesk BIM 360 Field as the primary project management interface for the 40-plus subcontractors, architects and engineering firms on the $600 million, 900,00-square-foot build out at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "On that job we required that key foreman have an iPad specifically to use BIM 360," Borst said. "At the end of the day if they can use it, it creates communication transparency among parties that helps with efficiency and the overall advancement of a project."
The selection process
Cash flow and costs are likely to dictate how proliferating project management technologies are selected and integrated at GC firms. Pepper Construction selected Zinc in part because of the ability to have internal teams and external subcontractors and partners simply install an app on their own smart phone. "The scale and process to implement some solutions can be incredibly laborious, and we expect the ease of integration of into everything we do to heavily define the technology market," said Shannon Ghera, Pepper vice president of corporate communications.
Some technology companies say that evolved project management software could even make a difference in recruitment and retention of top talent in the industry. "We found via our survey that top performing firms are more likely to invest in top technologies," Antevy said. "In that way the software is simply an enabler — it attracts the right people and then enables them to execute on a process."
At Rider Levett Bucknall — which ultimately decided not to integrate its cost forecasting and invoicing software with other systems — ease of use, mobile compatibility and impact to its partner were the most pressing concerns in developing a successful system. The ability to use a tablet or a phone to leverage technology is critically important, according to Brussow.
And when it comes to managing the financial portion of the project, success will likely go to those systems that can best move the money. "Integration costs would inevitably trickle down into our own fees, so we decided to stay away from combining softwares and simply focus on expediting the process of getting people paid," Brussow said.
Simplicity in function and design of project management technologies is also seen as a key aspect to encouraging better adoption and use of the collaboration and communication tools available in those systems. According to Epstein, simplified and unified project management tools will even raise the culture bar in construction, bringing everyone and perhaps eventually all technologies together on one platform to share information in a way that drives connectivity and camaraderie.