With the transition of the computers based on traditional operation modules to Web-based systems, it is possible for nearly any business function within an A/E/C firm to be performed online from virtually any computer with an Internet connection. Many firms today are taking advantage of the flexibility of the Internet to consolidate their management processes — including accounting, project management, human resources, resource planning, and cost estimating — using both intranet and extranet systems. An intranet handles the internal operations, while an extranet handles processes with outside partners. Some firms are building these systems internally from scratch, while others are partnering with outside vendors. The difficult part is integrating the dozens of new and existing programs within a firm to create a single window to all data.
Bellevue, Wash.-based architect MulvannyG2 decided after searching for almost a year that it could not find as holistic an application as it envisioned for its intranet/extranet system. The firm found a variety of products that had valuable features, but integrating them was problematic. It wanted to integrate all its departments' software into a central database. In the end, creating the system in-house was cheaper, says Celeste Lenon, vice president of information systems for MulvannyG2.
"Our main goal is centralized and easily accessible information," says Lenon. "The 'centralized' theme of all our development is a critical component. We ask ourselves: 'Will this eliminate a redundancy? Will it assist staff with their tasks? Whose job will be made easier with this implementation?' By centralizing the information we find increases in efficiency across the board."
Data that was previously entered into six separate databases — two in human resources, three in the project management arena and one in marketing — is now entered just once in the main database, which is based on structured query language (SQL) technology.
MulvannyG2's intranet/extranet consists of four modules: MNet, Project Center, Studio Center and Directory. MNet is a typical corporate intranet, providing forms, templates, staff information, reports and news on non-project-focused functions.
Project Center is where project information is stored and managed, including schedules, budgets, project team data and major account programs. A Client Project Center module allows clients to view project information, gather reports and communicate with team members.
Studio Center provides internal team information, such as which designers are assigned to particular projects, standards for accounts, and even general announcements of victories, lessons learned and team events. Also located within the Studio Center are schedules from all active projects and a list of which designers are working on construction drawings. This master list allows the firm to better manage the efficiency and quality of the drawings.
Finally, the Directory is a centralized "address book" that feeds all parts of the application. If the contact information changes for a business or individual, that change is reflected throughout the entire intranet/extranet system.
MulvannyG2's current push is to integrate project budgets into the system. It is also implementing a new accounting system based on programs from BST Software, and is evaluating project cost-estimating software from Timberline. For human resource (HR) functions, an Oracle-based system from ADP was specified. The firm is working closely with ADP to integrate the HR program with the existing databases.
Developing a system from scratch does have its disadvantages, according to Lenon. There are aspects MulvannyG2 underestimated, such as support, training and incorporating changes. Moreover, the firm underestimated the amount of time that would be spent releasing updates into the company culture. However, at the same time, the intranet/extranet system resolved many more issues by creating a method to centralize, organize and publish project and company information.
Turner Talk takes hold
New York City-based contractor Turner Construction Co. partnered with Meridian Project Systems to develop its construction management intranet/-extranet. Dubbed TurnerTalk, the system is a Web-hosted version of Meridian's Prolog Manager and Prolog Web site software. Turner has already deployed 1,300 licenses on projects around the world, and plans to have more than 4,000 employees online by mid-2004.
The goals of the TurnerTalk initiative are geared primarily around the centralization of project data and the flexibility of deployment and access of the data. All projects and departments can collaborate both internally within Turner, as well as with external clients.
In the past, online collaboration was hindered by the set-up costs of installing software programs on computers in remote locations. Therefore, the company could justify using online project management for only the largest projects. With TurnerTalk, every project is online. Anyone can log into the intranet/extranet system and access data for any Turner project. This access ranges from the purchasing department adding contracts to the project database to a subcontractor checking the latest answers to questions they initiated online.
The company structured the intranet/extranet system to provide free accounts for clients and outside partners, such as owners, architects and subcontractors. This eliminates the number one argument in the past for not participating in the online collaboration process: cost. In addition, Turner provides free online training for all users.
According to Mickey Doner, Turner's director of project management information systems, "We have short-term plans for possible integration with our accounting system, as well as longer range plans to review potential integration with marketing and HR systems for things like staff experience tracking, staff availability and other sales information."
These undertakings by MulvannyG2 and Turner require hard work and commitment from their respective firms, especially from top management.
Most firms spearheading intranet and extranet systems are using industry standard technology, such as XML- and SQL-based databases, in order for the various programs to talk to each other. Microsoft has been pushing its .NET initiative to deliver Web-based services. IBM and Sun are also getting into the act with their own standards. Vendors like Meridian, BST and others have actually rebuilt many of their products to integrate with .NET.
Also, later this year Microsoft will release its own customer relationship management (CRM) software based on the Great Plains line of products. Whether these programs have an impact on the A/E/C industry, only time will tell.
An independent consultant, the author welcomes comments at[email protected].