Managing the enterprise
With the hype of online collaboration services gone — especially with the recent collapse of many dot-com companies selling these services — the focus for many A/E/C firms today is clearly back on enterprise management. Firms search for solutions to manage complex business issues, such as tracking new business leads, indexing documents and communications on a project and allocating the right people to a project.
Many firms today have custom-built systems that perform these operations separately. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) software attempts to integrate these tasks in one program so that various departments can share information and communicate with each other. ERP software started in the manufacturing and distribution industries and is slowly making its way into professional services industries such as A/E/C.
Construction a complex process
What makes the construction industry so complex is the nature of the design and construction process, which involves numerous transmissions of documents with many revisions over the life of a project. Bulk also plays a part in the complexity — a typical set of architectural plans and specs for an office building could be several hundred pages.
Managing staff is another challenge. The level of skill for each staff member, for instance, must be constantly tracked. This is not a major issue for smaller firms. But for larger firms with 100-plus people, poor staff management can often lead to projects that are improperly staffed.
Moreover, keeping records of project histories, which are critical not only for new business proposals but also for budgeting existing projects, is a major nightmare for many firms. In most cases, Microsoft Access or some other custom database is created, but never properly maintained. Most firms rely on these unsatisfactory databases as well as individual project managers to maintain project records. All project information and images, including floor plans, diagrams, renderings and finished photography, need to reside in one place.
Professional services automation
The complexities of the construction industry, however, make it difficult for A/E/C firms to take advantage of the manufacturing-oriented ERP programs on the market. Several software companies are attempting to solve the specific problems faced today by A/E/C firms with a new category of software, called professional services automation (PSA), to manage people, time, money and engagements in service companies.
For instance, McLean, Va.-based Deltek Systems (www.deltek.com) offers a suite of software products that serve various PSA applications, from customer relationship management and project planning to employee time and expense reporting and human-resource management. The company's Project Planner program, for example, automates the process of evaluating, budgeting and balancing project allocations, and automatically creates rolling forecasts with hours and costs. While its Costpoint software integrates more than 25 applications, from project accounting to human-resources management. Although separate today, the company plans to merge these products into a suite of linked databases that share the same data.
Other companies are attempting to create these types of products, including Oracle, PeopleSoft, Changepoint, Evolve and Portera, but they generally lack experience in the A/E/C industry.
Implementation of these types of systems is always a major investment in time and money. The payoff, however, can be quite tremendous. A report by an industry research firm states that the implementation of ERP software can increase billable hours as much as 7 percent.