Software tools shouldn't dictate the AEC process

With over 200 solutions on the market, construction software is one of the most complex and fragmented markets, writes Gensler's Mark Thole.

April 21, 2015 |
GenslerOn
Software shouldn't dictate process

"It’s time for a project management solution as unique as your project," writes Gensler's Mark Thole. Illustration: Christine Maurer, courtesy Gensler

"Poorly designed user interfaces can profoundly affect the bottom line," concludes Forrester Research, as cited in the article "The Impact of ERP Usability has on Productivity." 

You've probably found this to be true. You are trying to get something done, but the software you're required to use just won't do it. So your efficiency decreases and with it the ability to deliver high-quality work in as cost-effective manner as possible.

Of course, the discovery of a software glitch usually occurs so far along in a given project that it is too late to switch platforms and use another piece of software that can actually help you and your bottom line. Don't worry, you're not alone in experiencing such disconcerting realizations.

"Why are architecture projects, construction management, and the larger program management efforts so far behind when it comes to useful, configurable, and cost-effective solutions to their unique problems? After configuring, modifying, and developing management software for nearly 20 years, I've realized that the answer to this question lies in the fact that creating a one-solution-fits-all software for a multitude of unique architecture projects is difficult at best."

The nice thing about architecture and construction projects is that there are very clearly defined and repeatable processes that are well understood by members of the profession and the consultants with which architects work. Given this, it is interesting to note that "with over 200 solutions on the market, construction software is one of the most complex (and fragmented) markets."

Compared to other large software applications markets (human resources, accounting, manufacturing, inventory, etc.), one would think that there might only be a handful of wildly successful software products. Companies like SAP, PeopleSoft, and Oracle come immediately to mind when considering successful enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

So why are architecture projects, construction management, and the larger program management efforts so far behind when it comes to useful, configurable, and cost-effective solutions to their unique problems?

After configuring, modifying, and developing management software for nearly 20 years, I've realized that the answer to this question lies in the fact that creating a one-solution-fits-all software for a multitude of unique architecture projects is difficult at best (see my last blog post on this subject “Lessons learned in program management”). But just because something is difficult, doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

 

Configuration is Key

Colleagues have asked me why they should "go through the work" of configuring a web-based project tracking application when they can easily use the same Excel template they've had for the past 20 years. It’s a valid question. But here's why custom configuration should happen up-front:

1. All projects require at least a little bit of planning.

2. Large projects generally require a lot of planning.

3. Regardless of how much planning is done at the start, there will be changes in scope, resources, budgets, schedule or all of the above at some point during the project life cycle.

4. The fact that #3 happens does not negate the first two points.

5. You will need some type of software to track milestones, status, assignments, file revisions, and report KPIs.

Let's further assume that you'll be working with a geographically disperse project team, consultants and client staff, all of whom will need access to various parts of the project data. And since clients increasingly desire more transparency into the process, why not give it to them?

 

The Real Value

If you're considering the assumptions above seriously, or have already been in that situation, you know that tools like Excel just don't work anymore.

Unlike the tried and true Excel spreadsheet, employing a web-based project tracking application will give you time back over the course of your project. Instead of being the single source for data entry and milestone tracking (e.g. The Bottleneck), you can include key members of the team as contributors to the process. Why not let the person performing the punch list review and enter the date it was completed and its status? Or let the person that receives the building permit enter that information themselves? Profection automatically saves the history of information as it is entered and changed over time, which makes researching who did something and why much easier!

 

Communication: the right information, to the right people, at the right time

Using a Web-based data tracking application like Profection also allows for free-flow communication about projects. It provides a greater level of transparency into the process. There are innumerable benefits to this. Client and project management staff, as well as other stakeholders, have real-time access to the information in the event that key personnel are unavailable to give a status update. Making real-time data available to all users (or those you designate) and presenting that information in an easily consumable format allows for faster decision-making.

 

Other Considerations

Quantifying the cost of delayed project decisions or missed opportunities is beyond the scope of this article, but one only has to reflect on their past project experiences to know that those delays can be very costly—expensive not only in the sense of real dollars lost, but also a blow to team morale and any forward momentum that you have worked to build.

 

The Bottom Line: Software shouldn't dictate process

Out of our project experiences for large rollout projects such as GM and Nissan, it has become clear that we can build tools to fit the process instead of doing the reverse.

When evaluating software for your architecture, design or construction project, consider Profection. It is an application that is easy to learn and configure, and it provides real value from day one through project closure.

About the Author: Mark Thole is a recovering cynic, preferring to believe that people really can get things done when they work together as a team. Working on teams across the U.S., ranging in size from one to several hundred, he has seen it all and enjoys leveraging his degree in psychology, still trying to figure people out. He can be reached via email at mark_thole@gensler.com.

Gensler’s La Crosse office has created Profection (TM), a web-based, configurable project information management application that helps clients handle large, multifaceted projects from construction to rebranding to standards implementation. Profection specializes in collecting data across the user’s process, whatever that process may be. Any data element (milestone, KPI, assignment, status, etc.) can be easily created using a drag-and-drop interface and quickly applied to the project's workflow, thus eliminating the need to incur additional development time or fees to make these basic changes. Web application developer Mark Thole discusses how Profection trumps existing software applications used by the architecture and construction industries and allows the design and needs of the client, rather than antiquated technology, to drive the process.

GenslerOn | Gensler

Published by Gensler, a global design firm with 5,000 practitioners networked across five continents, GenslerOn features insights and opinions of architects and designers on how design innovation makes cities more livable, work smarter, and leisure more engaging. Our contributors write about projects of every scale, from refreshing a retailer’s brand to planning a new urban district, all the while explaining how great design can optimize business performance and human potential. For more blog posts, visit: http://www.gensleron.com.

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