If you thought that chief information officers in design and construction firms today just upgraded inefficient servers or made sure the e-mail system was working, you’d be sadly mistaken. These gurus of corporate information technology management are at the heart of what drives and differentiates engineering and construction firms these days—cost competitiveness, collaboration, innovation and entrepreneurship. As such, more CIOs now are valued members of the executive management team or are jockeying for a boardroom seat next to the CEO. Even so, the day-to-day pressures of keeping disparate company units connected yet secure and meeting tougher cost and profit goals is a challenge even for the most technologically astute.

(Photo manipulation by Guy Lawrence for ENR)

To determine how industry CIOs are faring, ENR invited 11 executives with that title or something equivalent for a two-hour roundtable March 31 on today’s technology management issues. The group, which met in New York City, represents a cross section of companies in terms of revenue, geography, discipline and market diversity.

For most roundtable participants, the CIO position is fairly new, created to harness, better manage and even deliver value from the fast-moving technology function. The job in specialty contractor EMCOR Group Inc., Norwalk, Conn., was created four years ago “for the express purpose of looking at how technology was applied across our then-43 companies and developing some sort of strategy,” says CIO Joe Puglisi. “They wanted to make sure we had the best.” Adds James Brogan, director of IT since 2001 for architect Kohn Pederson Fox Associates, New York City: “My position was a new one. The focus at the time was to have more of a strategic direction on global connectivity and solutions. It’s a very creative environment at KPF and having the right tools is critical for us.”

Others say top management saw a practical need to keep the “IT guy” close at hand. “You need tools leading the industry now in collaboration and processes,” says Keith Authelet, vice president and CIO at Gilbane Building Co., Providence, R.I. “All of a sudden you end up at the executive meetings.”

At MWH, the global environmental infrastructure engineer in Broomfield, Colo., Chief Knowledge Officer Vic Gulas takes cues directly from the top. “Our CEO wants to be a global leader in our core areas and deliver products anywhere in the world. That allows us to begin laying a knowledge management framework,” he says. “To be at the senior management table is not just part of the business, it’s essential to the business.”

Vincent Laino, CIO at engineer Weston Solutions Inc., West Chester, Pa., says the IT function had to earn its executive status. “The technology group had to prove to the rest of the senior management team that there are some values generated,” says the executive, who is also chief financial officer. “Once that happened, frankly, the seat at the senior management table was kind of de facto; we are an integral part of the planning process now.”

HNTB Corp., Kansas City, envisioned a new profit center. The design firm wanted “key hires outside of the engineering practice to create momentum in areas that wouldn’t necessarily have been spawned within the organization,” says Dan Wolgemuth, CIO and chief administrative officer. “Speaking in business vernacular is what earned us a place in the boardroom and the right, not only to weigh in on issues related to technology, but also to our core business.”

Even so, some CIOs still struggle with old stereotypes. For Geir Ramleth, Frederick, Md.-based senior vice president and CIO for Bechtel Group Inc., “technology is frankly very often looked upon as a necessary evil, rather than a driver,” he says. “My biggest challenge has been to get costs under control so I don’t have my other senior managers saying ‘I don’t know what you do, but it costs too much.’”

The CIO’s critical role in integrating business and communication systems, particularly as more E&C firms grow through mergers and acquisitions, has shed new importance on the function and perhaps more positive light.

Patrick Thompson, CIO and chief administrative officer for The Shaw Group Inc., Baton Rouge, says integration has been his top priority in a firm that has morphed into a mega-contractor through several recent large acquisitions. “That’s all I've been doing for the past two years,” he says. “We literally had to get to a single platform in about nine months, with about 17,000 employees and five different [corporate platforms].”
Completing that mission has brought Thompson’s IT function more in sync with Shaw operations. “Now that we have finished that project, we have been a little nicer about approaching the business lines to get involved in some of the other technology initiatives,” he says.

For Skanska USA Building Inc., Parsippany, N.J., the IT management function also was critical to running a consolidated construction business, says CIO Chris Stockley. “Skanska found itself owning a series of well-run companies with independent or separate IT initiatives,” he says. “Interestingly, the consolidation of the company started with IT. The role was primarily an integration type role and is now becoming much more of a business function.”

CIOs say that staying closer to the business units and their missions can help them bond with other company managers. Allen Anderson, CIO at C.W. Driver Contractors, a mid-sized Pasadena, Calif., firm, “came up through construction” without a purely technology-based background. “Being able to use analogies that everyone can understand in terms they use every day, I think has really helped significantly,” he says. “Now, we can help people understand that there is a common place that you look for things, there are not five or six different databases or 30 spreadsheets for each project manager to turn in for the weekly or monthly report.”

Adds Puglisi: “You don’t want to spew a bunch of three-letter acronyms or techno-babble at them. You want to take away some of their pain. They don’t make any money when they are fixing their mail system.”

Maintaining a lid on expensive technology also is important to cost-conscious industry firms. “We all have profit margins that are [slim] and we cannot allow the cost of too much democracy into the IT side,” says Bechtel’s Ramleth. “There are other things that drive our businesses. We are part of it, but we are not the key driver. Therefore, we should be a risk avoider and not a risk attractor to these projects.”

KPF’s Brogan admits that “a long time ago, I would sit downstairs with the IT folks and kind of just do my thing and it’s absolutely the wrong thing to do,” he admits. “Now, I’m out there involved with all the projects with the folks that are working.”

Keeping a low profile and supporting the business units in driving change also is ...

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