Suffering high costs and deep frustration used to be a rite of passage when growing companies decided it was time to integrate data systems to improve enterprise operations. But things have changed. Nowadays, it neither costs as much nor hurts so badly to take advantage of enterprise tools that previously only the biggest companies could swing.
Better hardware and software, higher Internet bandwidth and greater interoperability are helping, but the biggest contribution may be innovative thinking. Vendors are coming up with new ways to connect the islands of information typically scattered throughout firms and satellite offices. In the process, they are sidestepping some of the pain associated with deploying the classic, consolidated database, Enterprise Resource Planning data management systems.
The change is coming just in time. There is pressure to use ERP approaches to better manage construction information. Drivers include the increasing complexity of projects, growing use of building information modeling and record-keeping requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and “green” building certification.
Some vendors, such as Oracle, are responding with interoperable suites of products that can be combined as needed, some with industry-specific tools like construction project management. Oracle and others also have developed standards-based “middleware” to improve the interface between their own products and those of third-party developers.
“The latest trend is more componetized, ‘LEGO’ architectures—mixing and matching components,” says Predrag Jakovljevic, principal analyst for enterprise applications at Technology Evaluation Centers Inc., a Web-based enterprise software-selection advisory service based in Montreal, Canada. He says there is a lot of talk about modular systems with components such as project management, estimating, job-cost control, human resources and customer-relations management. But he thinks really flexible products are still several years away.
"The latest trend is more componentized, 'LEGO' architectures."
— Predrag Jakovljevic, Principal Analyst, Technology Evaluation Centers Inc.
Yet Jakovljevic says other developments already are making it easier to consolidate disconnected data. He points to one enterprise product that recognizes when new data in one area may affect other parts of the integrated data system and guides the user to make the connections. Another trend is the growing use of search engines to deliver information on demand, rather than having users comply with rigid protocols and put data in predictable places or on the same server.
“Search is there,” Jakovljevic says. “Even Oracle, SAP and Microsoft, not to mention Google, are all coming with these enterprise search engines.” He says the full potential of enterprise search has yet to be achieved.
As has happened before, it is not just the giant software developers that are innovating. Construction advances are coming from some old specialists in IT for the construction sector and some from newer players as well. They run the gamut from full-service ERP systems to clever applications focused on specific needs.
Rapid growth caused Messer Construction Co., Cincinnati, to look for a more effective project management tool and even a new accounting system. The company self-performs commercial and institutional construction and last year had $600 million in revenue. This year, it expects that to increase by $100 million.
“We took the opportunity to map all of our data formats and discovered seven different people were entering the same data in seven places,” says Andy Burg, executive in charge of technology services for operations at Messer. “There was no continuity.”
The company developed a road map to achieve what it wanted and put out a request for proposals. It received two responses and selected a system from Toronto-based CMiC. “It was integrated already, with accounting, project management, human resources, all in one product,” says Burg.
CMiC’s philosophy is to create one-stop shopping for construction management, says President Gord Rawlins. “I’ve been on that bandwagon for about 10 years, gradually building the software up bit by bit,” he explains. “We’ve reached critical mass [now] to replace pretty much any stand-alone system people may have with one database, one user interface on a Web browser. Everything [is] in one place. People are very tired of integrators and bridging stand-alone...solutions.”
CMiC’s approach “reduces the seven data captures to one, and all the data is transferred to the project team through to close out,” says Burg. Messer still keeps and integrates with some of its preferred point-source solutions, however, such as its Sage Timberline estimating system.
Burg says the CMiC system is helping to reduce costs. “We did quite a few reports. Now, when you need information, we give you access to the system,” he says. Burg predicts this system also will work well for owners that will want more collaborative access in the future. With it, “they can see everything, 24/7. We never want to get in the position of blind-siding our owners with a huge change,” he says.
CMiC also has a new feature for routing project-related e-mail directly into the project database, as well as automating the routing and tracking of RFIs. “It sounds almost too simple,” says Rawlins. “But when you actually look at what people are doing, most of their correspondence and information is sitting in e-mail.”
“The next big thing is Building Information Modeling,” says Burg. “It’s probably going to change us to integrate and work with BIM. It’s exciting—it’s what keeps me interested in this position.”
Among the newer vendors on the scene is Agresso, a Dutch ERP software vendor that recently set up shop in Vancouver. Its focus is ERP systems for professional services, including architecture, engineering and construction. Those users need systems agile enough to cope with streams of projects and changing relationships, so the system is designed to recognize when new data in one area, such as project management, has implications elsewhere, Jakovljevic notes.
The system launches a routine to gather and coordinate the required information. “It’s a nice product that is easy to change. In the case of a merger, it could make systems much more easily assimilated,” says Jakovljevic. “You’re still talking about a few months’ implementation, but [not] about years or of unplugging the system altogether,” he says.
Some veterans of the dot-com boom are still plugging away, solving data problems for the industry. Many now focus on the enterprise sector. One example is Phoenix-based Hard Dollar, which started in 1989 as a civil construction estimating product and later added project management. It has since been re-engineered on Microsoft.net’s interoperable architecture, to create Hard Dollar Enterprise.
The system does not try to do everything, such as scheduling, accounting and equipment management, says Hard Dollar CEO Alistair Johnson-Clague. But it does make those tools and their data visible across the enterprise to...