Challenges in the construction business often come into focus around issues of individual projects and their execution. But successful companies stay on top of the game by keeping an eye on the larger view to balance resources across multiple projects, all of the time.
After years of concentrating on project management, scheduling and collaboration tools, an increasing number of software developers and Web services providers now are developing tools to enhance the enterprise-level view. They are developing products to either gather, integrate and analyze data generated by multiple tools, or they are offering single-database, across-the-board solutions for all business operations.
"Enterprise" and "dashboard views" are buzzwords now. But some users say there is a lot more to it than just buzz and words as they put new systems in place.
"A lot of our systems were out of date, so we made a giant leap into something else," says Dale Moore, the vice president managing a conversion of business systems for Shive-Hattery Inc., a 300-employee, six-office architectural and engineering firm based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The firm started going live with a multi-function product from Deltek Systems, Herndon, Va., on Dec. 1 after 18 months of planning. "We were looking for a single integrated database," Moore says.
Moores goal was to eliminate duplicate entry of information and to draw diverse interpretations from the same pile of data.
However they are built, most enterprise products seek to make the process of extracting data as instant and as invisible as possible. The goal is to come across to users as super-intelligent, multi-function, analytical business tools.
Moores company was having problems coordinating isolated pools of information in databases for customer relationship management, accounting, project management and other business functions. "We had to enter data up to seven times," Moore says. With the Deltek Vision system now being implemented, data is entered only once, but is available for any other business functions that require it. Moore says single entry will "obviously increase efficiency," but also should improve accuracy. "The actual information gets updated and populated in the course of what we do in processing a project," he says.
Weekly project updates also are more simple to produce. Accountants no longer have to spend two days running the numbers. With the new system, Moore says he can click on a report template link and the information is immediately available to anyone who needs it, generated from up-to-the-minute data in real time.
The only part of the old collection of products Shive-Hattery retained is its human resources program. Specific information about individuals and their pay grades that may be needed to put together projects and proposals is mapped from the database of one system to the other so updates can be automated, but personal information stays isolated for now, Moore says.
For the project-level view, many systems create a dashboard-like homepage for managers so they immediately can see where they stand in their work when they log on each morning. But they generate a different view from the same database for executives who may need more of a top-level perspective. The systems summarize all operations, but also give the boss the ability to drill deep into any item to examine details.
|SAME PAGE Hardin says unified system aids standardization. (Photo courtesy of Hardin Construction)|
Atlanta-based Hardin Construction Co. LLC decided its best approach to getting a unified, multi-function enterprise system that suited its needs was to collaborate with Toronto-based software developer Computer Methods International Corp. to develop a line of project management, collaboration and enterprise products for the industry.
"Weve gone from a dozen of assemblies of databases for project information to a single bucket for almost all of it," says Danny Bensley, chief information officer. He says one side effect is that project set-ups are being standardized, now that all company offices are working on the same database.
Hardin also is testing a CMiC module that Bensley thinks will save the company a tremendous amount of time when creating proposals and doing resource planning. "You enter an opportunity, a project on the horizon, and...while we gather information, [the system] compares it to similar projects we have done and finds personnel who have similar experiences," says Bensley. "Then we use those projects to help evaluate whether we should pursue this one. You would be amazed at the amount of energy that goes into that process, and the amount of energy that goes into jockeying back and forth."
Enterprise data integration also is turning out to be more than just taking down walls that isolate information as fresh insight emerges on how data can be used to help firms function more intelligently.
Software and Web solution vendors with large, diverse customer bases such as Primavera, Bala Cynwyd, Pa., and Meridian Project Systems, Folsom, Calif., are enhancing their enterprise products, features and integrated data for single point accessibility. Meridians recently released Proliance Web-based enterprise business system, and Primaveras Enterprise, which has seen steady enhancement of its analysis tools, both are targeting the needs of large-scale owners and companies seeking to integrate diverse sets of data with sophisticated software. Other long-time players, such as Dexter + Chaney, Seattle, with its Forefront line of offerings, and Computer Guidance Corp., Scottsdale, Ariz., are broadening their lines of financial management offerings to enhance the enterprise view.
But smaller companies also are trying to improve the enterprise view. Cyntergy Technology, Tulsa, Okla., maker of a product called Thumbprint CPM, has even brought in an artificial intelligence twist. Thumbprint is a unified database, program management system. But instead of working from rigid templates for business activities created during implementation, it learns your business patterns and asks for explanations whenever you make changes.
If, for instance, you start setting up a project in a new state that has different permitting requirements from states where you have set up other similar jobs, the system will query you about the changes. It also will define a new process to apply if you set up more work in that state again.
Thumbprint was developed within a design firm, then split off as a separate operation about two years ago. The main customers today are that same design firm and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which uses it in capital planning and construction at its offices in Bentonville, Ark.
"My department is the first using this software," says Patrick Carroll, Wal-Marts director of realty construction. His group, which is managing more than 600 active construction projects, handles conversion of company properties no longer needed for stores. Other departments, including the new-construction wing, will adopt Thumbprint soon, he says.
Carroll says the system is great for enterprise resource planning as well as program management. It also has eliminated duplicate data entry and put all of the departments project data in one spot, rather than on spreadsheets that had to be constantly updated, he says.
But the learning aspect of the program also is really appealing. "People who touch it, like it," Carroll says. "It learns on the fly as it maintains its database. It has made our process a lot quicker and things are not falling through the cracks because it picks up on it when you leave something out. It will tell you, hold on, why did you do that? It works like its supposed to, and its a neat thing."