Investments in Cultural Changes

'A lot of large [general contractors] are still running [Microsoft] Excel spreadsheets on their core systems," says Bassem Hamdy, chief marketing officer and vice president at construction software management provider ">CMiC.

"You can't become a big-data master by having some of your systems in [Microsoft] Access and some in Excel," Hamdy says. As good as spreadsheets are, they're not as useful as a SQL-based database system for managing cost codes, change orders and the like.

Also, when Hamdy hears potential customers talking about investing in scanning software to knit together a trove of siloed documents—rather than discussing standardized content management systems that can be incorporated with SQL database tools—he knows they have some work to do on the back end.

"Before you can say 'I'm a big-data organization' and 'I understand it,' you have to have a layer of standardization within your systems," he adds. Think of standardization as if it were a playbook, which indicates how something gets done. A firm's approach may be only one of 15 plays in the playbook. "If you want to win, you need to stick to the playbook," Hamdy says.

When it comes to getting jobs, many general contractors place too much stock in relationships, rather than looking at what data sets can reveal about a team's past performance. "A lot of guys will say 'We know these guys, so we'll get that job.' But owners are getting smarter," Hamdy says, "and GCs better get smarter, too." Without a better view of project data, contractors could fall even further behind in a world that is increasingly managed with these software tools.

Take the predictive analytics that are baked into BIM models—no matter which authoring tool is used, he adds. The one thing that never changes in a model are the coordinates, so users know what the building object looks like in a model state. The same analogy holds for firms' use of data. "You want to be storing data and having it render on a model rather than a model render the data," Hamdy notes. Another example he uses is home movies: A viewer can pull out a VHS version of a movie or download the digital version or stream it or pop in the collectors-edition Blu-Ray DVD.

"No matter which format, it's the same movie," Hamdy says. "The only difference is the way it's being stored. That's where the industry is trying to move toward in BIM and data management—to have it reside intelligently in your database." But it takes a commitment. "A company has to manage the change both at a cultural level and from a technology standpoint," he adds.

Hamdy says the cultural aversion to investing in new data management platforms still runs deep in many construction industry firms. "I think we're the only industry where [this kind of] technology is slowly being acquired," he says.

Project execution should not be managed in multiple systems anymore, even through many are. But there are firms that are investing in single integrated platforms that contain key elements, including predictive project analytics, which are used to improve project performance by examining the successes and failures of past projects. Relationship management software lets companies gain insight about inter-relationships as well as create performance indicators. "Now I can better select my team from looking at past data, from a more quantitative perspective," says Hamdy.

Miles Haladay, product manager for business intelligence for ">Viewpoint Software, is seeing the company's general-contractor clients now interested in improving their ability to leverage their data. They want to be able to do forecasting and benchmark internally with their own systems, he says.

"Five years ago, you didn't have systems that brought it all together. Today, you do," says Haladay. There are a lot of different big-data components, including the unstructured data many firms oversee in their document management systems; the structured side within ERP systems; and a firm's operational data, which sits in the middle and may entail accounting or change management, such as tracking change orders. "If they can leverage it off a standard platform, they can start building better internal metrics for delivering projects on time and under budget by checking progress along the way," he says.

One customer told him, "If I could use data visualization to tell the foreman on a job at the end of every day whether he did a good job or a bad job, that's an indicator he can use to figure out how to improve his productivity."

Haladay says, "What's cool is that you can use apps built on scalable infrastructure [such as an SQL database] where you can have accounting, project management, job costs and payroll—all your internal components—on one system."

Now a firm can push that data to an iPad and get real-time information from the field, then push the data back to its cloud-based system, which will show the productivity for that day. A really good app is browser-based, making device operating systems irrelevant. The user is able to see data visualizations—such as green or red flags that note how the work is progressing. "That's where the rubber meets the road with big data and business intelligence," Haladay says.