Technology adoption in the construction industry is growing, especially with field management software and tablet computers that are helping firms control costs and manage risk on job sites.

But for some firms, technology pain points can turn into sunk costs with no demonstrable return on investment, construction executives agreed during a conference sponsored by field management software firm Vela Systems. How to manage ROI in what can be a thicket of adoption complexity such as user training, tech support, and data security?

“You have to communicate your overall plan and goals to everyone, and you have to win over every generation in your firm—the Baby Boomers and the “Tweeters,” said Bill Brennan, a chief operating officer of Skanska USA.

“I finished engineering school [using] a slide rule,” Brennan told other construction executives gathered at Boston's Omni Parker hotel for the two-day customer user group event. “You have people like me [in every firm] and people like my tech-savvy son” who expect to use social media such as Twitter and Facebook on the job, and field management software and tablets on a project site instead of a pen and paper.

Brennan urged construction executives to promote a culture of innovation in their firms across every level as part of their approach to leading new technology adoption such as tablets.

Realize, he added, that finding agreement on which metrics to use in order to calculate return on these investments will account for a bulk of senior management’s time before it writes a check. For example, if Skanska is deciding whether to spend $200,000 or $400,000 on technology, some of the executive committee's most time-consuming meetings will work through how it intends to measure its return on investment. "It's very subjective," he added.

"Our motivation is that we’re standardizing on field management [technology] as much as we can."

Frank Longo, senior project manager for Skanska, told the group that use of tablets such as iPads on some job sites has helped the firm reduce its hours spent on punchlisting hours and field reports on some jobs from 240 to about 80. It's not so much the walking around the job that it helps reduce, he added. The tablets and software in the field streamline the information out to all the stakeholders on the project that the tablets in the field help reduce.

Jason Bentley, director of information systems at Balfour Beatty Construction, told the audience that super human technology skills are not necessary in some technology adoptions. The iPad has just proved to be an easy tool for people to use, compared to other tablets that the firm has been piloting.

Bentley helped run pilot projects testing Vela Systems software  on iPads for about two years to study use cases and ROI. The companies just announced that Balfour Beatty Construction is now implementing a company-wide, phased rollout of Vela's field management software on iPads for use in on job sites.

Skanska has been piloting the use of iPads on job sites with Vela Systems software, Brennan said, and is moving toward standardizing across its divisions. It's working, he added, because a younger generation of users are helping older construction workers embrace the technology and the software.

"Form super user groups" in your firms to help promote familiarity with the technology, Brennan added. "The peer group influence is critical."