Detailed survey reports about the use of information technology in the industry provide insight into the real world experiences and plans of practitioners, so the release of results of an annual survey that has been analyzing it for 16 years is worthy of attention.

ZweigWhite, a Fayetteville, Ark.-based business management resource for designers and planners, recently released its 2014 Information Technology Survey of Architecture, Engineering, Planning & Environmental Consulting Firms. It provides a granular, representative sampling of IT use at such firms, as well as a forecast. The annual reports are used by many firms for benchmarking against firms of similar disciplines, scale and geographic location.

The 242-page report is based on 109 responses to a 120-item, confidential questionnaire distributed in March and April to firm presidents, CEOs, managing partners, IT directors, managers, and staff.  Participating firms ranged in size from 12 to 2,800 employees, although at 65% of respondents, firms with more than 100 employees comprise the largest part of the sample. Margo Suydam, ZweigWhite research director, says the response rate was typical, at about 3%.

Some general highlights drawn from the entire sample set:

The economic backdrop
Either the industry is recovering, or companies that do well are more likely to fill out questionnaires, but 64% of the firms responding said they had growing revenues and staff. Fourteen percent said they were stable, and 18% said they were declining.

Fourteen percent of the firms reported financial results that put them in the “very high profits” category of 15.0% or more over the last three years. Another 22% reported “high profits” of 10.0% to 14.9%, while 38% of firms experienced “average profits” of 5.0% to 9.9%. Sixteen percent of the firms reported low profits or a loss, of 4.9% or less.

IT Spending
Total spending on information technology in 2013 was a median of 3.9% of net service revenue.

Less than half of firms—48%—expect their IT spending to increase in 2014. Of those predicting increased spending for 2014, the anticipated increase is 10%. Firms predicting a decrease anticipate a fall of 15%.

Successes, failures and challenges
In the wins column firm leaders report their biggest information technology successes have been servers, storage, or virtualization (23%) but they most often complain about remote access, networking and communications as their biggest information technology areas of failure (27%).

Those same leaders cite dealing with changing technology as their top IT challenge at 20%, and they most often cite solving data storage or organization issues—53%—as their top information technology priority for 2014.

Overall, firms have a median of 10,000 gigabytes of local shared online disk storage, or 76.2 gigabytes per employee, but none of the survey responders used cloud-based shared online disk storage. “The respondents that we had just didn’t use it,” confirmed Suydam.

Project web sites
The majority of firms, at 61%, have created or set up a project web site, with large firms more likely to have done so than small firms. More than three-quarters of firms—81%—include the cost of creating and maintaining a project web site in the project fee.

For the purposes of the survey, building information modeling was defined as the process of creating a computer model of a building that links a three-dimensional geometric description of the architectural and engineering elements to information about their properties and behavior.

A quarter of firms are using BIM in at least 65% of their work. The top quarter of firms report that at least 42% of their staff are currently using it and more than half of firms—58%—plan to increase their use of BIM in 2014.

Firm leaders report the advantages of using BIM include better coordination, clash detection and error reduction: The down side includes additional time to learn the software and cost.

CAD Software
Nearly all participating firms—94%—use CAD applications. Autodesk AutoCAD is the most popular one, at 80%, although a software popularity contest may not be meaningful across such a variety of disciplines. Autodesk Civil 3D was in use by 63% of the respondents, Bentley MicroStation by 57%; Revit Architecture by 52% and Revit Structure by 41%—but more than three-quarters of firms (80%) did report they are using 3D CAD of some kind.

On average, 94% of the firms’ employees are using PC desktops or laptops. Only 4% use Apple Macintosh machines. Firms typically replace desktops every 48 months and laptops every 36 months.

For new PCs, the median specifications are a 3.1-gigahertz processor, 500.0 gigabytes of hard disk storage, 16.0 gigabytes of RAM, and a 24-inch monitor. Almost all firms (97%) are buying flat panel monitors, while 92% use a dual monitor setup. The majority of firms (95%) opt for a 1000baseT network interface card in new hardware.

When it comes to mobile devices, however, the Apple iPhone still holds more than half the market at 52%, with Android devices at 33% and Blackberry at 6%.  The Windows phone: came in at 4%.

IT Staff
The vast majority of firms (88%) had an IT department or at least one full-time, dedicated IT staffer, and 54% have formal user committees to provide input, most often about goals or strategies (75%), CADD standards (54%), or software purchases (45%).

The full report has many additional breakdowns and insights, most sorted by firm type, size, and region to facilitate comparison. Print or electronic copies are available for $445.