September 1, 2014 by JACOB STOLLER
As the IT world transitions from distributed contributing to internet-based systems, getting the right IT people has gotten more critical, and more difficult.
Recently, a construction firm in Northern Canada devised an iconically Canadian connectivity solution for their cloud-based time card application. According to George Goodall, senior analyst for London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research, all the data was consolidated onto a laptop, then once a week somebody would drive south for an hour or two to the nearest Tim Horton’s and use the wifi there to upload the data into the cloud.
Many construction firms are caught between two realities: the world of local computing, where data resides on servers and personal computers, and the online world, where data is collected and managed by cloud-based hosts and application providers. As firms struggle with the transition, workarounds such as multiple cloud accounts, email driver workflows and isolated standalone applications are creating data environments that are cumbersome and risky.
The emergence of the cloud as the platform of choice for construction apps is changing how IT is delivered and used. The trend has brought enterprise-level computing power to the industry, making it possible for a contractor to acquire decision support and data management capabilities that only recently would have been found in a large corporation.
“IT is becoming a differentiator, especially for a general contractor,” says Joe Jagodich, CIO of Toronto-based construction firm EllisDon. “IT is relied on more heavily for decision support.”
While consumer apps like Facebook have made it easy for individuals to store and manage data on the cloud, the task is far more difficult for a corporation.
“If that data isn’t being managed properly, either from a security or a data architecture perspective, you are really putting the company at risk,” says Jagodich. Typical warning signs might be the inability to get timely information to make a critical business decision, or to respond to a litigation request.
NEW SKILL SETS
The trend calls for a very different set of skills in IT departments. “A lot of people have not evolved from the distributed computing world,” says Jagodich. “That’s not IT anymore. Today, distributed computing is a commodity.”
IT needs to become more than just a provider of support services. “Sometimes IT has to be proactive instead of waiting for a services request,” says Goodall. “It becomes a question of how IT works with the business to fix things and solve problems. And that can require a different kind of background, and a different skill set.”
As Jagodich puts it, construction firms need to find people who will “listen to the needs of the business and then apply the solutions that are out there.”
This is easier said than done, says Michael O’Neil, principal analyst of Toronto-based research firm Insightsaas.com, who notes many industries find it difficult to recruit people with the right combination of skills. “There’s a pretty well recognized shortage these days of what are referred to as “double deep” employees—people who understand the business they are in as well as the technology.”
Understanding the construction business is a tall order. Construction firms have to manage multiple contracts, equipment leases, complex schedules, as well as mobile access and compliance with a variety of regulations.
Construction is so diverse that there are few ready-made solutions. “To do IT in construction, people have to be integrators,” says Jagodich. “There are so many different elements, platforms and devices. People who don’t understand how you integrate one to another are not of much use.”
Jagodich believes engineering grads are best suited to this kind of role. “These folks can listen to business users and come up with solutions. Electrical engineers have the baseline discipline to see the network right from installation to execution.”
As the transition to cloud computing continues, construction firms will have less need for traditional IT people who configure and support servers and local networks, and more need for business analysts who help the company make the right choices in a complex environment. The ultimate IT person will need the talent and predisposition to glean useful business information out of the enormous stores of data.
“It’s rare that you need better data. You need better questions,” says Goodall.