June 1, 2012 by Jacob Stoller
No construction company would invest in a piece of heavy equipment without taking a careful look at its intended workload. When it comes to buying software to run the business, however, many forge ahead with little more than a rough idea of what the technology will actually do.
While business applications have played a major role in running construction firms for at least a generation, the details of how they operate are, unlike many aspects of the construction trade, not visually apparent. Consequently, many firms who meticulously maintain their construction equipment rely on decrepit, outdated IT systems for their most critical business functions.
George Goodall, who has a background in construction and is currently a senior analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research, recalls an example. “The firm had lots of sites in a rural area, with no internet access, and they wanted to implement a program with time cards,” says Goodall. “So they hired a person to sit in a truck all day and collect the cards from the workers, and then drive to a Tim Horton’s where there was Wi-Fi.”
The costs of workarounds are not usually this obvious. If it takes an accounting clerk five days to close off a month, few people may be aware that with the right IT systems in place, this should only take two days.
Software can be a powerful business tool, but if it’s not properly matched to its workload, it leads to high costs, disruption, employee dissatisfaction, errors, or non-compliance with government regulations. Investing in business software requires the same methodical approach you would use for any major piece of equipment. Here are five tips for getting it right the first time:
1. Define your objectives
Software projects take on a life of their own unless objectives are clearly defined. Tighter control of financials, better management of assets, or improved project management are all legitimate goals, but they must be agreed upon at the outset.
Wish lists tend to grow when people learn that there is a software project in
the offing, and the scope can become unmanageably large. Goodall recommends three key objectives for any single project.
2. How is the work currently being done
Business software plays a fundamental role in how people do their jobs, so it’s very important to understand how affected employees are currently doing their work. If a person does estimating, what are the steps of the process? Getting answers may seem tedious, but it is far worse if down the road, the employee is stuck with software that is poorly matched for the job.
3. Decide how a job will be done
An impending business software implementation puts a number of options on the table. Goodall divides these into three categories: apply the software to the existing process; adopt a new process based on the software capabilities; and adopt an “ideal” process based on recommendations from users or consultants. Each has advantages and drawbacks. The existing process could be inefficient and outdated. A process based on readily available software capabilities may require users to jump through hoops. This could also entail high training and change management costs, and possible resistance from employees. Adopting a specially-designed process might involve customization and high
4. Create a spec.
The document doesn’t have to be a formal tender, though, and vendors generally provide better responses to brief, straightforward RFPs. One approach that works well is to openly state your business objectives, and give the vendor the opportunity to come up with a creative solution. The advantage here is that you can then hold them accountable on your terms.
5. Look at the big picture
If all the software brochures look alike, it’s in part because construction software has matured, and products, at least from a features and functions perspective, may be very similar. It’s essential, therefore, to look closely at lifecycle considerations such as installation, user training, ongoing support and upgrade paths.
6. Make the commitment
Software that supports major business functions such as estimating, project management, or accounting has a profound impact on how these tasks are carried out. A mismatch can lead to huge costs down the road, or even worse, significant business risks. While many business people prefer to keep IT issues out of sight and out of mind, investing the time to get it right is really a matter of “pay me now or pay me later.”
Jacob Stoller is a principal of Toronto-based consultancy Stoller Strategies. Send
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