Ahead of the curve
February 20, 2018 by Jacob Stoller
National Research Council Canada (NRC) released a paper in 2008 titled Systems Integration and Collaboration in Construction: A Review. Its authors, Weiming Shen and colleagues, concluded “systems integration and collaboration are believed to be the key enabling technologies to help the construction industry to improve productivity and efficiency.”
That statement is even truer today in an IT environment where collaboration is becoming the norm. “The field keeps moving in terms of the types of software you use, and the goal post keeps moving in terms of how much you need to connect in to make it work,” says Mike O’Neil, principal analyst of Toronto-based technology research firm InsightaaS.
Contractors in particular must become adept integrators as they pull together multidisciplinary teams, multi-phase projects, contracted and salaried employees, equipment, materials, and an extensive portfolio of business partnerships. It should be no surprise that consolidating information from various aspects of the business is a mission critical function.
Yet the technology that allows applications to share information and functionality is, for the most part, a mystery to most business owners. “That tier that holds application systems together is one of the most misunderstood aspects of IT,” says Steven Wilson, senior analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group.
WHAT YOU KNOW AND WHO YOU KNOW
Perhaps the most critical reason for exchanging information between apps is that it gives decision-makers visibility into the many resources that are tied to a particular activity. As O’Neil points out, that picture is far from clear for most contractors.
“Right now, you have a rough idea where your trucks are, what’s on them, where your people are, and what they’re doing,” says O’Neil, “but if you get into a market where any one company knows all of that stuff a lot better than you do, then their margins will be such that they’ll push you out of business.”
The problem is that critical information about trucks, personnel, and materials might be locked up in what IT people call “islands of information,” that is, sets of data that can only be retrieved by opening one particular app. So while a critical piece of information may be present in the organization, it may not be in front of the decision maker at the right moment.
“If you can’t send a piece of equipment to a jobsite because it needs maintenance, that might leave a lot of people standing around, and cost you a fortune,” says Wilson. “We need logistical management and clear visibility on equipment to prevent that.” Establishing that visibility could mean, for example, that the scheduling function has access to equipment maintenance information, automatically raising a red flag if maintenance is overdue.
The other driver for interoperability is the alleviation of manual processes, such as printing a report from one app and then keying the information into another. “Many contractors, even large ones, still use a lot of paper,” says Charles Cooper, president of Huntsville, Ont.-based excavation company Muskoka Hydrovac, “so they have a lot of people in back rooms just doing data-entry paperwork. This is not only time-consuming, but that’s where you get lots of your errors in the business.”
Systems integration and collaboration are believed to be the key enabling technologies to help the construction industry to improve productivity and efficiency.
CHALLENGES OF INTEGRATION
Establishing and maintaining interoperability within an IT environment poses four main business challenges:
The wide range of software functions in a construction environment – estimating, scheduling, project management, customer management, job costing, accounting – means there are many potential links to consider, and these are likely to be different for every company.
The ability of a particular software package to share information in an IT environment typically depends on vendor-supplied Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), which make components of the software available to other programs. APIs are not always adequate for a contractor’s requirements.
Integration is fragile in that it can break down when a component in the network, for example, an operating system, changes and a particular piece of software hasn’t been updated to the latest version, or if the software vendor hasn’t issued an update.
Applications keep changing, so it’s hard to know where interoperability will be needed in the future. “Whatever it is that you think you need in construction today, you probably are going to end up adding stuff pretty rapidly to that over the course of five or six years,” says O’Neil.
What’s needed is an ongoing strategy for ensuring the interoperability challenge remains at the forefront whenever IT priorities are being discussed.
MAKING INTEROPERABILITY PART OF THE CONVERSATION
As a first step, Ken Eygenraam, solution designer for Toronto-based Quartet Service Inc., recommends doing what he calls a discovery. “One of the first check points is taking stock of what’s there, and that goes down to versions and everything, because sometimes what you want to implement will not co-exist with what’s already there,” he explains.
Many contractors, Eygenraam points out, subscribe to the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” rule and use dated apps because they have worked well in the past. This can be a hindrance when trying to create an interoperable environment. It’s also important to carefully assess new apps to ensure they won’t become dinosaurs.
“Before you invest in an application, find out the vendor’s policy for updates,” says Eygenraam. “I’d rather buy an application where I have to pay an annual support fee and get new versions from time to time, rather than risk getting stuck with something that needs to be locked down and where nothing can be changed.” Cloud software vendors tend to issue updates more frequently than non-cloud vendors.
It’s also necessary to look at the breadth of the vendor’s API, as well as its policy for maintaining it. Some organizations do an excellent job at this, with Google being a prime example. “Google provides APIs for all their apps, and this is the main reason why Google Maps has been so successful,” says Cooper. “Pretty much anybody can connect with it.”
Some vendors, particularly small ones of the niche variety, pay insufficient attention to APIs. Unfortunately, Cooper notes, this can be a spoiler for some of the most innovative new apps. “Not only do they sometimes not have APIs, but a lot of the APIs, when they do have them, are really closed world. They haven’t really thought out the features they want to share with another app. They don’t see it is bi-directional – what information do you want to put into another app, and how do you extract it? That’s a problem.”
Another issue that comes up is integrated suites. While these can make life easier in many respects, there’s a danger of getting locked into an inflexible environment. “I’m typically not a fan of monolithic platforms, Because what happens is you never know how they integrate those systems,” says Wilson. He notes, however, that the approach can work in some situations if the suite has an integration layer for bringing in modules from other vendors.
O’Neil believes a more modular approach is the way of the future. “We’re moving from customize to configure,” he says. “The notion of buying a package and then customizing it to meet your needs is something people don’t do anymore. They buy the components to address their business needs, and then configure those together via APIs. This is a great and flexible approach if you can work with people who can plug those APIs together for you.”
If integration is the strategy, flexibility is the key. “You don’t want your integration to be like a brick wall, but more like Lego blocks,” says Wilson. “This allows you to achieve your initial goals while keeping the design open for future interoperability – changes, expansions, or whatever – without having to rip things apart more than you would care to.”
“For most construction companies, your best bet is to find consultants you can work well with, and get them to solve your problems one at a time,” adds Cooper. “Don’t boil the ocean.”
Although this may be unfamiliar turf, contractors shouldn’t be intimidated. “Don’t be scared of technology,” says Cooper. “It is your friend, and it will make you more efficient, and make your life easier.”