CXO

How small construction businesses are embracing digital transformation and boosting productivity

Construction is often thought of as a non-technical field, yet increasingly, small business owners are embracing software solutions to improve project outcomes and work-life balance.

A recent report on KPMG's 2016 Global Construction Survey pointed out two pitfalls within the construction industry that impact project success rates:

  1. The industry is yet to fully embrace technology. Despite a rise in project complexity and associated risks, a mere 8% of respondents can be categorized as 'cutting-edge visionaries.' And just over 20% say they're aggressively disrupting their business models.
  2. Data volume is rising exponentially. However, many are struggling to make sense of information. They may have an impressive range of platforms and tools, but most respondents feel they lack the resources and skills to provide useful insights. And almost three quarters don't use advanced data analytics for project-related estimation and performance monitoring.

"Technology plays an integral part in helping the industry realize these goals by enabling enhanced design, planning, and construction. When applied effectively, technology can significantly boost a sector that for many years failed to improve productivity," said the report's authors.

Having immediate access to the necessary project information hasn't always been a possibility. Business owners and project managers in construction trades have had to rely to a great extent on calls to and from office staff to get the information they need, often with significant delays — not at all ideal nor reliable when critical decisions have to be made in the moment.

As a rule, trades (a term people working in construction-related fields use to refer to themselves) also lack sufficient visibility into project and company performance across their business, and might not have accurate materials and job tracking, or where their profit is coming from, said Ben Russell, the owner of Ben Russell Electrical. Russell pointed out that most construction companies aren't big multi-location, multi-staffed businesses. They're run by smaller teams, often by one individual or founder aimed at creating a better life for their family. "Often a husband-and-wife team work together in the business, and they hate the fact that the admin work they do in the evenings takes away from time with their family," he said.

SEE: Digital transformation: A CXO's guide (TechRepublic)

Russell explained that when trades are out on site all day, they often struggle to fit in quoting and invoicing on the evenings or weekends: "If you've ever been on site with a trade, you might see them scribbling notes into an exercise book, or on the back of receipts." This can lead to losing potential business, or missing costs, which can have a serious impact on the bottom line. "If I'd had 20 different jobs going on, that's 20 different spreadsheets I'd be using to keep track of it all," said Russell.

How has technology helped trades save time and money and improve project success rates?

When David McCarthy started his plumbing business three years ago to achieve a better work/life balance, he had no idea that disorganisation and a lack of visibility would quash that dream.

"We didn't know if we were making or losing money until we went to see the tax-man at the end of the year," said McCarthy. Tradify, a job management software company for trades, helped McCarthy discover that he and his employees weren't capturing all billable hours they worked in a day. Now he can check profit and loss on each job with just a couple of taps. McCarthy finally has the information he needs to help his business to be able to grow.

His company is growing rapidly, with eleven employees, and $500,000 worth of work scheduled over the next six months. He attributes this growth to the visibility Tradify gives him and the administrative time it saves. "For the first time now, we're starting to achieve that work-life balance," he said.

What's the best way for trades to get on board with PM software?

Gerald J. Leonard, of Principles of Execution, LLC, offered the following tips on implementing project management software:

  • Identify all of the projects in your environment: active, proposed, on hold and completed.
  • Implement a technical solution with a minimum viable configuration (just the basic features) so that all projects are in a single location.
  • Identify project attributes that will allow you to track projects and add value to your project knowledge base.

SEE: IT leader's guide to achieving digital transformation (Tech Pro Research)

My advice?

  1. Know your weaknesses. Get a handle on where you spend too much time on day-to-day administrative activities like project time and expense billing, scheduling, emailing, etc.
  2. Figure out how much this is costing you and your company financially, both in lost time and opportunity.
  3. Now that you are armed with information, seek job and project management solutions that will help you get the at-a-glance, real-time insights into your business performance you need to get control.
  4. Talk with vendors about your needs and ask them to demonstrate how they would help you resolve issues so that you can focus your time where it matters most to you.
  5. Work with the vendor of your choice to implement the solution and onboard your business. Make sure to sufficiently test any solution first.
  6. Don't just stop there. Share your experiences — good and bad, with the solution provider. This will help them improve their products and services, and in turn, it will help you if they know what works well and what isn't working.

The construction industry is moving at a rapid pace, while projects are escalating in complexity, making it necessary for trades to streamline processes, improve collaboration, stay on top of resources and scheduling, and more closely monitor and measure progress in real time. There are numerous gains for trades that choose to leverage technology to streamline their workload.

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About Moira Alexander

Moira Alexander is the author of "LEAD or LAG: Linking Strategic Project Management & Thought Leadership" and Founder & President of Lead-Her-Ship Group. She's also a project management and IT freelance columnist for various publications, and a contr...

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