The concrete industry is evolving faster today than ever before with a myriad of challenges. Customers' expectations and current market conditions are placing higher demands on the concrete contractor as they balance a changing workforce, more restrictive building codes, and an industry that is extremely competitive. As concrete contractors embrace these new challenges, the demand for technology has increased tremendously. We have all said, “Time is money.” Executives need financials faster, management wants the job costs now, and field supervisors need to know the performance of their crews, subcontractors, and sometimes even their suppliers to make daily decisions that sometime have a long-term impact. There comes a time when it is imperative for every concrete contractor to either implement new technology or upgrade their current systems. This could include new or additional software programs, a variety of hardware devices, and many wireless applications that are currently available.
Ask yourself some of the following questions as you begin to integrate and improve the technology for your next transition.
- What are my needs and how do I identify which information technology (IT) solution is best suited for my business?
- When is a good time for the company to switch or integrate programs?
- How will I get my investment monies and time back (ROI)?
These questions and many more are being asked every day by contractors in all markets and they need to be answered in some form or another before moving forward with your plan.
Software companies are looking for ways to help meet the growing demands of trade contractors across the country, but it is not an easy task. Consider the different requirements that exist between a commercial, industrial, or residential concrete contractor. This, combined with regional- and weather-related obstacles, creates a broad diversity of challenges for IT to resolve, along with the desire to market and sell products and services to trades other than concrete. There also is a general lack of understanding between contractors and the IT industry, which often leads to miscommunication and frustration as new IT projects are rolled out. Contractors across the country say that their “computer person” just seems to talk a different language and does not understand construction. So as the industry goes wireless and works in real time, where and how do we begin?
Assessing your needs
First identify your needs and then prioritize them in order of importance so those that would have the greatest impact on your bottom line are considered first. Keep in mind that as you grow your technology applications, you want programs that can “talk” to each other—in other words, ones that can share data efficiently. Here are some areas that software applications are improving the way contractors are doing business: estimating, accounting, scheduling, human resources, fleet/equipment, material control, customer service, risk management, sales/marketing, and time/ attendance, to name a few. You also should designate a point person to be the liaison between your organization and the IT resource, or even hire a consultant if your IT project is large enough to justify the costs. As you plan this project, approach it by starting with the areas that are most critical for your team's success. To quote organizational expert and author Stephen R. Covey, “Begin with the end in mind.” Determine the areas that will have the greatest impact with your team, customers, and major stakeholders, and commit the flow of data and all forms of reports you need or want to paper. This will assist the IT team to visualize the data and help them understand your needs. Additionally, you will need to identify who, where, and when this data will be inputted and what hardware or educational requirements are necessary for a successful project.
Building the budget and the estimating costs should be prepared by your IT solutions provider as you assess the benefits. This means the costs of the software, as well as the hardware necessary to run the new applications. Other hidden costs that will be harder to quantify will be the costs of educating and training your team to correctly run the program as it was designed. You also must figure the time it will take to build any tables or assemblies that may be required for proper implementation. You will experience some of these same types of costs if you are integrating new software with existing programs you currently have in place. Your return for this investment will be everything from meeting the demands of a general contractor, measurement reports to use as tools for improvement, faster and more accurate reporting while eliminating redundant inputting, and more. Some programs literally can change the way you look and manage your business.
The timing of implementing new software or hardware solutions will vary greatly depending on the unique business environment your market is experiencing. Furthermore, the computer knowledge of your workforce, size of the project or multiple applications, the specific needs you currently have, and many more considerations may go into the decision-making process before you know when the time is right.
There are many programs out there and just as each contractor has his niche, so do the software companies. It will be important to clearly define your needs and communicate those to the different IT resources you may be considering. When your organization is successfully contracted to build a large or important concrete job, there is a great probability you will consider multiple suppliers for the job and sometimes use more than one. In selecting your ready-mix producer, you will take into consideration many things such as the cost per yard, quality of the product, ability to service the job, durability, etc.
Just as you take into many factors before selecting a concrete supplier, you should do the same for your IT resource. Understand what the product is going to provide you, the service or software license agreement states, and the costs associated with the purchase, upgrade, integration, or any custom programming required to meet your specific needs.
Be sure to have that one point of contact when you have identified your needs, selected your IT resource, and determined all your costs. It also is important that your team fully understands what your expectations are in advance. Make sure to confirm that all team members and departments are dedicated to the success of the program. It is common that if expectations are not fully defined, you may not have a committed team and end up with a project that is underused, or worse yet, abandoned completely.
Determine a plan for when the best time would be to implement an IT project based upon different factors. You may not want to implement software or hardware changes in the middle of a large job or perhaps you want to wait until work is not as busy, especially when technology is expanded to the field employees for the first time. Depending on your workforce, you will need to keep the amount of detail and data input to a minimum until everyone is fully educated on the benefits and they become more comfortable with the use of computers. This is where that old saying, “garbage in, garbage out” comes into play. If you require too much detail from field employees, you may see that the data is not accurate. Therefore, all the reporting tools management uses to make decisions may be wrong. As you use this new tool, be sure to test the data and the reports for accuracy when the application is first rolled out to ensure that errors are caught early. It is important to identify the exact cause of these errors as they could be anything from user input to an interface that is not working as it was intended.
When you desire to collect field data, there are many different devices that capture this information. Make the time investment to discuss with your provider what would work best for your organization and work with currently used office applications. For example, if the information you need collected is coming from the field, do you want to use a PDA, scanner, phone, or laptop? These different hardware devices serve different purposes and can impact the effectiveness of many software applications. Other considerations include the timing of the inputted data and if you need an application running in real time or one that only needs updated data when the user synchronizes.
Plan for securing your data—whether it is from internal or external concerns. There are ways to protect the information as simple as user passwords and off-the-shelf firewalls to systems as complex as biometrics and software with code that encrypts the important and vital information. Another consideration for protecting the data is with backup programs and systems that can be stored electronically through a Web service to hard copies that should be stored offsite. Depending on the amount of data, almost any backup system will work; just ensure that the backup is working by testing the system on a consistent basis. Many times the first time the backup is tested is when a crash occurs and by then it could be too late and disastrous to do anything about it.
I would challenge anyone who has not reviewed their IT systems in the last year to do so. Look at the entire process as someone from outside your organization would or as an auditor looking for flaws. All in all, it has been my experience that technology when planned correctly, properly purchased, and implemented with a purpose will give management the data they need to make better decisions and accounting will produce faster, accurate numbers for monthly financials and analysis. In addition, operations will have the tools to be more effective with their resources, fleet, and equipment, thus working more efficiently on the job.
— Gary Burleson, business relations, Ueven, Glendale, Ariz.
To help you weed through some of the options, here are a few Concrete Construction articles that highlight various technologies for the concrete contractor.
- For information on how to select software that best works for you, read “Selecting Construction Software,” by Don Fornes.
- Learn how to apply 3-D laser technology to your jobsite with Joe Nasvik's “3-D Laser Scanning.”
- Tracking time sheets is a critical part of your business. Check out a few tracking options with “Jobsite Digital Time Clocks.”