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Innovation: The Case For Interoperability

No one can deny the complexity of construction. There are a million moving parts, a variety of stakeholders, and a number of vital details that need to be accurately tracked and managed–from material sourcing to labor availability to controlling costs–in order for projects and the business to be kept on track.

While many contractors have adopted various forms of technology to help manage and streamline project delivery, most of the software systems don’t automatically share data with one another. Instead, teams typically have to maintain manual steps in their workflow to import and export data across systems, or they simply use some systems for certain tasks and other systems for other functions, never integrating the data because it’s simply too much work.

This is particularly burdensome on large projects when one of the stakeholders insists on working within their software system of choice, leading to different systems that each tell a different story about where a project or the business stands in real time, leading to duplicative work, diminished productivity, and profit fade.

Interoperability gives contractors the ability to fix this by automating the flow of data between different systems without effort from the end user so that it’s consistent and all stakeholders can work off of the same information in real time regardless of how (or where) it’s entered. It also allows for project governance to be centralized and coordinated to the preference of the controlling stakeholder, often the general contractor or project owner.

Data integration is an important means to achieve interoperability by programmatically connecting data together, at both the project level (between project stakeholders) and the company level (between internal systems).

Contractor Hensel Phelps understands the challenges and opportunities inherent to interoperability, having tackled it both internally and externally in recent years, including working with Trimble. The company has learned a lot from their experience, which could be helpful to other contractors who are just starting their interoperability journeys and are interested in understanding the different paths that can be taken, along with their associated benefits.

An Internal Push to Synchronize and Optimize Data

Hensel Phelps didn’t have a software development team until about five years ago. Before that, there were no in-house capabilities, which is pretty common as most general and trade contractors don’t have in-house software teams. Instead, they usually work with third-party consultants who integrate their data for them.

This can be a difficult model to use because once you build a custom integration, you’re stuck maintaining it. Consultant staffers can easily come and go so the person who originally helped you may no longer work there, leaving you to undergo a new discovery journey, which can be expensive and time-consuming.

At the time Hensel Phelps was first looking at the issue of interoperability, their primary ERP–Viewpoint Vista–was on-premise, and their project management system–ProjectSight–was in the cloud. They didn’t automatically connect, as the cloud was  still just a glimmer in people’s eyes and not actively used by most contractors.

Hensel Phelps was struggling with the fact that multiple stakeholders were having to enter details twice–once in Vista and once in ProjectSight–which was time consuming and prone to human error. They wanted to minimize the number of times that people had to interact with the same piece of data, while also enabling people to only have to use their system of choice. For field staff, this was ProjectSight. For office personnel, this was Vista.

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“An analogy that I’ve held onto for a very long time is that superintendents and foremans are always trying to minimize the number of times that a craft has to pick up a tool or material and move it to the spot where it needs to be installed,” said Jeremy Sibert, project manager at Hensel Phelps. “The more times you touch that tool or material, the less productive you are. You can view data in the same way. The more times our project and administrative staff have to touch a piece of data, the more productivity that’s lost.”

Hensel Phelps embarked on integrating data for the original budget, contract invoicing, owner payment applications, and change orders since that data represented key financial transactions that both project staff and office staff had to actively input and manage to keep projects on track.

“Vista was always accurate with respect to job costs to-date, money that’s gone out or money that’s received, but when subcontractor change orders were received, budgets weren’t always getting adjusted in ProjectSight, which was problematic,” said Sibert. “So it became important for us to integrate those areas to ensure the accuracy of our data and to help enhance employee efficiency and employee satisfaction.”

Since the internal integration, project staff rarely have to access Vista and back office staff rarely have to use ProjectSight, which saves time and the headaches of trying to operate two systems at once. “It’s not about us trying to limit their access, but if they don’t need to use another tool to see the same data, that’s time and money saved for both groups,” said Sibert.

Data integration also lessened the amount of training and adoption that had to take place because when employees use the same application everyday, it becomes part of their muscle memory. They can use it almost without having to think about it.

“I don’t use Viewpoint Vista often enough so that when I do, I have to pull out the manual and walk through it step-by-step because I don’t have all the actions memorized,” said Sibert. “Whereas my accounting team never looks at the Vista manual because they use it everyday. This not only eliminates the double handling of data, but it also lessens having to keep up the knowledge of working in two different systems.”

Data integration is also helpful for subcontractors, owners and design teams who may only know how to work in one software system. This is particularly acute with RFIs, which are a big pain point for project teams. “Before, office staff or project engineers would spend their time copying and pasting from one system to the next,” said Sibert. “Now on integrated projects, data passes automatically between systems without double entry, enabling everyone to be on the same page from day one.”

Another benefit of data integration is record retention. Each stakeholder has their own record system that they use to track project information and outcomes, which is important for historical context and for legal reasons. When project teams use other systems, there can be gaps in information collected or information may only go into one system and not another.

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“At the end of the day, somebody has to scrape all information back so that project records are complete, and we can close up the job,” said Sibert. “With data integration, each stakeholder can operate within its own system, with all project information automatically synchronized and records easily generated on demand.”

Data Integration Goes Mainstream Thanks to Vendor Openness

Since Hensel Phelps first integrated its own data, perceptions across the construction landscape have dramatically changed, with many companies, including Trimble, understanding the customer and industry benefits that come with having an open API framework.

Instead of making contractors manage integrations themselves, many software companies are connecting the data between their own solutions and other systems because they understand the value it provides to their customers. “The fact that there are vendors that are publishing industry standard open API frameworks is a huge help,” said Sibert. “It takes a lot of work off of our internal teams and makes the data synchronization process much easier and smoother.”

In fact, the Vista to ProjectSight integration that Hensel Phelps did internally several years ago is now offered as an automatic integration by Trimble so that internal teams don’t have to manually configure it themselves. It follows on the heels of the Viewpoint Spectrum to ProjectSight integration, allowing contractors to easily connect their ERPs to their project management systems, which is one of the most common requests.

In addition to developing individual integrations, some vendors are also creating a marketplace of integrations that can be used by the contractor’s software teams. “You can get an API key from the administration side of the product, and the software team can follow the instructions, copy and paste the key and be done,” said Sibert. “We can start a job today and have this stuff up and running immediately instead of having to wait six months for a consultant to build it out.”

The speed-to-market element is essential as contractors are expected to be nimble and fast, and they often have no time to waste between a project being awarded and a project starting. And because each project differs from one another, the less contractors need to re-think how to connect their data, the better.

“The key for integration marketplaces to work is for the vendors to be thoughtful and allow for the right amount of flexibility and configuration,” said Sibert. “Integrations shouldn’t require excessive consulting, and it should be done in days, not weeks or months because that’s weeks or months too late. At that point, we’re already creating data, we’re already moving on the project and the value proposition starts to drop quickly. Very, very quickly.”

Tom Stemm is Vice President and Category GM of Construction Integrations at Trimble, where he helps Trimble and the larger construction ecosystem build connections between commonly used applications and data sources.

Source: csengineermag

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