By Craig Oppermann, CIO, Flatiron Construction
Cloud computing is transforming the construction sector, how have you embraced it?
It’s easy for our customers and the public to see our work because there is visible activity: heavy equipment moving, workers onsite, concrete being poured, or a road taking shape. It’s a totally different experience for our IT customers. Most of our work is done behind the scenes: in server rooms, on servers, databases. I equate the work of an IT department to how we, as consumers, receive electricity. We walk in a room, flip a switch, and expect the light to turn on. We don’t really consider how the power reached the switch or what it takes to make the light work; we just expect it to work. Our customers have the same expectation. They just want their system to work. They want their computer to turn on, their email to deliver, the phone system to connect their call, and the software to perform as designed. But things are changing.
For many years, IT has been viewed as a cost of doing business rather than a trusted partner capable of delivering greater flexibility, increased collaboration, efficiency, cost savings and perhaps most importantly, secure systems. But as technology has evolved and solutions have become more innovative, we, in turn, need to increase awareness and transparency across the business. We need to step out of the server room and into the board room to better define and demonstrate the critical role we play in helping the business achieve its goals. This is particularly necessary in the construction industry — where IT has a tendency to be in the backseat, when in fact it is often providing and supporting the software that is driving the business across multiple locations.
As an industry that relies heavily on data and programs to conduct our daily work of designing, engineering, building, and managing complex projects, it is equally important that we maintain the integrity of our systems. And, that we continue to identify new and innovative solutions for our projects and partners. For example, our legacy enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems were on hardware that needed to be refreshed. We were spending a lot of money and time on “behind the scenes” tasks, particularly monitoring and patching, activities where our customers didn’t see the value. This prompted us to investigate the possibility of integrating cloud computing — purely for cost savings. We conducted an ROI study of cloud-based solutions versus keeping the environment in-house, we presented the results to leadership and collectively agreed that it was time to migrate to a cloud-based solution.
Not only did we reduce hard costs by 35 percent we also decreased the amount of soft costs spent on those “behind the scenes” tasks. We increased efficiency by freeing up our limited IT staff to work directly with users on a myriad tasks and issues. We demystified and simplified the accounting associated IT and running our ERP environment, which now allows the business to better account for costs. The transparency we achieved through these efforts enabled the team to build better relationships with our colleagues. It allowed us able to pull back the curtain and reveal our department’s tight integration with the business. And, as a result, we gained a higher degree of understanding and trust across the business.
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The next major system that IT targeted was document management solutions for our project sites. We were managing multiple databases across North America. The team consistently struggled to keep up with patching, managing security, and resolving issues. At times, we felt like we were just keeping the lights on. Again, we established a cross-functional team and evaluated several internally hosted and cloud-based solutions and had several vendors demo their solutions. While cost is always a dominating factor, the strategic roadmap for the products and solutions and how vendors aligned with our future and company vision was huge for us. Within the next year or so, we knew the business would need additional functionality from these solutions. Therefore, we needed to pick a partner with both the vision and expertise required to execute the plan.
In the end, we selected a cloud-solutions provider that not only met our requirements, but one that offered mobile device functionality, focused on investing in innovative solutions, and one that could drastically simplified our IT landscape. With the legacy system, it would often take weeks to procure hardware and execute an extensive configuration to get a site up and running. With this streamlined solution, we implemented a straightforward chargeback system that now allows us to understand how each area of the business utilizes IT products and services. This not only helps us reduce IT cost, but now we can get project sites up and running in a couple days.
With your rich experience of managing IT organization and steering technology for your enterprise, can you please share some of the unique lessons learned and your advice for fellow CIOs.
A key factor contributing to our success is how we’ve learned to leverage our large-scale infrastructure project planning knowledge as we execute IT projects. Ten years ago, we would lay out a three-year roadmap with specifics on what we wanted to accomplish each year. Because of numerous changes, we might only accomplish half of that roadmap, if we were lucky. Now we apply the same project planning methodology to how we plan for our future IT needs and execute that plan one-step at a time – taking a more phased approach.
Planning starts with a focus on tactical one-year plan. We identify a number of projects ranging from new systems to integrating new SaaS applications, upgrades, patches, or compliance documentation enhancements. We then identify key objectives specific to each. The key is that each is measurable and based on realistic deadlines. Throughout the year, we review our progress, identify what is working and what is not and make adjustments as needed. Overall, this approach has increased the accountability and effectiveness of the team allowing us to get more work done than we have in the past.
If your company still relies on outdated systems running across multiple platforms and locations, it might be time to take a hard look at cloud computing
What is the biggest challenge facing the construction industry?
One of the biggest items facing the construction industry — and really all industries for that matter — is security. The number of cyber-attacks is increasing and taking on many different forms, putting us all on guard. Businesses should focus on tightening up controls and providing user access only to what is critically necessary. This will force change on some users, however, it’s necessary to protect the company and its people. IT departments should also collaborate with internal departments like human resources and legal to identify and implement necessary changes on a regular basis.
To that end, I can’t say enough about the importance of planning, collaboration and transparency. A well-executed plan, based on solid data and measurable results, allowed our IT team to step out of the shadows and sit alongside our business leaders as trusted advisors that contribute in meaningful ways to our company’s success.
If your company still relies on outdated systems running across multiple platforms and locations, it might be time to take a hard look at cloud computing as way of increasing team efficiency and becoming a visible value add to the business. I’m certainly glad we did.