Investing in technology and software is a major commitment for your built environment design business. With a crowded business technology landscape for the architecture, engineering and construction design industry, with software ‘solutions’ for almost any business problem you can imagine, it’s a commitment that needs careful consideration for the long term strategic benefits of your business, employees and partners.
Technology and collaboration are key drivers of change in the global architecture, engineering and construction design industry. Technology is a business enabler — the key is to understand what you’re trying to enable. The right technology mix will help your business be more effective and efficient, empower and engage your team, and help you and your business be more competitive.
In making strategic decisions about your business technology, the first question to ask is what problem do you need to solve (i.e. what are you trying to enable)? Once you know this, you can identify which software solutions are applicable to your needs, whether your staff will use them, and look at the return on investment you want.
Goals versus operations
Take a closer look at how you complete various tasks and create a picture of the workflows involved. This simple process makes it easier to assign the relevant tools to complete the various tasks.
We all use business systems in some shape or form. These can be as simple as a filing system, an Excel spreadsheet, an accounting software package, a CRM system, or a practice management package.
As a provider of cloud project management software to the architecture, engineering and construction design industry — and only that industry — we see every approach to business systems possible (and sometimes those testing the boundaries of impossible). What amazes us is the number of legacy systems that still exist because they’ve ‘always worked’. These systems are often built upon, or complemented by, other solutions to address a need at the time. The problem is that many legacy systems weren’t designed to scale with changing needs and technologies. If the systems don’t develop with your needs, it becomes harder and harder to react to changes in your business environment and strategic direction and achieve the goals you’ve set.
If an architecture business has the objective of growth through design excellence, but uses Excel spreadsheets for timesheets, an email provider as a contact list, and copies and pastes from previous documents to build document templates, for example, its systems are unlikely to be able to support its growth strategy. In using inefficient, disparate systems, it not only has no time to be great at design, it will struggle to attract and retain great designers, collaborate with key distribution partners, create a great culture with build employee loyalty. All of which are needed for growth.
The tools you choose to use are important — they should be intuitive and work for your specific needs — but how your staff use the selected tools, and how the tools work together, is also very important.
Assess the users
Who is using the tools, and are they maximising the system’s features? The Pareto Principle — more commonly known as the 80/20 rule — can help answer this question.
This economic principle says that for many situations, 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes. In a business context, this could mean 80 percent of your profits come from 20 percent of your customers, or 80 percent of your revenue comes from 20 percent of your services.
When applied to the uptake of business software, this often translates to 80 percent of your staff use only 20 percent of the features in your business software.
This is an academic way of saying what we all know is true — staff do not always use systems to their full potential. It may be that some employees only require the use of certain functions within the software, or are not aware of the software’s extended capability. Often, they simply don’t know how to use it. Other factors contributing to this include inadequate training, the user’s ability, a transient workforce where knowledge leaves with an employee, or a combination of those.
We’ve often seen the champion of a new business system — someone who knows it inside-out, from initial set up and implementation, to deep integration in the business — leave the business and take all that knowledge with them. In the case of software, this may mean the end of its active use in an organisation, or the business grinding to a halt because no one else knows how to create document templates, produce a report, file emails and documents, and so on.
In a growing company, systems knowledge can sometimes take a back seat where employees have multiple roles and competing priorities. Regardless of the reason, it’s up to business leadership to recognise this and ensure its people are capable of using the systems to help the organisation meet its strategic goals.
Assess the existing tools
It’s important to assess the tools your employees use daily. You may be surprised at just how many different apps your business is using. It’s widely documented that the generation-y and millennial workforce — a significant chunk of today’s workforce, now reaching management and decision-making levels — comes with a strong awareness of, and expectation for, digital solutions. There’s probably an app for that…
While this shows initiative and a desire to innovate, it can result in many different apps and tools being used around the office causing disjointed communication between teams, applications, and objectives. This adds fuel to the 80/20 fire and can detract from the overall goals of the business.
While not all organisations can relate to all the factors above, it is likely that 80 percent of organisations relate to at least 20 percent of the factors mentioned.
The cost of change
Legacy software systems have traditionally come with long term licence agreements and a requirement for expensive hardware. Servers need to be upgraded periodically, licences need to be adjusted to accommodate fluctuating staff numbers, up-front payments can make alarming holes in cash flow. Long term licenses also mean you can be stuck with something at a time when you need flexibility.
Changing from a known system and way of doing things is often a scarier proposition for management and staff. Changing ‘how it’s always been done’ costs time and causes an inevitable dip in productivity. This is why a change in technology must be looked at strategically — it’s not a short-term decision, it’s a competitive advantage.
Technology as a strategy
In deconstructing some issues with business systems, we see there can be misalignment with technology and business strategy.
Today there are many excellent solutions available for a business’s defined goals. The key is to set your strategy and ensure the technology you plan to use clearly helps to achieve it. With many ‘pure cloud’ business applications now available, there are several features and benefits of these that make researching and comparing solutions much simpler and make the decision an easier one. These are:
Ability to try before you buy in a live environment (e.g. free trial)
Product levels with greater and lesser choices of functions and features
Subscription model with no contracts — you are untethered with the flexibility to do what you need for your business
Faster and easier methods of connecting business systems together to create efficiencies and collaboration (APIs)
Intuitive and responsive design allowing for ease of use by all staff levels on all devices
Complete mobility — having all the information and tools you need to function in your role at your fingertips wherever you may be
In the example of the architectural business that wants to differentiate through design excellence, it would be able to assess a piece of software for its suitability in meeting its objectives. It could ensure it can provide a collaboration platform relevant for design professionals, creates efficiencies across the business, and is easy to use for all levels of staff, no matter where they are or how they use it. The barriers to achieving strategic goals are lower and cheaper than they’ve ever been.
Once you’ve decided on the relevant tools for your business, remember that a small amount of planning goes a long way. With little cost to the business, it’s possible to document a process, create communication regarding the tools staff should use (and how), and provide ongoing training and support. It’s also worth harnessing the existing enthusiasm for digital tools to encourage users to look for ‘outside the box’ solutions with the tools you assign them. Great wins can be gained by doing this, and it will increase staff engagement along the way.
The process of deconstructing how a business operates, establishing strategic goals, and reconstructing a future around the right technologies, results in a collection of complementary systems designed to help your team achieve the company’s goals in harmony.
Flexibility, mobility and collaboration enable successful project teams whether your differentiation is design excellence, niche specialisation, complex residential engineering expertise, or becoming the go-to surveying team in your region. Taking the time to adjust your approach and adapt to best-in-class technologies designed for your business needs is smart. It’s strategic thinking for long term gains.