When Is It Time to Switch Construction Management Software?
Construction scheduling and project software is a quickly evolving field with many options. How do you know if your construction company is using the best software for your needs and whether it’s worth the investment and disruption of switching? Or, if you have not used project management or scheduling software before, is now the time to take the plunge?
“We are always exploring new tools that make it easier for us to stay on top of the curve and provide better service,” said Chuck Taylor, director of operations for Englewood Construction which specializes in building shopping centers, industrial, and hospitality projects throughout the United States.
“Commercial construction is always time sensitive because the client has projections of revenues to be realized from the property when it is complete. Sticking to the end date is critical.”
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Qualifying Questions for Deciding If It’s Time to Change Construction Project Management Software
First, you need to evaluate whether you even want to consider a change in software. Here are some helpful questions to ask:
- Is your company spending what you consider to be excessive time managing your information and information systems?
- Is your profitability or efficiency potentially impaired by inadequate controls, poor document management, or insufficient data about your business or projects?
- Do your customers frequently request that you collaborate with or report to them via a program that you do not use? Could you offer better customer service with different technology?
- In the event of a client dispute, can you document your adherence to the contract including schedule and job specifications? Is that documentation solid enough to stand up in court?
- Does your subcontracting flow seamlessly or do you spend a lot of time getting everyone on the same page?
- Do you sometimes get caught by surprise by scheduling errors or workflow conflicts?
- Does your software do everything you want it to do? For example, does it integrate job costing, communication, scheduling, and anything else that is important to you?
- Are all your stakeholders and staff able to access your system from any location?
- Does your technology position you for the future? Can you take your business to the next level with your current platform or do you need other features like 4D BIM (building information modeling that includes the fourth dimension of time/schedule)?
You may realize that your organization is not big enough or deeply staffed enough to support construction-specific scheduling or project management software. Many companies, especially small residential builders, do well with spreadsheets, general project management applications, and simple Gantt charts. Some of the best scheduling and project management software have free trials so you can give them a try to see if they are right for you.
But based on your answers to the questions above, you may realize you are a good candidate for new construction scheduling and project management software. Before you embark on the next step, make sure you are realistic about what a change will entail.
Go Into the Construction Software Upgrade Process with Eyes Open
There will not only be the cost of the new technology itself (which likely involves upfront costs as well as ongoing costs for cloud solutions and potentially new hardware), there is the investment of time and the burden of disruption to your business to consider. The whole process of researching, selecting, negotiating, and implementing new construction software generally takes at least a year for commercial builders.
Charlotte, North Carolina custom home builder Evans Cohill Homes lost several starts during the year it implemented new software, so be sure to budget for the time and expense of switching if you go ahead, marketing director Alan Banks reported.
In addition, new construction scheduling and project management software will change the way your teams work and may affect overall operations. You wouldn’t undertake the change unless you knew the end result would be positive for your business, but change can be hard for organizations and some individuals within organizations. The software you choose will affect the daily routines of your staff, so factor that transition into your planning too.
If all that checks out, you’re ready to embark on the quest for your next construction project management and scheduling application. This process can easily become disorganized and out of control, so it’s important to follow a defined process.
The key steps that we will talk about are:
- Set goals
- Gather information
- Assess key features
- Determine selection criteria
- Demo the software
- Make a short list
- See the software in the field
- Rank options and discuss
- Make your selection
- Finalize your purchase, begin implementation planning
Do Your Homework: Understand Your Construction Software Needs
Before you begin, make a list of the biggest information problems that you currently experience and identify which of those are most burdensome. Also think about future growth and goals for your business.
Some construction software features may not be critical now, but will be down the road such as the ability to do better financial forecasting or a RFI tool to help you target business in a new market or customer type.
Rank these needs from most to least important.
This will give a better idea of whether your ideal construction project management and scheduling software can be fairly simple or needs to have every bell and whistle. You’ll also learn whether a general application will work or perhaps a customized version of one is better. Or do you need an end-to-end solution designed specifically for the construction industry?
At this point, you can begin gathering information about specific programs and vendors. There are several online directories that list options including this one by Software Advice and this by Capterra. Online reviews, trade magazines, and feedback from industry peers are worth reviewing.
Assessing Big Picture Needs for Construction Software
By now, you’ll be forming a broad idea of the current state of construction scheduling and project management software -- who the top names are, what is commonly offered, case studies relevant to your company, and where the industry is heading.
At this point, you will want to evaluate and winnow your list of candidates based on a few broad considerations.
- Do you want a cloud-based platform? These days most companies are answering yes to that question, but there may be reasons to keep your solution in-house. Cloud applications generally offer better scalability and a better cost profile over their full lifecycle. Some companies have concerns about data security and system reliability. This could favor in-house hosting. If you are looking to the cloud, you will want to perform due diligence on a provider’s performance in these areas. You also want a clear understanding of who owns your data and what happens to it if you change companies.
- Does it offer strong mobile performance? Construction happens in the field, so of course you want everyone from head office to the job site to be connected. Look at how fast the application responds with varying work conditions, whether its mobile interface is fully functioning and native, and if data is continuously refreshed. Will you need a virtual private network (VPN)? Can staff in the field mark up drawings and take photos within the application?
- How easy is the software to use? Ease of use is important, but its importance is also relative to other considerations. Evaluate ease of use in the context of the complexity of your construction projects because the tool must fit the job. If you are involved in the construction of major capital or government projects, your requirements are far different than a small-scale residential builder. Also consider whether you have a large enough staff that scheduling and project management are primarily handled by a dedicated team or designated individual, in which case it may not be important that all users understand how to do everything within the application. Weigh what your ability to provide training and support are. Some software options are based on operating systems that provide a familiar environment for users, such as Microsoft Windows, which can flatten the learning curve somewhat.
- How well does it integrate? Will the construction software integrate with your other business systems such as accounting, email, payroll, and invoicing? Your goal is to streamline, so you don’t want to enter data in two places or manually import data. What file types are supported by the application? Can you attach and integrate photographs, plans, drawings, text documents, spreadsheets, etc? Are there limits on how big these files can be or how many you can store?
- How does it handle project management essentials? You will want to make sure you are happy with things like the way the software defines and assigns user roles,incorporates templates, gets electronic signatures, reminds users when activities are overdue, sends notifications, manages workflows, stores and tracks documents, presents cost and financial data, and keeps contacts. What are its reporting options including dashboards, automatic, program-level, and real-time reports?
- What is the pricing model and how much does it cost? Cost is always a critical consideration. The pricing options can vary from a cost for a set number of individual users, which means you need to allow for the maximum number of staff, subcontractors, and others who might need to be logged in at the same time. Another pricing model is based on accounts for individual named users, which entails a cost, even if a user rarely needs access to the system, and management of user accounts as staff come and go. Finally - in a model that is common with cloud subscriptions - there are service tiers for fixed monthly or annual costs providing for various numbers of users in the enterprise up to unlimited plans.
- What is the quality of the supplier? What is the software maker or vendor’s reputation for customer service? What hours is their help desk open? What kind of training package and implementation support will they offer you? Do they offer uptime guarantees?
Construction Software Scheduling Essentials
There are some scheduling-related features that are pervasive these days, but since scheduling is the critical goal of the software, don’t let these essential considerations get lost in the shuffle.
They include the ability to see the schedule by day, week, month, or total-project Gantt view and to sort tasks by various parameters such as completion status and priority.
Depending on the sophistication of your practice and preferences, you will want to evaluate if and how the software handles Critical Path Method scheduling, Graphical Path Method scheduling, linear or lean scheduling, PERT charts, and building information modeling both 3D and 4D.
Rick Cherf, a professor of construction management at Washington State University, says U.S. construction companies involved in sophisticated projects almost exclusively use software based on the Critical Path Method of project modeling to do their scheduling.
The CPM schedule “is the only real tool used in sophisticated projects to evaluate if they are on time,” he said. “Quality contractors also realize it’s a great tool to manage the project.”
Assessing Detailed Construction Software Features
Once you have narrowed your list of options based on these broad considerations, it’s time to think about some other features and functionalities you will want to assess. See which of these tools are important to you and assess which programs offer them.
- Tool for RFIs (requests for information)
- Submittal handling
- Drawing accessibility, distribution, linking, markups, and real-time “as-builts”
- Building Information Modeling (BIM) management and collaboration
- Contact management
- Project dashboards and reporting
- Budget management with ability to track contracts, change orders and expenses; import cost data and spreadsheets, forecast updating based on committed costs, manage subcontracts and materials
- Document and photo management
- System administration including different permission levels for individual users on different projects, multiple roles per user and ability to reassign work
- Punch lists
- Daily logs including customization and archiving
- Time tracking
- Meeting minutes and agendas, tracking of action items
- Bidding including submissions, status, and tracking
- Notifications and the triggers it allows (overdue activities, new tasks etc.)
- Histories and audits, especially important if you are working on government-funded construction
Determining the Selection Criteria for Your Construction Project Management Needs
Based on this review, discuss with your team and stakeholders what you want your construction scheduling software to be able to do. Decide which features are crucial and which would be nice but not essential. Come up with a list of potential software programs that fit your criteria.
Create a chart that lists all the attributes you identified and then assign each solution a column. Summarize as best as you can at this point how the application performs on each criteria. Go to the company or vendor with any questions.
Don’t worry if you can’t definitively assess how each software on your list does on every criteria at this point. This part of the process is preparing you for the next stage. You don’t have to know enough to make a decision right now.
Your main goal is to see where your gaps in understanding or information are, see which programs stand out as particularly strong in certain areas. You may notice a developer heavily promotes certain capabilities but is strangely silent on the product’s performance in another area. Make a note of this for the next step.
Demo Day for Construction Scheduling, Project Management Software
Now it’s time to demo the construction project management and scheduling software. All software makers offer demos in some form. This can happen in any number of ways from a webinar to a trade show. Some offer free trials or free light versions of their construction scheduling software that you can download.
Try to have the same people from your team participate in all the demos so they have a good basis for comparison.
Huddle up and recap your impressions from the demos. You are trying to narrow your selection down to a short list of no more than three contenders. You’ll probably notice that it is fairly easy to eliminate candidates after the demos.
After you arrive at your short list, you then want to see your final candidates in action with real-life users. Through trade groups, industry associations, construction trade contacts or referrals from developers, find a company similar to yours that is using each software and ask if you can visit. You may have to travel to do this, but any cost incurred is a worthwhile investment in making sure you arrive at the right selection.
Watch Construction Software In Action, In the Field
Watch your host’s staff use the project management or scheduling software in different ways and different settings. Ask how they like it, what the bugs or shortcomings are and any tips or advice they wished they had known when they started. Check in with people in different roles to make sure that everyone, from field supervisors to accounting, have similar feedback.
After your field trips, reassess your options. More than likely, one clear winner will stand out. If not, identify those areas in which no option seems superior. Do some more research focused on finding which product is the best match for your specific use case on those criteria.
When the fog lifts, you should be left with a clear idea of what the right construction scheduling and project management software is for your team. Success! Once you have identified your software, you’re ready to move on to negotiations, contracts, and implementation.
Given how complicated this process is, you probably won’t be in a rush to do it again any time soon. But you can’t set it and forget it. You’ll need to keep an eye on how construction project management and scheduling systems evolve because competition and your clients will demand you stay on top of technolgy.
What Does The Future of Construction Software Hold?
To get an idea what the next generation of construction software will look like, we asked a panel of experts for their thoughts.
Fred Redd, formerly director of the project management office of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s $29 billion capital program and currently general manager of construction and engineering firm REDCOM’s Long Island branch:
Redd anticipates that software for construction management will increasingly reconcile the disparity between the needs of the client and the needs of the construction company. Construction specialists need all the technical details, but this makes the software hard to learn and use.
Redd sees a need for software to put more emphasis on offering a client-friendly interface in addition to one for specialists. “Decision makers need to see the project holistically. The owner or client doesn’t want to read a 10,000 line activity schedule. They want to see it from the 10,000-foot level.”
Redd also sees demand for clients and project managers to be able to run more what-if scenarios within the software by having the ability to see how a change would affect other aspects of the project with all dependencies and calculations updated instantly on the back end. The need to do that manually for the most part now rules out running those scenarios, he says.
David Gunderson, managing editor of the International Journal of Construction Education and Research:
Gunderson does not anticipate any simplification in construction scheduling software. In fact, he foresees the opposite.
BIM has evolved from two-dimensional drawings to three-dimensional modeling and now modeling in 4D, taking account of the schedule, is taking hold. This trend will continue because these animations facilitate clash detection and pre-work and help avoid rework. By adding the schedule dimension, sequencing and coordination is improved, he says.
On the horizon is adding a fifth dimension - cost. When industry databases become more robust, modeling of what-if scenarios will be able to project budget impacts, Gunderson said. “That will improve the service we can provide to clients,” he said.
Chuck Taylor, director of operations, Englewood Construction:
Taylor agrees that more owners want to see modeling.
“BIM is slowly becoming an expectation of the clients, that you know it, especially for more sophisticated projects and larger scale conflict management. In medical facilities, senior living institutions, they are looking for those types of services.”
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