All-embracing IT project management tools do not guarantee a healthy bottom line. Alan Sparks reports on how to make IT investments pay off.
Firms at all stages of the construction food chain like to boast how advanced their IT technology is. But this does not necessarily mean they are earning extra profit or adding value as a result.
'From what I have heard today, the savings available from adopting these project management tools are pretty pathetic considering the outlay required, ' Taylor Engineering director Roger Blundell told NCE at the IT Construction Best Practice conference held at the Royal Institute of British Architects last month.
Chief suspect in the failure to deliver IT generated profits is a lack of commitment on the part of firms adopting new systems.
'You cannot simply bolt a new system onto existing practice.
The most successful firms have adapted their whole culture and procedures to bring out the best of any new system, ' said Davis Langdon Consultancy partner John Connaughton.
But change for change's sake is not always the right solution.
'London Underground considered a total revamp of its management practices when adopting an IT system. After much analysis it was found that a new system mimicking its existing indexing procedures was the most efficient option.'
The main message from the conference was that IT is not a blanket solution for reducing costs and increasing profits.
Each instance is unique. 'Technology is an enabler to reduce time and cost. But people need to find the right technology for them, ' insisted senior consultant at The Logistics Business, Les Beaumont.
Steel fabricator Billington Structures operations director Mike Fewster agreed on the importance of matching people with the right technology. 'IT must be embraced by the whole company so that a cultural shift can be achieved. Only then will you ever reap the true value of a new system, ' he said 'Making that cultural shift is our biggest challenge as we gradually adopt our own project management tool. Sales people are used to sharing information, but for our engineering staff, it has proved a sticky thing to get hold of. What we have learned is that you need as much training as possible, support from HR and a dedicated champion of the new system in each team.'
Any project-wide system must be in place from the start, says Ernst & Young senior consultant Chris Mole. 'My company is often called in to resolve troubled construction projects.
These are frequently projects which have been thrown together at the last minute.'
And, before a project management tool is adopted, Mole urges that possible legal implications are fully considered. 'Tracking responsibility is essential in case a project breaks down. If one piece is missing then the whole project could be doomed before it's even started.'
Designing in a regimented fashion where each alteration is made independently can stifle design quality, warned Connaughton. 'This must be avoided if we are going to let the new tools add value. Information exchange is essential if we are going to adopt a more elaborate design culture, especially in the early design iterations. But tracking responsibility can be introduced later as detail is applied so that design quality is not allowed to suffer.'
IT technologies are creeping into every corner of the industry and construction stands on the brink of a step change in project delivery.
Retail has used electronic data to track products and manage stock levels for more than 20 years, says Beaumont. 'Logistics software is now essential in the retail and manufacturing industries. This will soon be the case in construction where we are close to seeing a complete supply chain management system.'
Finally, Mole suggests that introducing new IT tools can play an active role in retaining staff. 'If a designer or project manager has no experience yet with collaborative technology - they will quickly realise that there is a hole in their CV.'
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