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Like IT or lump it

This month's eagerly awaited announcements of more money for transport will no doubt mean stiff competition between firms to attract the best staff. But money alone is not the answer. Important as fair pay is, other factors help determine whether we show up for work with a spring in our step or a heavy heart. Clever use of IT will increasingly make the difference.

Whitby Bird partner Mark Whitby reckons some of his young engineers have been saved from boredom, alcoholism and brain death by the growth of electronic methods of steelwork design and fabrication.

Information is exchanged with tenderers by CD, days of laborious checking are saved, costs are less, and queries and clashes are reduced dramatically. Whitby Bird is so confident about its designs that it carries the risk, cutting the scope for claims. Result: happy engineers, a happy firm and a less stressed client.

Jarvis director Mike Manisty can also see the cultural benefits of investment in IT. Like Whitby, Manisty was speaking at the Construction Products Association's e-construction conference this month. He explained that Jarvis is about a third of the way into a three year investment plan, worth £20M, which is putting in place a core IT infrastructure. This has included wiring up its sites and giving everybody free, permanent access to the net. The second step is to integrate functions such as HR and finance through the browser, and the third will be 'full integration with the coal face'.

Take for instance a cow stranded on a rail line, disrupting an entire service into Waterloo.

It might cost £200 to fix the fence but £400 to manage and check the entire process. This could all be managed online, perhaps using digital photos to prove the job had been finished and the cow safely restored to the right side of the fence.

The cost of installing the infrastructure will be more than recouped by the savings. 'But those who think that cost savings are the purpose are misers or accountants, ' says Manisty.

Less tangible are the knock on effects of boosting the company's image with clients and in the city. 'You can't play the big game if you are perceived as a warthog in terms of IT.'

Intellectual capital is also crucial. 'We can recruit some of the best talent because of playing the game, ' he claimed. New business is what brings money. By way of example he cited a web portal the company has developed to let student accommodation during holidays. This kind of idea can only arise if the firm has people capable of coming up with the ideas and who are prepared to share them rather than go off and do their own thing.

'The student portal may be worth more than Jarvis is in two years - it may not be - but there may be six other ideas that are.

You can only do that if you build the intellectual capital, ' says Manisty. Sound advice.

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