Connected Data: Bridging Gaps for Greater Project Certainty
By Mark Edwards
December 18, 2020
As capital projects become more complex, sharing project data with key stakeholders becomes an even more essential building block for success. This is because integrating data related to materials, people and systems can help foster an approach to work packaging that results in more predictable outcomes. So, how can we bring our approach up to where it needs to be? I believe the answer lies not in more technology, but in connected technology that can create a truly collaborative atmosphere for all stakeholders, maximizing project transparency and bridging common data gaps to provide a higher level of project certainty.
Why Are There Still Gaps?
Any discussion having to do with data sharing and construction is not complete without mentioning the fact that construction really hasn’t gained in productivity in many years, and, because of that, value added per hour worked in construction has been decreasing.
It also seems like every time we have this discussion it ends up being about technology. But we’ve got Microsoft SharePoint®, Excel®, PowerPoint®, plus risk, estimating and document control systems as well as systems for managing subcontracts. We have more systems to manage equipment and maintenance of that equipment, plus systems to develop daily plans and procure everything we need. And of course, we’ve got mobile devices to get everything out to the field. The problem? The majority of these systems are point solutions.
So, the real issue is disconnected technology which yields disconnected data. To start bridging these gaps, it helps to look at three key areas: consolidating data, categorizing work in a standardized way, and then, finally, focusing on data cleanliness and protection. If we can do these things in a beneficial order, I believe it will lead to a revolution in how we use data to manage our construction projects.
Starting With Data Consolidation
There are numerous tools such as — Tableau®, Microsoft Power BI® and SQL Server® — that we can use to bring data together from disparate systems to enable visualizations that give us project insights we may not have otherwise had. The key is to begin with the end in mind. I believe that’s really important because as you’re looking at a project and how you’re going to run it, the traditional focus tends to be on the applications and individual processes, i.e., what are we going to use for subcontract management? How is it going to work? What are we going to use for document control? How’s the ERP going to play into things? Once you start the work and you make some of those decisions, you will come to realize that the very way you’re going to operationally run things day-to-day and manage how you’re going to perform relative to your goal — all of this becomes a reporting and data visualization exercise in itself.
Therefore, step one is to bring all that data together where you can start seeing issues and trends early. Until you have a connected system, they will still be disparate data sources. We will still have places where we’ve got folks involved with moving data from system A to system B and using key data relationships to make sure that system A and system B talk to each other, and that the data can be related. But more on solving that later.
The other thing that consolidating data gives us is focus on the project, which is always good. So, we’ve now got a situation where we have people putting data together and we’re consolidating it into nice visualization mechanisms, but it’s still all about that individual sub-project. The value that can be gleaned from this work really starts as we begin looking across projects. This is when the discussion of common codes often comes up concerning where to put the work breakdown structures. Once this starts, we can begin to get key cross-project insights, and then we can use these insights in terms of productivity, benchmarking and much more.
Categorizing Data the Right Way
Next, we need to categorize our newly consolidated data with the different project work so we can start to better manage how we’re doing work and what our best costs look like. The organizational discipline of today’s most advanced connected data software is incredible in that you can use it with every project in your organization to begin to harness the often-hidden power that your data provides.
For example, I might take a look at my project and see that I have 18 sub-projects. With connected data, I can see revenue and where I am from a percent complete perspective. I can also immediately tell where I have an issue on those 18 projects and which of them needs the most immediate attention.
By integrating familiar tools like Power BI, I can dive into a project and actually start showing my stakeholders specific problems on a project and what’s going on so we can dig down without having to dive through every single file to figure out where the problem is. A change summary is another example of a data visualization that is incredibly powerful. When you look across your projects in this way, you start seeing trends, like how often you are finding issues that may become actual contract change orders or if you are consistently burning more hours than you’re earning.
The next step is to start putting this categorization into our work breakdown structures and associating each bucket of work to a standard work category, enabling cross-project visibility and the ability to look at trends. This is powerful, because previously you could only look at an individual project, but as soon as you create a common categorization, you can now compare across all projects. With this information, we can begin tackling efficiency problems and our knowledge base of acceptable productivity rates and best costs continues to grow as more data is fed into this standardized structure.
Cleaning and Protecting Your Data
At this point in our connected data evolution, we can now focus on keeping all of this consolidated and categorized data clean and protected. And you’ll want to make sure it stays that way because it has now become one of the best assets you can have to earn better projects in the future. This is because true connectivity actually makes you better over time, storing and measuring your historical data as you create each subsequent project. Your clients will be able to count on you more now because they know that you have truly actionable data, not simply disparate systems full of gaps. You can communicate plans in a timely way to any and all stakeholders you choose, plus get early operational warnings and keep your people safer.
Another benefit of clean data within a connected system is the elimination of the need to shuttle data back and forth between traditional point solutions. Remember, point solutions are in reality meant to focus on a particular problem and are really good at sourcing where those are, but they don’t generally talk to each other. With a connected system, we start to eliminate all this re-keying of data and let the people associated with the project get back to the business at hand, which is not building a computer system, but building the work.
A Word About Adoption Acceleration
At this point, you might be wondering how you can drive these changes when it comes to team behavior. There are two keys to an easier transition to a connected data environment. First, there’s the simple fact that more and more owners want to see and be involved in project work and the operation. They want to know what’s going on like never before, especially considering more fragile economies, natural disasters, and the increasing money that is projected to be spent on capital projects. Everybody’s costs and schedules are tighter than they’ve ever been. Every dime spent has to clearly and reliably show benefit and progress. This tightness is driving owners to want to be more involved and understand that their money is being well spent, and, if there’s going to be an over-budget or an under-budget situation, they need to know that early on so they can address it. Therefore, if you can provide that kind of transparency, you are going to quickly become a preferred construction business.
As the construction industry begins to pursue solutions to the challenges we’ve discussed here, we can start to make meaningful progress not with more technology, but better-connected technology that yields higher productivity. Once people are working within integrated data solutions in truly collaborative situations, it will go a long way toward bridging the gaps in our understanding of our projects and our stakeholders’ needs, yielding greater project transparency, certainty and peace of mind.