Chapter Corner

Important IT Trends Impacting Electrical Contracting

Posted in: Features, July 2015

Electrical contractors, like many companies in the construction industry, confront numerous challenges as well as opportunities as they shift automating their businesses and incorporating technology. They face many decisions each year regarding selection of solutions and tools, forcing adoption among a sometimes reluctant workforce and simply trying to get a grip on a resource which seems to be in constant motion and whose very definition or role seems to vary. While everyone is working hard within their respective organizations, many external factors influence the landscape including evolving software, pressure from the owner and general contractor, expectations from suppliers, and finally, a more tech-savvy and capable workforce (reluctance not withstanding).

As you might expect, the value of many of these developments and solutions will depend on the adopting organization. It is probably sufficient however, at this stage, to simply recommend that there be good alignment between a company’s IT strategy and their overall business strategy and direction. Technology and solutions should support and enhance each business strategy of a company (e.g., labor productivity, safety, cost control, customer care, etc.). Also, decisions regarding technology should be made with consideration to a company’s risk tolerance. Those with a low tolerance for risk and perhaps a conservative IT budget should not be at the cutting edge experimenting with new technology, while companies that are trying to obtain a competitive advantage in the market may invest more aggressively in technology research and development.

BIM technology and the building model have moved from the design firm to the general contractor and from the builder to the specialty contractor, particularly the MEP trades. More significantly, it has migrated from a design-only and marketing tool to an operational tool used by project managers, project engineers, and the field. The building or facility owners are influencing this in some sectors (e.g., health care and industrial), while in other sectors, the general contractor is making the decision to model the building on their own, for the benefit of all trades involved. In either case, the models are being developed and the resulting data made available to those on the project team.

MEPs should not be too conservative here, hoping that BIM is a trend that will “blow over.” It is not only impacting the builder and collaboration with the trades but quickly providing a platform for developing additional data used by down-stream solutions within the MEP sector (e.g., fabrication, layout, take-off).

There are other trends which are arguing in favor of the development of the model early in the project life cycle and this seems to be one of the foremost questions contractors are asking: Should I invest in virtual design and construction personnel and spend the time developing the model, even if the owner or general contractor does not require it? Without the general’s model, a trade model would still be of some limited value. However, with a construction model (as opposed to a design model), a trade contractor can develop take-off quantities, initiate shop-drawings, and begin the procurement processing.

The estimating function is undergoing some dramatic changes as well. It is moving from a traditional take-off based approach to a more rule/spec based approach. Estimators can enter primary quantities into a rule/spec driven system and the software will then determine and include supporting materials like wire, cable, and fittings. As deadlines have become much tighter, this allows the estimators to pick up speed and accuracy during take-off. It also allows for large global changes to the project along the way. While this approach requires more up front time to develop parameters and database (based on local codes and company preferences), it ultimately leads to more accurate estimating and budgeting. 

As with almost all contractors, electrical contractors have either moved or are in the process of moving mobile devices, including tablets, to the field workforce, initially for data collection and then for access to information, documents, and drawings. The workforce in the field is becoming more comfortable and, in some cases, tech-savvy. Companies used to hold off providing automation tools to the field either from fear of theft/ loss/damage due to the environment or because they just didn’t think the field would adapt. It would seem though that all that is left of the technophobes are a small vocal minority and they should not be the ones dictating IT strategy.

Bar coding and RFI ID tagging will also play a role in the field. The mobile solutions should be able to read and process these codes which will be placed on all material being delivered from the shop. This allows everyone to know what material has been delivered to the site and quite possibly whether or not it has been installed. This tagging can also be used to track field personnel on highly sensitive projects and is being used in some industries for life-safety management (e.g., knowing who is in a building in the case of a need to evacuate).

Adoption of solutions either in the field or in the office remains a subtle challenge. Contractors have figured out that simply owning these solutions does not automatically provide value. Personnel have to use the tools and preferably in a standardized manner. Consider the situation if project managers were allowed to process change orders or forecasts each to his/her own preference. The resulting data would be difficult to use.

Integration of systems remains an issue; when one solution is done with the data, it either has to be “uploaded” using some batch routine or manually processed into the next system. Very few systems today can/should operate in a completely detached or stand-alone mode. Data usually needs to move from one system to another and, as such, accuracy and timeliness is critical. For this reason, integration technology should be a criteria whenever selecting a new software application and the more integrated the system needs to be, the more important that criteria.

As with dieting and health in general, lean is good, emaciated is not. IT departments left the former condition during the recession, being reduced to maintenance mode at best, and only just now have begun to recover. It is of some interest that the number of IT personnel may be the same as before (or close) but the type of people on staff should have changed. IT departments seem to be shedding the infrastructure people in favor of a high-level manager (perhaps CIO) and/or application support/business analyst types (people that can work with management and the user community respectively).

In today’s environment, management should be planning three to four years out, in terms of larger IT initiatives.

  • Priority must be given to deploying well, not just selecting the best solution. Technology is much like exercise equipment; ownership alone does not ensure fitness.

  • When possible, pilot a solution either with a single individual or small team rather than push a solution out immediately in a rush to gain return on investment.

  • Management, particularly senior managers, play a vital role in the successful deployment of technology and thankfully, for them, it is a non-technical role. Management MUST force adoption through sending the message to the organization or to a department that this particular solution or technology in general is an important function, arguably among the most important. Without that message, people will default to preferred behavior which may be the current process that is easiest, involves spreadsheets, email, or nothing at all. Management must be willing to enforce.

The construction industry overall appears to be under-spending on technology, but that is because it is generally a low-margin business with little leverage up-stream or down. For these reasons the industry has not made it viable to invest in new technology which is a risk. Instead, the industry generally seems to wait until the technology has matured and is less risky before it is deployed. But with a structured approach to selection, implementation, and roll-out, the risk of technology can be mitigated and better results can be achieved. Deliberate and structured processes for deploying technology with an eye to objectives, alignment with business strategy, and a reasonable pace can lead to more predictable results.

Christian Burger is principal of Burger Consulting Group (BCG), an independent consulting firm based in the Chicago-area that concentrates exclusively on IT strategy and tactics for the construction industry. Christian has worked with contractors for more than 20 years on software selections, implementation management, IT strategy and the planning and evaluation of current systems. He started his career in construction as a senior systems consultant at FMI, and after eight years continued as a Client Manager for JD Edwards & Company. In July 1994, he launched BCG.

Mike Yatteau is a Senior Consultant at Burger Consulting Group (BCG). Mike focuses exclusively on estimating software for specialty contractors. His extensive software experience is derived from his previous position as Trimble’s Segment Manager. Mike is a certified Master Electrician.