Future Forward Full Interview: Data Sharing Determines Project Success
Chris Bell is the vice president of marketing and product management for e-Builder, a Trimble organization. Donna Laquidara-Carr is the industry insights research director at Dodge Data and Analytics.
V1 Media: Please provide a brief background of your education and career.
Bell: I’m Chris Bell, and I’m the vice president of marketing and product management for e-Builder, which is a Trimble organization.
Laquidara-Carr: My name is Donna Laquidara-Carr. I’m the industry insights research director at Dodge Data and Analytics.
V1 Media: Could you tell me a little bit about e-Builder and its relationship with Trimble?
Bell: e-Builder is an owner-centric program-management (PM) software organization. We have built a construction-management software that was designed specifically for the owners of projects. In the infrastructure world, as an example, the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and others are our typical customers.
When the Trimble organization acquired e-Builder, we had something unique: both the existence of an owner project-management application and a contractor project-management application. So our group, which we call the Trimble project and program management division, is kind of the gravity point for all things project management within Trimble. We offer a contractor project-management solution built by the makers of Prolog, which was a very well-known project-management application, and that system is called ProjectSight. So we’re excited about this research that Dodge and team had done, because this is the first time an organization had both owner and contractor project-management systems, and we’re looking at the dynamics of how people share data.
V1 Media: How does engineering, designing and modeling fit within that type of structure?
Bell: The Metro Transit Authority in Chicago is a customer. The New York New Jersey Port Authority is a customer, and they work with the large design-build and engineering firms, the multidisciplinary engineering firms such as HDR, AECOM, CH2M and others. So that’s a pretty consistent dynamic. And what has always happened from, particularly from an engineering community practice perspective, is that you’ve got this need of the suppliers–the engineering firm–to manage cost and schedule on large infrastructure projects. And then you’ve got the owner who is oftentimes a public agency that needs to be great stewards of the taxpayer dollar.
The owner is desiring transparency in the process, and the design firms and contractors are trying to provide that. In the past, the contractor has their own technology stack, and the owner has their own technology stack, and, up until now, those two systems haven’t really talked to one another. People had to make a choice and abandon one in lieu of another.
V1 Media: Am I right in understanding that the designing and the building is still slightly separate from both of the systems, and that the contracting and owner-side software you’re speaking of is scheduling and billing and keeping all the logistical things in place?
Bell: Yes, but let me try to explain it with a story. The challenge this report really identified was the fact that the contractor community often brought their own project-management system, which includes the ability to store design documents.
So not only is it a central place for all drawings associated with the project to be centrally housed, but it also contains cost information about the budget, and current cost and scheduling information. Over the last 10 years, you’ve had this “rise of the owners.” Previously, very few but innovative owners really took a deep interest in knowing the detailed level of projects. They’re obviously involved in bidding the work out. But the day-to-day was always the domain of the contractor. Since that time, owners realized they were most at risk in terms of cost overrun and schedule delays, so they started adopting project-management systems to help equip themselves. They found there were only a few applications–one of them being e-Builder–that were designed just for an owner.
So now you have this condition where if you’re the Arizona Department of Transportation or the Charlotte Douglas airport, you’re a user of e-Builder. And when they bid out a project, and they award it to an engineering firm, that contractor is likely to bring their own PM system. But those two systems didn’t talk to one another, and here’s what Donna and her report really came out with: when you do that, you introduce a risk. If we use the owner’s system, that introduces risks for the contractor. They lose control over some information or they have to do double data entry. And that’s really a big struggle, because it increases overhead and makes the contractor less cost effective on the project.
On the flip side, if an owner then says, “no, I don’t want you to do that. We’ll use your contractor system.” Now the contractor system doesn’t do simple things that an owner does, like an owner oftentimes needs to manage contingency on a project. They need to be able to know that some scope does creep and unforeseen conditions happen, but they don’t want to share with their contractor that they’ve got $10 million in reserves. Either way, if you chose one application to share between two parties, somebody was losing. This report measured the toxicity of that, and they found risk, they found the occurrence of how often this happens. And they actually found that owners really didn’t know the impact they were having to some of their contractors.
e-Builder is interested in this report, because we offer an owner project-management solution and a contractor project-management solution. Instead of doing it the way every other software vendor has done it, which is let’s unify these things that make one system, one application to it. We took a platform approach and said, “you need a project-management platform, but these two applications are different, and they’re on the same platform and share data, but they’re different. This way, a contractor gets to use their own project-management system and retain all the data they need, and it’s designed for them. And the owner gets the exact same thing. They get their owner-centric perspective on the project, get to do things owners do, and then these two systems talk to one another.
And that’s what drives out all that inefficiency of double data entry and lack of transparency and manual processing.
V1 Media: Please describe this recent report connecting owners and contractors, how technology drives connected construction, and why you think it’s important?
Laquidara-Carr: It’s about revealing to the owners the level of toxicity that’s going on and the real advantages in getting the whole team involved. The research itself was very owner/contractor focused, but in the findings and the in-depth interviews we also conducted, it becomes clear that it’s the entire project team that needs to share data. We’re really moving into a new age where data sharing is going to be the big determinant of success on projects. Being able to share data effectively across teams.
Just looking at RFIs, for example, and the issues created by not having a seamless workflow for RFIs. You’re going to need the design team, including the engineers engaged in the RFI piece, to really be effective. So we’re looking to the future of how the industry as a whole can have a strong data connectedness. And we think this report is one critical piece of that larger picture of how the industry needs to change.
Bell: Some major universities are our customers, and they’re constantly working with contractors. Because they’re the owner, they had an opportunity to establish the standards. In their contractual specifications, they say “if you’re going to come work for our university, whether you’re doing stormwater management or a new science center, you guys are going to use e-Builder.” Many times, those contractors are fine with that, and that works.
However, we kept hearing from contractors across the United States that they really want something that works for them, that also helps them manage the things a contractor or an engineering firm needs to manage, especially billing rates. They have billable engineers who are billing hours to the project. Those are unique capabilities that are perfect for a design firm to manage hours. Yet the cost of that needs to get sent over to the owner’s project-management system so they can get paid. That process is full of manual processing in a normal situation, and those organizations have seen net-60-day payments, net-90-day payments or more sometimes. When you have a single platform, and what this report really revealed, you can speed up that process so people can get paid in a net-10 environment.
The billable-hours data gets sent over to the owner’s project-management system. The owner manages that data, it works with their accounting system, and the contractor or engineering firm gets paid. So there are practical things that technology now offers. I’ve been in this business for 25-plus years, and for as long as I can remember–and I’m an ex-AECOM guy–there’s always been this promise that data should just talk to one another. Systems should just talk to one another, but it’s never materialized.
But it’s different now. Now the technology has caught up with the ability to exchange data–not between systems but between organizations. That’s really where the value is being created. We’ve always had applications that work for one another, but they’ve always been used by one constituent, like an engineering firm. The challenge has been getting an engineering firm to talk to an owner to talk to a contractor. That’s where the value is, and that’s what this report reveals.
V1 Media: Can you describe how this study was performed, how the participants were selected or any other important aspects of the methodology?
Laquidara-Carr: There were really two pieces to this. We did an online quantitative survey of owners and contractors. The owner list came both from the Dodge database and from e-Builder. One of the great things about working with e-Builder is that you get to survey owners and get a really great sample and wide breadth of owners who respond. They were instrumental in helping us gain the owners’ sample side of it. But the contractors pretty much purely came from Dodge, both a list we have and a panel of contractors we maintain to do market research. That provides a nice, well-balanced range of companies, good geographical distribution, good distribution by size, etc.
We use their contractor panel for a lot of it, and we supplement that with the larger Dodge samples. With a pretty wide-sweeping survey, we make sure the people who respond have the requisite knowledge as part of the survey-screening process. In addition to that quantitative piece, there are quotes from owners throughout this report. We did a qualitative study with a few owners to really have a good handle on the type of data-connectedness questions, and really got a deeper insight from them into what they think they or their contractors are getting out of using their software and where they think improvements are needed.
V1 Media: Can you provide any specifics about how many companies, contractors and owners were used in the survey?
Laquidara-Carr: We had 98 owners participate in the survey, and we had 112 contractors, most of whom were prime contractors. Only 2 percent of our respondents were specialty trade contractors, so largely general contractors, construction managers and design builders.
V1 Media: Chris, you’re quoted as saying: “unlike some vendors that attempt to serve multiple stakeholders with the same application, the latest technology trend is purpose-built software with connected data.” Can you elaborate?
Bell: I’ve spent time at a number of different software vendor organizations, and if you built a project-management application, your goal as a business was to sell that application to as many people who would buy it. I’ll use a specific example of an application called Prolog, one of two applications that were dominant in the market for multidisciplinary engineering and CM firms. They used what’s now called Oracle Contract Manager, but back then it was called Expedition. And there was this application called Prolog. The philosophy back then was, “this is built for contractors, but if you’re an owner and interested in project management, you can use it, too.”
The problem with that is both organizations had divergent requirements. The owner needs to manage funding sources. It may be a public agency, and they’re getting funds from the U.S. federal government, the state government, local municipalities and others, and they have to manage and steward that money. The contractor is managing profitability on the project. These are two very distinct needs, but that was the answer back then: you just gave up on what you really needed and used the best that was available on the market, or you built your own. Some organizations today still have that philosophy: let’s all use one system, and it’ll all work, and we’ll collaborate with one another. It’s a valid strategy, but there are downsides to that, which is giving up on functionality and then the most important thing: who owns the data. You have to decide contractually upfront, is it the contractor’s data, or is it the owner’s data. Both would lay claim to that.
So what’s new, and what that quote is all about, is that there’s a fundamental shift. We at Trimble happen to be the first who really thought of this and said, “you know what, the market told us they don’t want one system. They want two best-of-breed applications that talk with one another.” That way they can own their own data, and they can share information and get the value they wanted from collaborating in one system, but without the downside of giving up on capabilities or data ownership. So that was really the novel idea that hit the market, and we’re excited to see that other organizations have followed suit. Another major competitor in the marketplace saw the innovation and that line of thinking and went out and bought an owner project-management system to compete.
We see this as a dramatic shift in project-management technology for construction. Each stakeholder gets to have their own, they get to have it as a best-of-breed solution, and these things talk with one another. And that’s been a vision of Trimble for many years. Trimble has come out with a way to speak to their digital-transformation vision, which is called the “constructable process.” And there are three C’s that are associated with the constructable process: one is “constructable,” which is all about the process of making sure when we design, we design with enough fidelity that fabrication can be done off the designs from the beginning; a very high level of detail in the design. The second pillar is “connected,” and that’s about those applications talking intelligently to one another.
And the last pillar is “content-enabled.” Wouldn’t it be amazing if an engineer was specifying the type of rebar needed in the wastewater treatment plants or in the bridge or whatever concrete was going to be poured, and they could pull the model, and the specification of that rebar right from the very beginning into the design, so when it’s passed down for construction project delivery, there’s no submittal needed, because that’s all defined and can be procured, because the engineer defined the exact one they wanted on the project. So those three C’s—constructable, connected and content-enabled–really are the pillars of what will be and is the digital transformation.
V1 Media: Hypothetically, let’s say an owner is a government and has a very specific contractor. They can’t have software basically built from the ground up to work with each other. Are there some things they can do to try and limit some of their data-connection problems?
Bell: For a long time, people have broken data out of the system through imports and exports, and sent over Excel spreadsheets to one another, and that will transfer some data. And that’s very helpful in collaboration. If they don’t have these solutions, another way is to create a data strategy for the project itself and make the rules upfront about what information is shared and how. In that case, some organizations will create a neutral sharing place and say “we want to put all of our engineering documents from the contractor or engineer and owner here.” And they point to a specific place. That’s another way people can accomplish the start of it.
The real innovation that’s coming out, that’s out now through Trimble, allows not only the sharing of files and PDFs but sharing of data and reporting and metrics. That’s really what drives costs and schedule on a project. And that’s something we’re excited to be able to offer exclusively through the combination of e-Builder and ProjectSight.
V1 Media: How might engineers be able to get involved and help bridge that gap between owners and contractors?
Bell: On the infrastructure side, contractors and owners, through their professional association, can work with organizations such as AASHTO or your publication to become aware that data sharing can be a reality. You can have your own system and share data, and the revelation of that is a big thing. And then have that expectation through a professional association advocate with the owner associations that “we’d like to use our own system, and we’d like to share that data with the owner’s system. What tools or technologies can we use that facilitate that?”
V1 Media: Could you tell me your single favorite or most-important takeaway from the report that you think everyone should know about?
Laquidara-Carr: It’s really a critical part of a puzzle we’re seeing come together in a lot of different studies we’re doing: the transformation of construction due to the importance of data. The construction industry has always had this reputation for being technology averse, and I think we’re seeing a sea change out there. As people start understanding what data can do for them, then they start wanting more. They start understanding how much further it can go, and we’re at a really interesting inflection point in the industry. This report captures that. It shows how something as simple as the contractor using the owner’s system still improves their lives.
When you ask them what can be done better, the floodgates open to how much things can be improved. With more familiarity with data as well as gathering good data on projects and tracking it across projects, we’re starting to see the industry take advantage of the tools out there. But it’s still at the early stages, which is why studies such as this are critical, because they benchmark where we are now. And it’s really interesting to track as it goes through the industry. That’s my favorite takeaway.
Bell: What really popped out to me is miscommunication between contractors and owners. There’s a misunderstanding that exists, and this report reveals that owners, as they rise in their authority in project management for their capital projects and are leaning in to get better transparency on their projects, they’re largely unaware they’re causing a bit of strife with the contractors and engineers. They weren’t aware it was adding risk on the contractor side. And the owner wants a great project delivered on time and within budget–that is their goal.
I think the takeaway is that communication is necessary. Contractors and owners should talk about how data is shared on the project, and walk into that discussion knowing such technology now exists, allowing both parties, or all three parties, to share data. They love their apps, they want to keep them, so let’s get them to talk with one another. And that’s really the new wave of technology innovation happening within the software vendor community.