Construction professionals say that the integration of their software products is important to overall efficiency.
by James Benham
December 19, 2013

Of the 700 construction professionals who participated in JBKnowledge’s 2013 Construction Technology Integration (CTI) Survey, 82.8 percent said that the integration of their software products is important to overall efficiency. So why is it that only 29 percent of those contractors say that more than two of their software solutions actually integrate? And why do 89 percent settle for using spreadsheets or other manual processes to transfer data between software solutions that do not integrate?

The members of the Construction Open Software Alliance (COSA), twelve construction technology providers, argue that those questions have two answers. First, end users are not demanding the same integration for their business technology that they receive from their consumer technology. Second, technology providers are not stepping up to the plate to provide it.

When asked why he thought construction technology providers have not been more focused on integration, Mark Patterson, CIO at S. M. Wilson & Co, said, “For many established vendors in the industry, they seem to want to meet all the customers’ needs with home-grown products. Integration with other providers’ products appears to be an afterthought, and developing application programming interfaces (APIs) gets fewer resources. We have even seen this problem exist when vendors have acquired companies to fill a perceived gap. They promote the product but focus on marketing before integration.”

As projections for the growth of the nonresidential building industry in 2014 remain modest at best, CIOs are evaluating how technology can lower the cost of operations. At 1 percent of corporate revenue (not building volume), IT budgets in the construction industry are far below the 4 to 5 percent national average in other industries. So how can IT managers stretch that 1 percent across operations? Organizations like COSA and the rejuvenated agcXML effort believe integration is the answer.

Currently, construction professionals spend countless hours and resources manually transferring data between independent software or building custom integrations. While the entirety of a build project may exist on a laptop or mobile device—everything from accounting software to bid software and subcontractor time-tracking software to building maintenance software—the data is compartmentalized within its respective software database, making the transfer of valuable information inefficient.

By encouraging software providers to not only open their APIs but also to adopt a common format for frequently transferred data, COSA hopes to give end users a new future in data collaboration—a future where, for example, project management and accounting software automatically share information, eliminating the need for critical data to be documented in spreadsheets, emailed to and from the field and manually updated.

Sound idealistic? Of course. What initiative isn’t? The key is that it’s attainable, and software providers are already proving that it is.

COSA is close to completing their first two standard formats—one for plan room data and another for timesheet data. The XML schemas will create a common language between any two software that implement them. The schemas will be completely free and available to both COSA members and nonmembers.

“I’m excited about the progress COSA has made in such a short amount of time,” said COSA member and co-founder Benny Baltrotsky of eSUB. “We continue to have technology providers interested in joining and have a list of contractors waiting to hear when we are ready for end user advisers. The COSA standards will allow the industry, as a whole, to achieve an efficiency that disjointed, stand-alone software solutions cannot achieve on their own.”

In 2014, COSA hopes to grow further by adding general contracting companies as advisory members to the organization’s technology providers. The goal of admitting industry end users will not only create a test group for published schemas but also a fan base for the COSA initiative, users who can share with their peers first-hand experience of the efficiencies of integration.

During the last year, COSA has worked to bring the need for integration to builders’ attention. The next year will involve generating the demand among contractors to motivate the supply of integration standards across independent technology solutions. As mobile, cloud, BIM and augmented reality technologies continue to emerge, integrated, dynamic data will be essential to project development, maintenance and success. When every detail of a project is virtual, connecting all data points becomes critical to project management. Ask your software providers to elaborate on their strategy for integration; your future build projects depend on it.