Philip Greer is the product manager of the general contractor/construction manager division of Trimble Buildings, which is focused on technology solutions that improve collaboration, efficiency and accuracy across the design-build-operate life cycle of buildings. For more information, call 800-874-6253 or visit trimble.com.
Ask any experienced project manager about the biggest challenge of delivering projects on time and on budget, and the conversation will always come down to people. In construction, efficient project management is highly dependent on the performance of the workforce. This critical business function is impacted by a shrinking number of qualified practitioners and a need for greater specialization.
As a growing number of qualified project managers retire, many construction businesses are experiencing an erosion of the extensive experience that enabled their success to date. Because there are fewer highly experienced project managers to mentor and lead their eventual succession, new managers struggle to employ best practices and perform their roles in the standardized and successful manner of their predecessors.
At the workforce level, issues exist as well. Real-time transparency continues to be a challenge. Accessing valuable information about subcontractor credentials and security clearances, and maintaining visibility of workers on the jobsite is critical to safety.
Soft Skills Rank Most Important
In the 2013 "U.S. Construction Industry Talent Development Report," published by FMI Corporation, construction executives were asked to identify the "top core competencies predictive of success." More than 23 percent listed a soft skill—communicating effectively—as the top core competency, followed by two other soft skills—leading others and strategic thinking.
Project management finished fourth, with just 9.6 percent of respondents listing it as the top core competency. Yet, when asked to identify the "most difficult competencies to develop for project managers," nearly 60 percent of respondents said strategic thinking. Coaching and mentoring finished fourth at 45.5 percent. Despite the smaller percentage of the latter,"project control and strategic thinking tied as the hardest competencies to develop for senior managers," the FMI survey reported. Those are precisely the problems that newer, flexible technologies have been designed to address.
Organizations that previously relied solely on the experience of project managers have little choice but to proactively initiate a mentoring program to increase the performance of less-experienced project managers through training and technology. However, according to the "2015 Global Construction Project Owner's Survey" released by KPMG, "talent shortages remain a challenge." According to the survey, 45 percent of its owner respondents "lack planners and project managers." Only half of the owners surveyed reported using project management information systems, with slightly more than 40 percent of the others indicating they plan to introduce them in two years. Nearly one-third of KPMG's responding owners said their systems were not integrated "with their accounting and procurement software."
Data-Driven Project Management
Technology offers major advancements for project management at all levels, but technology is not an end in itself. Project management tools need to be integrated with intelligent workflows to serve as a system of truth throughout the life cycle of the project.
In this environment, it is critical for project managers to have transparency and visibility into what is going on at the jobsite at any given time. This up-to-date information enables strategic project assessments and is essential for timely decision-making. A few of the many questions real-time data resolves are listed below.
- Did the number of workers at the initial on-site count work all day?
- Have the proper safety certifications been completed?
- Is the crew mix appropriate for the scheduled work?
These issues are not likely to be resolved if the information is dependent upon clipboard headcounts.
Radio frequency identification (RFID) has rapidly moved into the mainstream for controlling and monitoring site access. RFID-embedded badges help ensure site security while providing accurate jobsite information to superintendent and contractor. In fact, cloud-based RFID systems are reliable for providing real-time data that can be fed to the cloud for easy access and instant data interpretation. Some companies have taken it one step further by adding details to the worker database so the company can provide data to show compliance with municipal, minority or women's hiring requirements.
Contractors have come to recognize the value of real-time labor tracking within the project management function. For example, a program capable of accessing databases of worker information ensures verification of experience, qualifications and certifications. Other technology developments associated with RFID enable contractors and project managers to analyze labor data for a comprehensive, up-to-date picture of labor costs and comparing job performance data at multiple worksites.
However, there are caveats to selecting the right project management technology. Here are some of the most important factors to consider:
- Value—All too often, a company may purchase a technology based upon the need to resolve a specific problem, without considering other value the system may have for your business operations. Make sure a team member becomes an expert on the system before and after its purchase. It is the only way to leverage the technology to benefit both the PM and the project.
- Advice—The contractor and project manager should recognize that no matter how intuitive the system, vendor expertise should be considered mandatory, particularly during the training phase. A technology that is implemented incorrectly can lead to inefficiencies and escalate the project cost.
- Compatibility—Purchasing different systems for different purposes can actually lead to duplication of effort and unnecessary costs. The project manager should insist upon a total technology strategy, not only for the specific enterprise but for the entire project. The goal is for the technologies to be compatible with one another.
Selecting and Optimizing the Project Management System
Project managers should look for the following four capabilities in a project management system.
- Flexibility and customization—Technology should be able to adapt to a variety of jobsite sizes, scopes and conditions, all while providing the means for configuring the system to the unique needs of the jobsite.
- Simplicity—The system should be easy to access and deploy, and a cloud-based application should be accessible by browser.
- Complementary—The system should support other software applications while still providing timely and detailed data on deliverables and personnel. It will be extremely difficult to resolve issues either at the managerial or workforce level with incompatible systems.
- Support—Understand the existing support network to help with future training, troubleshooting and configuration.
Technology at the managerial level offers a gateway for instituting best practices, even for less experienced project managers who can fulfill the requirements of their jobs within a consistent and standardized framework. At the workforce level, the project manager will have complete transparency into hours, job assignments, credentials and productivity to help ensure the project stays on schedule and on budget. For the project manager, people control means cost control.