The recession increased competition for fewer construction jobs, resulting in the need for the projects that have been won to be managed as tightly as possible. By now, however, company budgets may be loosening, and it might be a good time for electrical contractors to begin examining the latest construction management software choices.

“Construction management software (CMS) helps electrical contractors better manage their projects for on-budget and on-time completion,” said Houston Neal, director of marketing at Software Advice, Austin, Texas, a free online resource that reviews construction project management and estimating software for electrical contractors.

CMS is designed to be used throughout the entire project life-cycle and includes estimating, planning, managing, tracking and accounting capabilities that allow the contractor to track profitability and productivity.
“The job of CMS is to bring together all of the components that are necessary to successfully complete a project and allow authorized access to those components from one general and common location,” said Hemant Bhave, vice president, Systemates Inc., Dallas.

The fundamental problem that CMS solves is dealing with the enormous variation inherent in each construction project.

“CMS is designed to enable the contractor to process a huge volume of transactional detail for every facet of the project and turn it all into meaningful information that provides it with visibility and control,” said Brad Mathews, vice president of marketing, Dexter + Chaney, Seattle.

CMS is also designed to establish consistent processes across the company for dealing with change orders, cost-to-complete estimates, substantiated billings inventory and service calls.

“If all the contractor’s project management processes are standardized with a CMS, the company has less financial risk and higher profit,” Mathews said.

Trends and innovations
A major shift is underway in how CMS is deployed, Neal said. Instead of hosting software at the office or on-premise, many electrical contractors (ECs) are moving toward web-based systems that can be accessed from anywhere that has an Internet connection.

“Improvements in technology, proliferation of broadband Internet access and increased data center security are all drivers of this shift,” Neal said.

The ability to log into the company’s CMS and access project data through the Internet not only frees project managers from the office, but it also allows remote data collection—such as time card information that is gathered electronically in the field—to be uploaded to the system and then automatically processed by the payroll system.

“The increased visibility of the data enabled by remote access allows the contractor to more easily evaluate the project and position of the business,” Mathews said.

Having project information that is accessible over the Internet, whether on a desktop computer, laptop, smart phone or other mobile device, enables the contractor to save time, reduce errors and ensure the proper materials are delivered to the proper places at the proper times, according to Steve Zahm, president of Procore Technologies Inc., Santa Barbara, Calif.

The shift away from client-server software toward cloud computing (a new generation of computing that uses distant servers for data storage and management) provides better data security and improved accuracy.

“The only problem would be in remote locations with little or no Internet access,” Zahm said.

Using the Internet cloud to access its CMS means the contractor doesn’t have to invest in increased information technology infrastructure.

“It can be a challenge for a small contractor to afford the infrastructure that includes the required security for on--premise, web-based solution. The software as a service (SaaS) option means paying monthly service fees, but more and more people are willing to pay for the service rather than have the infrastructure responsibility,” said Jim Walter, vice president of product development for Sage Construction and Real Estate, Beaverton, Ore.

There’s also a CMS trend involving virtual construction and the use of modeling technologies that help the contractor fully understand the entire project before construction even begins, according to Matt Wheelis, senior product manger for Autodesk Inc., San Rafael, Calif.

“Modeling promotes a more integrated team approach to the project, involves the contractor in the process at project inception and gives CMS the opportunity to be fully utilized in a more collaborative environment,” he said.


Spectrum Construction Software from Dexter + Chaney was designed and developed specifically for electrical contractors with the goal of saving steps and time, simplifying processes, and providing greater control for the entire organization. Thirty integrated modules handle project management, construction accounting, service, equipment management, human resources, document imaging, remote connectivity, data sharing, and more. For more information, go to www.dexterchaney.com.

Construction Project Management Software from Procore provides an overview of all a project’s critical information on one screen. The software’s approach enables contractors to see immediately what crucial issues need to be addressed and what new items have been entered into the system; it also keeps track of multiple projects. For more information, go to www.procore.com.

Systemates’ Projectmates offers more than 35 different modules for every type of construction project and provides form routing and tracking tools for the people responsible for processing requests. The web-based software enables contractors to share documents, project schedules, and task assignments with remote participants, manage subcontracts and bids electronically, and receive instant feedback on project performance. For more information, go to www.projectmates.com.

Sage Timberline Enterprise, offered by Sage Construction and Real Estate, integrates accounting, operations, estimating and service management processes to enable contractors to maximize productivity and have greater visibility into the business. The software helps contractors to access and easily work with critical data, simplify workflows, eliminate data input redundancies, and gain maximum control. Go to www.sagecre.com to learn more.

Autodesk’s Web-based Constructware provides a centralized database that allows decision-makers to quickly view information and run reports across the enterprise, improves workflow processes and file management, increases accountability, improves risk management, reduces costs, and maintains two levels of security. For more information, go to http://usa.autodesk.com.


What to look for
When evaluating CMS, most ECs just want an easy way to track what functions need to be performed on what day, Neal said.

“Their goal is to have requests for information (RFIs), submittals, change orders and correspondence in one place, which will help mitigate risk and limit liability,” he said.

According to Steve Drew, director of project management for Sage’s Timberline Enterprise offering, contractors should first ensure the CMS solution they are researching has a robust service management component with state-of-the-art dispatching capabilities and a flexible work order management system.

“It is also critical that any solution integrates tightly between accounting and operations to ensure efficient work flows, productivity and the elimination of redundant entry errors,” he said.

From Mathews’ point of view, it’s most important that the solution chosen fits the contractor’s company well.

“The contractor first needs to identify what the vital business processes are that need to be addressed and then make sure the software supports those processes,” he said.

Other features that should be present include a powerful job cost system with integrated cost-to-complete estimates and high functionality for processing change orders, requests, RFIs and submittals.
According to Bhave, the components that should be considered by anyone looking for the “right” online CMS include installation requirements, customization, integration, functionality and return on investment. Functions to look for, he said, include accountability and reliability, automation, bid management, collaborative scheduling, cost control management, document and workflow management, and integration with other systems.

“Once the company has created the list of the features it would like to have, it can start comparing offerings,” he said.

Zahm believes that contractors should look for a web-based solution right off the bat.

“The solution chosen should work on any type of computing device or smart phone and should have a flexible pricing system that enables the entire team to use the software without a cost penalty or addition fees,” he said.

Zahm also advises contractors to ensure licensing fees, and training and support are included in the provider’s implementation cost quote.

“Many people forget to ask these questions, and if those costs are additional, they can often double the price of the software,” he said.

Future
As cloud computing technology and Internet-based CMS continues to mature, the industry will see greater integration between modules, Drew said.

“In addition, users are going to attempt to reduce their hardware expenditures by using virtualization, which is the execution of software separated from the underlying hardware resources, reducing the number of servers required,” he said.

Mathews predicted that CMS will become fully browser-based to improve access, will expand access to data to even more devices, and will fully integrate with operational software and tie the entire company together, from job sites and branch offices to main offices and each department and function.

“The end result is better communication, faster problem solving, greater data accuracy and reliability, and ultimately, better performance,” Mathews said.

And as far as the devices used to access the data are concerned, Zahm envisions touchscreen technology will continue to make inroads.

“Touch computing is the way personal computing is already moving in an attempt to make the interaction between person and machine easier,” he said.

Wheelis said that CMS will increasingly leverage the data that is gathered in it and will be used in conjunction with concepts such as building information modeling (BIM) to map out projects and better understand them and their costs.

“Modeling is an improved way to visualize project status or cost overruns,” he said, adding that he envisions that soon CMS will incorporate social networking concepts. “Social networks enable the creation of informal, self-forming teams that allow people to collaborate and communicate in addition to the formal processes that are required to successfully complete a construction project.”

For more information about CMS and to read reviews, go to www.constructionsoftwarereview.com.


BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 and darbremer@comcast.net.