Information technology (IT) is being used increasingly throughout business to improve productivity and has the potential to do the same for electrical contractors. IT can increase effectiveness by improving communications and streamlining work. However, successful adoption is much more than the installation of the latest hardware and software. Integrating IT results in change, and success is contingent on the acceptance of those affected. This article outlines the eight best practices (BP) for successfull IT integration.

BP #1: Understand the importance of information

Electrical contracting is an information business. Electrical contracting is about process management and efficient process management depends on information flow. Successful implementation of IT demands that the firm understand the importance of information to its future growth and profitability. Without this appreciation, the firm will not realize full potential.

BP #2: Make IT a strategic issue

The adoption of IT by the electrical contracting firm must be well thought out and planned in detail because IT is not just a technological issue. Introducing IT into a firm's day-to-day operations affects the firm's operations, organization and finances. People's jobs and the way they work and interact with others both inside and outside the company will change with the implementation of IT, and this must be taken into account. Upper management must make IT a strategic issue within the electrical contracting firm's strategic plan to realize IT's full potential.

BP #3: Provide dynamic leadership

Upper management must provide dynamic leadership to make IT adoption successful and become involved in IT implementation and the development and enforcement of policies and procedures for its use. Responsibility for implementation cannot be left at the middle management level if IT is to fulfill its potential. Upper management must recognize IT's value, promote use throughout the organization, clearly define expectations, provide necessary resources for implementation, and support the efforts of those who are implementing IT.

BP #4: Re-engineer processes for IT

Integrating IT into existing processes to automate them normally provides marginal productivity gains at best and can actually result in a loss of efficiency and productivity. Adopting IT does not guarantee increased organizational productivity and effectiveness. The only way to achieve dramatic improvement using IT is to identify the process that can benefit from the adoption of IT and then re-engineer that process to take full advantage of IT.

The most successful IT applications of are those where technology is the enabler and not the driver. The introduction of technology for technology's sake has a low probability of success and typically results in marginal improvements at best. There must be a vision of how a business or construction process can be improved using IT. To benefit from the application of IT, that improvement will typically require the speed, accuracy or other characteristics that only IT can provide either economically or operationally.

BP #5: Integrate business using it

Business and construction processes are often viewed as discrete and end-to-end activities that have definable boundaries and don't extend beyond the internal group responsible for them, let alone the firm. Key categories of work processes where information plays a critical role in the firm's success include:

¥ Firm leadership and strategic management

¥ Construction administration and project management

¥ Purchasing and supply management

¥ Materials and equipment management

¥ Human resource management and development

¥ Accounting and financial management

¥ Marketing and business development

Using IT to integrate related business and construction processes is the "killer app" for the electrical contracting firm. Not only does IT offer the ability to integrate processes within a firm but also integrate business and construction processes across its boundaries. This results in an efficient information flow within the firm and between the firm and its customers, suppliers and others that benefits all stakeholders. The ability to move information quickly and reliably within and outside the firm will result in greater productivity and increased profitability.

BP #6: Invest in people

To effectively use IT to improve operations, employees must be trained in its use. Employees must not only understand how to use IT but why it is being used and what its capabilities and limitations are. Without adequate and ongoing training, the electrical contracting firm's adoption of IT will not be successful and the anticipated benefits will not be realized. This requires an ongoing investment in people.

The firm needs to develop an effective IT training program, budget sufficient resources for its implementation and implement the training program. Employee training cannot be a one-time event; it must be ongoing and address employee needs for continuous learning and the ever-changing IT landscape. In addition to formal training, some firms sponsor regular meetings where an employee reports on a recent training seminar he or she attended, describes the development of a new application, or demonstrates software features or use.

Training should be available not only to those who need it immediately but to anyone who wants it. New and better IT applications within the firm are more likely to emerge when interested employees know what IT can do and have the knowledge and freedom to experiment with its application. Training is a critical success factor for successful IT implementation.

BP #7: Provide ample support

To successfully integrate IT into day-to-day operations, the firm must provide timely and comprehensive user support. It is not reasonable to expect users to design, procure, install, maintain, operate and upgrade today's networked IT systems. In the past, many firms have had an informal information services (IS) staff, an informal group with an interest in IT who did this work in addition to their formal jobs.

This arrangement was workable when IT consisted of freestanding personal computers. However, the importance of IT to the contractors has increased dramatically in recent years and will continue to do so in the future. In addition, the complexity of integrated networks demands a more formal approach to technical support by the firm. The firm must provide needed IT support either by establishing a formal in-house IS function, outsourcing IS or combining the two.

BP #8: Measure IT results

Successful IT application occurs when the firm understands how and when to adopt IT. Successful application means knowing how IT will affect current organization and management practices. As with any capital investment, the secret to successful IT adoption is applying it only when the benefits outweigh costs. These costs include both the direct costs associated with IT implementation as well as the indirect and ongoing organizational costs associated with its adoption. If the firm does not obtain a reasonable return on investment from an IT application, then the initiative should be reconsidered or scrapped.

Interdependence of eight best practices

Individually, each practice is important and can be used to improve the firm's success with IT. However, all are interdependent and need to be adopted in total. In fact, adopting one of the best practices alone will almost automatically result in or even force the adoption of the others. Therefore, when developing strategies for adopting IT, the electrical contracting firm should develop a comprehensive plan that includes adopting all eight best practices. EC

Acknowledgement

This article is the result of an ongoing research project titled Using Information Technology To Improve Organizational Productivity And Effectiveness sponsored by the Electrical Contracting Foundation Inc. The author would like to thank the foundation for its continuing support.

GLAVINICH is a director of Architectural Engineering and Construction Programs in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at The University of Kansas. He can be reached at (785) 864-3435 or tglavinich@ku.edu.