Construction Software Adoption: Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up
By Nathan | Posted on February 1st, 2019
If you're a construction executive or owner, superintendent, foreman, or project manager you're probably familiar with how difficult adopting construction software is when it comes from the top down to the end user. You're familiar with it because it's just been the way that construction has been done for as long as anyone can remember.
If you're not sure what a top-down construction software decision looks like, here are some clues: the executives in the office need reports. The more data they can collect from the field and the office the better they can manage both of them, completing projects and saving money by identifying weak links in their chain. That's why they choose construction management software with modules for the field, office, and anything else they can think of so they can get all of these reports in one place and hopefully make their entire business run more smoothly.
It's a nice thought. But it just doesn't work.
The Pain of Top-Down Construction Software Adoption
The pain isn't apparent at first, especially at the top. The executive has just been through, most likely, a month of sales pitches from construction management software companies all making grandiose claims about how their software will allow them to capture data from the field quickly and easily, integrate that with analytics and information from the office, and roll it all up into insights for the executives that they can actually use to improve their business. All of these benefits come at a cost, though, as enterprise construction management software solutions with modules for field and office are pricey.
Once the purchase has been made, though, the executive office is pretty happy. That good feeling starts to leave as soon as they start disseminating the software through their organization in a rollout plan that usually takes between 6 and 9 months. It takes so long because everyone needs some training and it's hard to coordinate schedules. Once the people responsible for entering the information, in both the field and the office, get their hands on it things inevitably grind to a halt.
Where does the snag come from? It starts with the end users in both the field and the office, i.e. the "bottom" of the top-down construction management model. The executive office notices that they either aren't producing reports at all, the reports aren't coming in regularly, or they are inaccurate. Of course, this cascades through the rest of the construction management software. Once the information from the users either stops or isn't accurate, things start to break down everywhere.
Why is that? Well, both the field and office are trying to understand how to use this new software. If they find it's complicated, they enter partial information or no information at all. If they do enter all of the information, it takes them hours to do so and as a result, over time, they stop doing it because they have to manage other fires on the project. In the meantime, the executives in the office, once so happy, are worse off than when they started. Now not only are they not getting the reports they wanted, but they have spent a bundle of money on a solution that no one seems to be using: technology adoption just wasn't there.
At this point you might be saying "come on, this can't happen every time. Enterprise software costs a lot for a reason: it has to work sometimes." You know, maybe it does. But we haven't drawn up this scenario from our imaginations: it comes from years of first-hand experience and talking to plenty of executives, project managers, and field superintendents around the country and the world.
Just take John Albert, the founder of Unified Building Group, who said "Whenever you adopt a new technology you have reservations because you spend a lot of money and then the problem is: no one can use it. You can purchase software that has all the bells and whistles but then if no one uses it, it's not allowing you to communicate effectively with your team, then it doesn't work. I asked myself 'are the guys in the field going to use it? Should I really get training for them and educate them on another piece of software when they didn't use the last one?'" Albert notes, "so we gave up on all the silver bullets out there as far as software because that was always our challenge; we could never get our folks in the field, who we really need the right information from, to get it back to accounting or the customer and get a true reflection. It could be the Ferrari of software but it's useless if no one can drive it."
Albert said it best when he said that there struggle with top-down construction management software was that they "could never get our folks in the field" to get them a true reflection of what's happening out there. But more than that, he gave us a reason why: it was too complicated.
Why Users Reject Top-Down Construction Management Software
The real problem with top-down construction management is that before buying the "silver bullet" software executives don't stop and ask themselves the question that Albert did "are the guys in the field and the folks in the office going to use it?" Instead, they buy the "bells and whistles" software and expect the users to get on board.
The problem is that these software suites, in an attempt to do everything, can include unnecessary information to sort through or processes that complicate things. You know you've got a complicated construction management solution when there are a dozen form fields to fill out just to complete a report, or if you have to go through a bunch of hoops just to submit a daily, RFI, or change order. Put frankly, executives don't stop and think what the users had to go through to get them a report: they just want the information.
So what happens is the end users in the field and office take too long trying to figure out the complicated software and, once they realize that it will take them longer to do their reports in this software than in their old method, they either stop doing reports entirely (worst case scenario) or they go back to their pen and paper or Excel spreadsheet and the entire system starts breaking down. Not only are executives not getting accurate information from the field but if anyone ever needs one of those reports, say in case of litigation, they have to go searching for it in the binders, hoping that it got done that day.
So why do users reject top-down software? Dominic Daughtry, Continuous Improvement Program Manager at Sundt, says "none of the superintendents enjoyed working with what we were using to process daily reports, the software we had implemented" he notes, "it was very time-consuming."
The superintendents weren't using the software because it was too complicated and time-consuming. The same thing happens every time.
Bottom-Up Construction Software: A Win-Win
Adopting construction software efficiently starts, ironically, at the top of the company with a slight shift in thinking: as an executive, instead of thinking how many reports you can get out of one construction management system, think about the work that goes into generating each of those reports downstream. All of the negative effects of buying an all-in-one-bells-and-whistles-silver-bullet construction management software can be mitigated by one simple thing that is probably more obvious than you might think.
A pilot program.
Before you buy that expensive software suite pause for a second and let your guys in the field and office really try it, and not just for one day. Give it to them for a week or more and see if they like it. You can tell they like it if one or more of the following happens:
- Superintendents in the field actually want to use it, i.e. they enjoy the experience of generating these reports.
- Payroll admins and PMs in the office aren't having to chase people down for reports.
- It didn't require more than an hour of training to use it: the more training required, the less effective it will be.
- Your report compliance is still high after a week: that will tell you that the software has staying power.
By focusing on how easily the users adopt construction software you shift your thinking, as an executive, away from what is best for me to what is best for the project. And we guarantee that what is best for the people is what's going to be the best tool to keep the project moving forward.
When you use a construction management software that is user-focused, instead of a cascading failure originating from the users and eventually winding it's way up through your company, you'll start seeing the following happen:
- You'll start getting accurate, on-time reports from the field.
- As a result, the office will have what they need to keep multiple projects moving forward efficiently.
- The people in your organization will be happier: the guys in the field have a tool they love, and the office doesn't have to fight with them or waste time double-entering anymore.
It's a successful construction management model because it focuses time and attention on the field rather than at the top of the organization. The field is where the vast majority of the workers and materials are, thus it's also the place that distinguishes successful construction companies from the failures. That's why you need to get a clear insight into what's happening in the field and a complicated, top-down construction management software is just not going to give it to you. Think about the user first, and the rest will fall into place.
Scaling Up a Field-Personalized Solution for an Enterprise Company
If you're an executive reading this you might be thinking "there are two big problems to doing what you say and focusing on the field first: scaling and integration. Field-focused solutions are personalized, and those don't scale well and even if they did I don't want to have to go to nine different platforms just to see the information: if it's in that many places it won't be clear and I won't be able to make connections."
Luckily, we're not the only ones who are advocating a bottom-up approach to construction management. A slew of new technologies that focus on certain roles or workflows within the construction industry are making it easier to think about the field first while still getting the reports that the office needs.
Take Raken, for example. We're a field-focused, mobile-friendly solution for construction field management that streamlines daily reporting and time cards. We know our solution works because, as John Albert says, "Raken has been a very useful, adaptable tool for our team, bridging that gap in the industry we've all seen. If you've got folks that can't communicate well through technology, Raken allows them to do that." Or take Tyler Guith, General Superintendent at Alta Construction, who said "The Raken daily reporting app is very efficient to use, it's very transparent for our clients and anyone, regardless of their skill level with technology, has the ability to use the program."
So Raken is focused on the role of a superintendent/foreman and the high-frequency workflows that they encounter every day: time cards and daily reports. But as an executive, you still have questions about scale and integration.
First of all Raken, like many other field-focused construction management solutions, has an open API so it can be scaled as part of your larger construction management platform, whether it be Procore, Trimble, or Autodesk BIM 360. Second, many construction firms are using business intelligence platforms like Construction BI to tie the software together and give executives that single source of truth, allowing them to get nuggets of insight and change that they could never get with an all-in-one enterprise solution. The only difference between using personalized apps tied together by a BI tool and getting an enterprise all-in-one solution is that one is bottom-up focused and the other is top-down. And, as we've seen, the top-down solution doesn't work.
You probably have other questions. For example, tying together various apps through an open API into a single construction business intelligence platform sounds like more work than anything in the world, for example, but it's actually as simple as entering your credentials. But for right now, we hope the message is clear: if you really want to modernize your construction firm, if you really want to start running your business, your office, and your site smarter, then stop thinking top-down and start thinking bottom-up. Once you do, you'll start seeing the positive changes you were hoping for.