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AECbytes Feature (May 28, 2009)

Financial and Business Management Applications Exhibited at AIA 2009

As mentioned in my article on the technology product highlights from the AIA 2009 Convention published earlier this month, the AIA show this year had a surprising increase in the number of financial and business management applications that were exhibited. In addition to established vendors such as Deltek and Axium, as well as OrangeLoft with its ArchiOffice application, there were two applications from other countries that were just being launched in the US market: Total Synergy and Assistance PSO. Let’s explore all of these various offerings and get a better understanding of this genre of applications for architectural practice.

Deltek Vision

Deltek is the leading provider of enterprise management software specific to the AEC industry, and many large AEC firms have already standardized on it for business tasks such as ERP, CRM, and Finance. While it has a large array of products for different tasks and market segments, the focus of Deltek at the AIA show was on demonstrating the new release of its Vision application for enterprise resource and project planning. It is designed for architecture and engineering firms to improve the entire service delivery lifecycle, from winning the right business and creating project budgets and resource plans, to capturing all project-related costs and measuring business performance. I last wrote about Deltek Vision in my overview of the AIA 2006 show, where version 4.0 was being demonstrated with a key new feature, Visualization. This provided a simple display depicting mission-critical information about a firm's entire business—including project performance, status, trends and risks—using color and shapes to alert viewers of any performance issues at a glance, allowing them to focus on the most critical issues.

The new release, Vision 6.0, which was being showcased at this year’s AIA show, was two years in the making and is Deltek’s largest development effort to date. The focus was on offering new capabilities to help companies manage and measure their pipeline, people, and profits across the global enterprise, and provide customers with the key to unlocking their data by analyzing it as required. A new Performance Management module allows a company to move beyond financial reporting to a more comprehensive view of strategic and operational indicators. It includes five pre-configured, role-based dashboards—Executive, Principal, Organization Leader, Project Manager, and Finance—that allows people with different roles to view the business data dynamically and drill into it as required (see Figure 1). This improves the ability of the management team and staff to collaborate and make key decisions based on real-time business performance metrics.


Figure 1. One of the new pre-configured, role-based dashboards available in Vision 6.0. (Courtesy: Deltek)

Another key feature of Vision 6.0 is bi-directional integration between Vision’s Resource Planning module and Microsoft Project, allowing resources and schedules to be kept in synch, thereby making the task of the project manager a lot easier. The integration happens through a module called Project Connect, which allows tracking of job-to-date progress from Vision data in Microsoft Project, management of employee data in one place, and the ability to match the complexity level of the project with the complexity level of the project management tool.

Other improvements include a brand new reporting engine based on Microsoft SQL Reporting Services that allows custom reports to be easily created, Smart Grid views with drag and drop grouping and filtering (see Figure 2), and Instant Messaging integration throughout the application suite for instant collaboration. International enhancements have been added that simplify complex international accounting and tax transactions as well as foreign language translation and support. Also, Vision is a web-based application and its technological underpinnings have been strengthened by updating it to work with Microsoft’s latest .NET platform, making it easier to deploy and manage.


Figure 2. Using the new SmartGrids feature to organize, filter, and view data as required. (Courtesy: Deltek)

Axium’s Ajera and PORTFOLIO

Axium develops integrated accounting and project management solutions for architectural and engineering firms, designed to help them manage projects and perform other related tasks that cannot be done using generic accounting software. It provides solutions for both small and large firms. Axium’s base software solution is Ajera, which includes billing, real-time reporting, expense tracking, time entry, project management, and cash flow forecasting capabilities. Billing is streamlined with industry standard billing formats and the ability to include relevant supporting detail in draft invoices organized as required. A Dashboard provides immediate access to project highlights, phase and task detail, company critical financial balances and trends, firm wide utilization, and specific reports (see Figure 3). The general ledger and project functionality is integrated with full accounting capability, and financial information such as time, expenses, billing rates, etc., are directly distributed to the project for quick and easy management. Other key features include a fully integrated and automated time entry, review, and approval process; an Inquiry feature that allows users to customize how they access and organize their data and drill through different levels of detail; role-based security that determines what information each user can see and edit; and web-based remote access.


Figure 3. One of the reports accessible through Ajera’s Dashboard capability, showing agings and trends for key accounts and company-wide utilization. (Courtesy: Axium)

Axium also provides a higher-end solution called PORTFOLIO, which has all of Ajera’s tools and adds to it more comprehensive project management capabilities including resource planning, budgeting, scheduling, and task management. An additional Business Development module is available at an additional cost. It is fully integrated with PORTFOLIO and comes with a centralized, real time database providing access to the data needed to plan and manage potential new business. The access to this information provides visibility to a company’s opportunity pipeline to forecast future revenues as well as resources required to complete the work.


Figure 4. Using the Business Development feature in Axium’s PORTFOLIO product. (Courtesy: Axium)

ArchiOffice

Developed by an architectural firm, ArchiOffice is an application designed to streamline the architect’s organizational and management tasks, combining accounting functionality including expense tracking, invoicing, and calendaring with document and project management. A new version of the application was recently launched, and the AIA show served as the perfect venue to highlight its enhanced power and capabilities. It has been rewritten in Java, which allows it to operate on both PCs and Macs and has resulted in an interface design that is visually very pleasing. Its underlying database technology has been enhanced to improve performance and scalability, allowing the application to break the barrier of the number of users it can support and paving the way for its adoption by firms of any size. The improved database has also provided it with more powerful data mining and search capability.

A key new feature in ArchiOffice v8 is the Business Dashboard shown in Figure 5, which is fully customizable and provides a consolidated view of key business performance indicators to the firm’s executive team. Three different project types can be created: Billable, RFP and Internal Projects. For each project, performance charts can be generated showing key information such as receivables/aging, billing hours, monthly invoicing, billing efficiency, and profitability, and these can be customized to display information for only a given employee. Also new is the ability to define milestones for projects, enabling teams to better meet their deadlines.


Figure 5. The new Business Dashboad view in ArchiOffice v8. (Courtesy: ArchiOffice)

Task management has been greatly enhanced in the new version of ArchiOffice. You can load master tasks that have been predefined in one step, or load them one phase at a time. You can add an unlimited number of tasks, easily re-arrange the order, assign multiple employees and a duration to each task, thereby providing for accurate progress monitoring. New Time Card and Expense Card views allows employees to enter slips quickly and monitor their totals, including efficiency for the given work week (see Figure 6). Individual entries can be quickly modified and data can be filtered by day with a simple click. Each individual user also now has a customized Home view that lists information relevant only to them, including a list of their contacts, the projects they are working on, and their time and expense slips, appointments, milestones, and to-do items for that day.


Figure 6. The weekly Time Card for an employee recorded in ArchiOffice. (Courtesy: ArchiOffice)

Other enhancements in ArchiOffice v8 include keyboard shortcuts for faster navigation; the ability to create an unlimited number of contact or project related notes that can be searched, filtered, and printed; an improved document management system that makes it easier to move and copy files and folders; the ability to link to an existing directory of documents, enabling them to be added to ArchiOffice without physically being relocated; the ability to build custom reports and save them for re-use; and an advanced PDF assembly feature that allows you to combine an unlimited number of existing PDFs in any combination to produce a single new multi-page PDF. There is full integration with applications such as Outlook, Entourage, Apple Mail, iCal, and AddressBook, allowing contacts, emails and events to stay in sync. Integration with Microsoft Word has been enhanced, allowing project data, including images, to be merged into documents, thereby providing a convenient way to extract large amounts of data from ArchiOffice in a presentation ready format.

Total Synergy

Total Synergy was launched in Australia in 2000 and now has a client base in that country of over 200 firms, with more than 6000 professionals using the system. Labeled as “professional practice management software for architects and engineers,” Total Synergy is a suite of applications addressing the practice lifecycle, from winning business and managing ongoing business, to invoicing and business reporting. It is available in different modules targeted towards different firm sizes.

The core of the suite is the Foundation module, targeted towards small to medium practices. Its repertoire of tools can be divided into three main categories: winning business, managing projects, and accounting. The first category includes all the tools needed to prepare proposals in one central source, including estimating, document management, contact management and CRM. The second category includes tools and information to assist in managing projects efficiently and effectively, including project control, project budgeting, electronic timesheets, staff expenses, and project reporting (see Figure 7). The third category has tools for billing, accounts integration, accounts receivable management, practice reporting and archiving. The application has been designed to ensure speed, simplicity, reliability, and ease of maintenance. It also features direct links to standard Microsoft Office programs to better integrate with existing software.


Figure 7. One of the project management modules of Total Synergy. (Courtesy: Total Synergy)

The Enterprise module of Total Synergy is designed for medium to large practices. It builds upon the Foundation module and includes additional features such as pro-active alerts, key performance indicators, advanced reporting tools, multi office deployment, earned valuation calculation, timesheet approvals, foreign currency, and project team management. There is also an Xpress version for the sole practitioner and small firms. A utility called Synergy Connect is available for integrating these modules with financial accounting applications such as QuickBooks, Sage AccPac, and MYOB.


Figure 8. Synchronizing data with the accounting application, MYOB, using the Synergy Connect utility. (Courtesy: Total Synergy)

Assistance PSO

This product comes from a company called Assistance Software based in the Netherlands, and it is now being marketed in the US through a partner company, Sikich. It started off as being a project management software focused on the architectural and engineering sector, but has subsequently been expanded to support the requirements of all professional service organizations (PSOs) that work on a project basis and offer long-term services, including financial services, IT services, market research firms, and so on. It can be used by small, medium-sized and large organizations alike and has already being implemented by over 600 organizations.

The key differentiating factor between Assistance PSO and the other solutions profiled here is that it is designed to work with Microsoft Dynamics, a suite of integrated business management solutions from Microsoft, including financial, supply chain and customer relationship management. Built in Microsoft’s .NET C# development environment and with Microsoft SQL SERVER as its database platform, Assistance PSO is a Microsoft Certified Product. This also means close integration with other Microsoft products such as Outlook, Word, Excel, and SharePoint. The different modules of the application and how they integrate with Microsoft products is shown in Figure 9.


Figure 9. An overview of the different modules of Assistance PSO and how they integrate with Microsoft applications. (Courtesy: Assistance Software)

Project administration lies at the core of Assistance PSO. Contract arrangements like cost-plus agreements, fixed prices, percentage schemes, installment plans and cost-plus agreements subject to ceilings can be recorded for each project phase/item. The project dashboard provides an overview of project status at a glance, with tabs for hours, expenses, invoices and related documents (see Figure 10). Working hours can be entered in the time sheet, which is conveniently linked to Outlook. Expenses can also be easily recorded, and invoicing is automated as well as flexible. A personal role-based interface can be created for each employee, providing quick access to the information they need. Information can be analyzed quickly and efficiently with the ability to group, sort, and filter in all fields. With the use of a SharePoint connector, a SharePoint site is automatically created for each project, allowing documents, job lists, project activities, etc. to be easily shared with others.


Figure 10. A project dashboard view in Assistance PSO. (Courtesy: Assistance Software)

Conclusion

This article has attempted to provide an overview of some of the leading and upcoming applications for financial and business management available for architectural firms. These are usually not discussed as much as other AEC applications, despite the fact that the business of architecture is as critical a component as design. Finances are always important, and they become more so in tough economic times such as the ones we are currently going through. This may help to explain the unusual surge of these applications being exhibited at the AIA show this year. Going forward, it should be interesting to see if the new version of ArchiOffice can become a more mainstream product to rival the offerings of larger vendors such as Deltek and Axium, and if the new entrants, Total Synergy and Assistance PSO, succeed in establishing a foothold in the industry, which has so far been dominated by a handful of players.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at lachmi@aecbytes.com.

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