AECbytes Viewpoint #42 (December 16, 2008)
Successful IT and Software Adoption in an A/E Firm
Director of Technology, LandDesign
In September 2003, LandDesign, Inc. hired Kristine Fallon Associates to perform an in-depth analysis of their technology services. As part of that network analysis, KFA consultant Linda Letourneau conducted a survey that revealed that fewer than half of the employees expressed satisfaction in the performance of the technology department. After implementing better technologies and changing the focus of the IT group to customer satisfaction and support, a new survey identified an average employee satisfaction rate of over 98 percent. In this Viewpoint article, Linda, who is now the Director of Technology at LandDesign, discusses the methodology behind such a dramatic turnaround in user satisfaction.
Not too many years ago, when I was consulting architects and engineers on their use of software and information technology, I conducted a training class on a popular construction management software program, Constructware (now part of Autodesk). When one of the principals was having trouble with a facet of the program, he hesitated to let me know that he needed help. After learning about the problem, I met with that principal, explained the process, and solved his problem.
“I am so sorry I had to bother you, but thanks so much for your help. This software is great,” he said as I was leaving.
“It just took a little explanation,” I said. “I was glad I could help. My job is to help you do your job better. Do not hesitate to call me if you have any other questions. This software can create efficiencies in our business practices, but it can only do that if everyone understands how to use it.”
“Well, to be truthful,” he said, “I feel so frustrated with computers and software. Thanks for explaining it to me.”
“No need to feel frustrated,” I said. “It is my job to learn the programs and convey the knowledge to you,” I said. “It is your job to be an engineer. Good thing I don’t have to ask you about retaining walls.”
Nobody likes to expose his or her ignorance, but that’s what people have to do every time they summon the IT department for help. Users are more willing to ask for help again if they are treated well by the staff of the information technology department. Of course, the engineer I helped was more willing to ask for help, because he was treated with respect. Technology staff need not scoff at the questions of users. That attitude does not make IT look smarter, and it makes the IT staff less effective with their user community. It is critical that the people in my department have people skills to match their technology skills.
Beyond Service, What?
In addition to polite, respectful service, what determines any technology’s success in an architectural and engineering firm? In my experience, a successful technology implementation results from understanding the firm’s processes, from a potential understanding of sustainable design to writing a contract and delivering construction documents. If a technology responds to a need represented by a business process, that technology will be embraced by its user community.
At LandDesign, we have a couple of hundred employees working in seven offices from North Carolina to China, designing and managing hundreds of projects in quite a few different countries. We need the ability to transfer large files securely and efficiently with our clients and other offices. For our projects, it is particularly important that we are able to track the where, who and when of those transfers. When I saw a demonstration of Newforma Project Center software, I recognized immediately that the Info Exchange portion of the product would meet our increased need to track file transfers efficiently. The deployment of that technology came first from the understanding of our company’s processes and workflows, then implementing technology to address those needs.
In the case of file transfers, the need for security and tracking eliminates FTP, or file transfer protocol, despite it being so common in the industry. Web extranets are another common way for our industry to exchange files, but extranets fail to integrate with internal systems such as Outlook email, and their separate security adds to administrative overhead, which is a further consideration.
Ultimately, our file transfer requirements have been solved by the software that we deployed to address larger issues of project information management, Newforma Project Center. Its Info Exchange component has been tailored for our industry, so it fit our specification. It is secure, keeps track of who downloaded what and when, and best of all from an IT standpoint, it can be used without IT set-up or intervention.
In short, we implement technology that supports our processes and workflows, rather than forcing our processes and workflows to adapt to technologies.
When People Use Technology, the Firm Wins
It is important to implement the right technologies. When technology truly helps people do their jobs, they use it, justifying the investment, raising productivity, and improving client service. Everybody wins. This is the role of IT in an AE firm: to help everyone win!
The same thoroughness with which we evaluated the file sharing process applies to other processes in the firm: design and design reviews, requests for information, markups, capturing all communication on a project, and more. Familiarity with business processes helps the IT group be more responsible for the data he or she is responsible for managing.
It’s not just a matter of choosing software for these jobs, either. Our firm’s processes influence decisions that we make about all facets of our IT universe: servers, shares, remote access, security, configurations, backups, disaster recovery, and more.
Eating Your Own Cooking
Back to training and support: IT personnel provide better support when they use the software themselves. There’s a limit, of course—it doesn’t make sense for the IT department to learn Autodesk products, but it is necessary for us to understand its configuration and common issues. It is critical for IT to become familiar with products that represent new technologies. We need to include experts in our company in evaluating new software. For example, when Newforma Project Center was demonstrated at our Charlotte office, we found it critical to include key production staff members to validate its assumed value. The software raises our productivity, and it improves our ability to answer questions. I can’t tell you how many times a colleague has asked a question of me that I had recently asked—and answered—myself.
Actually, our knowledge of the software starts with initial training. In our deployments of AutoCAD 2007 and Newforma, we’ve been as involved in training our users as the software company representatives have. (Granted, preparing and delivering training comes naturally to me—I was an educator before I became an IT manager.) The advantage of doing your own training is that your users will perceive you as the expert, and come to you for answers. That way, people are not swimming in the Sea of Confusion for prolonged periods, wasting time. When they have questions, they ask.
Of course, the IT department cannot master every piece of software, so we identify those users who have, and rely upon them for help.
To summarize, the role of IT in an AE firm is to grease the wheels of productivity. Whatever workflows and processes people are following, if technology exists to save time, reduce the number of steps, increase reliability and guard against failure, it’s our job to evaluate, deploy and train in that technology. If we don’t know or understand those processes, we need to betray our ignorance and start asking questions. As it turns out, people are always happy to explain, and we all benefit.
About The Author
Linda Letourneau has been LandDesign’s director of technology since 2003. She has specialized in information technology for architects and engineers since 1993, managing information systems for A. Epstein and Sons International, and consulting AEC firms in a wide range of technology issues on behalf of Kristine Fallon Associates. She is an authority in Autodesk Constructware project management software deployment and training. She holds a Master of Arts degree in education and is a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer.
Founded in 1978, LandDesign provides award-winning solutions in urban design, planning, civil engineering, branding and landscape architecture to public and private sector clients across the globe. Its more than 280 city planners, landscape architects, civil engineers, geographers, surveyors, construction administrators, graphic designers, marketers and artists work from offices in Charlotte, Pinehurst and Asheville, N.C.; Washington, D.C.; Tampa, Fla.; Nashville, Tenn.; and Beijing, People’s Republic of China. Visit the website at http://www.landdesign.com.
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