How AEC Firms can Maximize their Digital Investments

A few years ago, a small but fast-growing design and engineering consulting firm was wrestling with how to maximize its software investments to better manage projects, customer relationships, data, and its overall business.

Over a period of months, firm leaders went back and forth, debating what type of investment would deliver the best bang for the buck in terms of efficiency gains, employee experience and bottom-line ROI. Arriving at a decision wasn’t easy, but the path they chose ultimately proved to be the right one. Instead of continuing with a piecemeal approach to the firm’s digital infrastructure, a strategy that had led to frustration and the search for a better alternative, firm leaders decided it would make more sense to build a single digital ecosystem around two critical pieces of software that would readily integrate with one another.

So, they put in place a digital foundation with fully integrated ERP (enterprise resource planning) and CRM (customer relationship management) systems as its cornerstones. And they haven’t looked back since. Today the decision to pursue a seamless, silo-free digital ecosystem is yielding a wide range of ongoing, measurable benefits.

Here in the world of architecture, engineering and construction, firms like this are the exception rather than the rule. As much as AEC firms stand to gain from having a streamlined digital infrastructure (we’ll detail some of those benefits in a moment), my best estimate, based on results of our own benchmarking survey and countless informal discussions with firm leaders, is that no more than 5-10% of AEC firms have such an ecosystem in place.

One thing that’s clear, though, is that firms in this small minority tend to outperform their peers in a wide range of important metrics, from profitability to win rate to attracting and retaining talent. The first step in joining that exclusive company is for firm leaders to assess whether the firm is a good candidate to move away from disparate software in favor of an integrated tech stack. If your firm experiences some of the following telltale signs, it could well be primed for such a move:

  • The systems you have in place make it a struggle to keep pace with your firm’s aggressive growth goals.

  • Data and the insight it can yield are scattered, obscured, and difficult for people to access. This lack of timely, trusted, and universally accessible information stifles strategic dialogue, planning and collaboration, making it difficult to create a cohesive culture and share essential knowledge across your team.

  • Project managers and other firm decision-makers lack fresh, accurate data to make fully informed decisions. When it comes to data, the old ‘garbage in, garbage out’ adage applies. 

  • PMs and other key billable employees feel overloaded by technology. They spend way too much nonbillable time bouncing between non-integrated tech tools — time that could be spent on more strategically valuable pursuits.

  • People waste valuable time on repetitive, unnecessary manual tasks and struggle to find information when they need it.

  • The employee experience — and a firm’s ability to attract and retail talent — suffers because people are forced to use disjointed, clunky technology.

  • Slow billing processes are hampering revenue recognition.

  • The firm is leaving new business on the table because evaluating new business pursuits is an inexact science based too much on gut instinct and too little on real data.

If some of these ring true, chances are your firm — both employees and customers — could really benefit from an integrated tech stack. But where to start? Now the focus shifts to due diligence and the following steps to identify the right software and provider.  

  • Separate your technology needs into two categories: core and noncore. In shopping for core software (like accounting, business development, BIM, project execution and payroll), prioritize systems that are designed specifically for architecture, engineering, or construction firms rather than generic business software, and which enables you to manage the entire project lifecycle. This way you get systems that track to your business processes instead of spending time and money developing customizations and workarounds. As for noncore systems (videoconferencing, onboarding, etc.), while these needn’t be industry-specific, they should provide a good user experience and readily integrate with one another — and into the firm’s broader tech stack.

  • Find a provider that knows the AEC business and treats you like a true partner. You want a provider who’s always ready with guidance and answers to your questions, one who listens to and acts on your feedback, consistently pushes the innovation envelope, and views your success as their success. A long-term software investment deserves a long-term partner.

  • Is one-stop shopping an option? For simplicity’s sake, see if a single provider can address all your core software needs.

  • Prioritize systems that readily integrate with other key business software. Part of building a lasting, scalable digital infrastructure is finding systems for HRIS, payroll, digital asset management, etc., that integrate with your core systems.

  • Look for systems with powerful analytics tools that put insight at peoples’ fingertips via interactive dashboards and reports, so they can easily see what’s going on in their part of the business. The most scalable systems will also fit neatly into your tech stack with business intelligence tools like PowerBI.

  • Put people first. The software you choose should ultimately enable people to work smarter, not more, help them to feel empowered in their jobs, and foster the kind of collaboration and communication that creates a “one-company” culture. So be sure you understand and identify peoples’ needs and priorities, then choose software that will best fulfill them.

Once you’ve chosen a provider and gone live with the software (hopefully with quality support and training from that provider), it’s time for your tech investment to start paying dividends.  What to expect? For starters, you should notice a marked improvement in the efficiency and productivity of your teams. Data and insight should flow unimpeded across the organization, reaching people exactly when they need it. Scheduling should consistently be spot-on, workflows streamlined, and teams synced to the tasks at hand. Waste, delays, and cost overruns should be rare. Decision-making should be collaborative and inclusive. As for projects, they should be more profitable and deliver more value to the customer. You should be winning more of the right kind of business. Your thriving culture should attract and retain top talent.

And because of all this, your firm should be more profitable and better positioned to grow over the long term — exactly the outcome you envisioned when you decided to invest in an integrated digital ecosystem in the first place.

About the Author

Akshay Mahajan is Executive Vice President, AEC, at Unanet, a company that creates business software solutions for architecture, engineering and construction firms, and government contractors. For more information, please visit


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