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Interoperability in the Construction Industry — the Next IT Frontier
Contractors are constantly looking for technology solutions to improve transparency, increase efficiency, obtain a competitive advantage, or simply because employees are requesting access to new technological tools. In response, software developers are flooding the market with new applications. At first glance this appears to be a boon for the construction industry as more applications are available.
Unfortunately, the unintended result is that the current landscape of software for construction work resembles The Tower of Babel. The numerous data types, frameworks, and architectural preferences yield a plethora of applications unable to communicate with one another. Up to now, the concept of commercially available, seamlessly integrated information systems is elusive.
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However, interoperability — seamlessly integrated systems capable of exchanging data and interpreting that data — is becoming a top priority among end users, trade associations, and even software developers. End users benefit from “point” solutions that do one thing well, but are looking for solutions capable of exchanging data between applications. The ability to do so would greatly enhance the information generated by our current applications.
Costs of shortcomings
The lack of interoperability is costly to many stakeholders in the construction supply chain. The following examples demonstrate the need for interoperability.
Conditions of a contract
General contractors are frequently required by the customer to deploy a specific project management application in order to be awarded the contract. The requirement flows downstream to subcontractors as well. As such, unnecessary costs are incurred on projects simply to facilitate the exchange of electronic information between stakeholders.
Certified payroll software
In the state of Minnesota, many contractors are experiencing the pain and cost of submitting certified payroll online. Most software vendors have not released updates to export certified payroll in a format compliant with Minnesota Department of Transportation requirements. This is creating costly duplicate data entry for many contractors.
Inefficiencies in field reporting
Many contractors want access to better field reporting through the use of equipment tracking devices, daily reporting applications like B2W and HCSS Heavy Job, or service management applications. The cross utilization of data between the field applications and the accounting and operations software is essential to efficient data capture and reporting.
A beacon of hope
Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) is promoting agcXML to streamline the exchange of information during the design and construction process. Proof of concept was delivered this year at the AGC IT Forum in Chicago — StratusVue, a collaboration software provider, exchanged a Request for Information (RFI) with Sage, an enterprise resource planning system, using the new agcXML schema. This may not sound like groundbreaking news, but if you’ve experienced the pain of building or buying application bridges, or hiring administrative staff to duplicate data entry, you’ll understand the significance of this achievement.
Increasing need for interoperability
It’s fair to assume the role of IT in our lives will only expand in the coming years. In the last 10 years Google became a search powerhouse, Apple became the most valuable U.S. company by market cap, Facebook connected almost 50 percent of the world’s internet users, and AppStores containing over a billion apps were created. Try to think of the next 10 years — autonomous cars, internet of things, big data, fiber to residential homes, and the list goes on.
The cost of bridging applications and manually transferring data becomes even more cumbersome as the role of IT expands. For example, the internet of things is an environment where various devices — mobile, heavy equipment, hardhats, drones, cameras, glasses (Google), etc. — are connected to the network. Each of these generates data that by itself may be useless, but when combined may offer valuable insights into the life of a jobsite. This underscores the power of big data as well as the need for tools to consolidate that data.
Standardization to facilitate interoperability would save enormous amounts of time and money for many stakeholders. However, in fairness to software developers and patent/copyright holders, standardization may raise difficult issues that result in competitive disadvantages for some or infringements on proprietary information. Even so, solutions are being explored and developed to enhance the state of interoperability by the day.
What to do now
For now, contractors may want to consider unifying to increase the likelihood of receiving solutions from their software vendors. Most software vendors prioritize customer service requests by degree of severity. It is unlikely that vendors will bridge applications or develop web services to facilitate interoperability if these are requested at the individual level. However, submitting the request from a user group or other association may carry the necessary weight to yield results.
Until agcXML (or another solution) is widely adopted by software developers in the construction industry, contractors will have to endure the pain and cost of disparate applications, or develop custom solutions to bridge applications. While we wait for this issue to be sorted out by those providing technology to the construction industry, interoperability — or at least effective interfaces — must be part of every technology conversation. The expectation that systems will share data must be considered in the planning, shopping, and due diligence phases of technology acquisition, not after the application is purchased and pushed to the users.