Digital construction project management_nPulse

Author: Nirad Nunna, Consultant II, Bentley Systems

It is common for construction projects to use multiple tens of Excel ‘trackers’ to track and monitor their projects. Many companies often make the mistake of confusing greater number and complex trackers with digitization. 

Is your answer to digitization more Excel trackers? 

World over, every industry including construction, is gravitating towards adapting digital technologies to improve efficiencies, cost savings, and most importantly make data-driven decisions. Since the day Excel was launched, it has become widely used and is largely the tool of choice for users across industries including construction mainly for its ease of use.  

In the construction industry, many stakeholders use Excel trackers to keep track of progress, information, decisions etc. in many aspects of project planning and monitoring including design coordination, inventory management, supply of materials and equipment, tracking quality and safety issues, not to mention tracking progress against plans and sometimes planning itself, issue of POs and contract management and administration, billing, and cashflows etc.  

In short, it is common for stakeholders in construction projects to use multiple tens of Excel “trackers” to track and monitor their projects. To make things worse, data from these spreadsheets are collated, combined, analysed, and presented to management as reports and dashboards. For example, earned value metrics, delay analysis, and claims for EOT are done in spreadsheets based on data from other spreadsheets used to gather project information as described above. To date many organizations in construction continue to rely on Excel and are reluctant to adapting new technologies for project monitoring and control and believe that have data in digital format is the equivalent of being digitalized.  

However, one should note that relying on spreadsheets alone for digital transformation can be quite limiting. For one, the spreadsheets are standalone information silos that are not connected to other spreadsheets (aka data). While it is possible to connect the data silos through the capabilities of Excel, the results of connected spreadsheets eventually become complex, unwieldy, and difficult to manage and maintain essentially negating the flexibility of Excel itself.  

Any meaningful attempt to connect data and information to make it functionally useful is essentially the same as creating a software solution for project controls. And it is also easy to appreciate that when it comes to managing enormous amounts of data that gets generated on a construction project, cloud-based platforms, which enable users to share information, store them remotely, and create a common data environment is more appropriate more easily. Online cloud-based storage also gives stakeholders ability to avoid losing information when people rotate in and out of projects and/or when laptop or desktop hardware fail.  

Another limitation of Excel trackers is that they are until recently largely designed for laptops and desktops and in construction the need is to have to deliver information to sites on mobile devices. 

digitization in construction_npulse

While Excel trackers can be accessed from a mobile device, this is often less user friendly than using a native mobile app.  

In the construction industry where field workers are not always tech savvy, having user friendly apps that natively speak the construction industry lingo is critical for adoption of any technology solution. In short, this necessitates the need for solutions that have native mobility capabilities for successful adoption of digitization and for digital transformation of the business.  

The third limitation of Excel is that while it is useful for managing structured information, it is not very useful to gather and manage unstructured information like design information, images, videos, audio files and other such information. For instance, the need for better alignment between stakeholders during design involves letting consultant’s markup drawings (2D or 3D) but have capabilities to extract them to get them approved through workflows.  

Finally, Excel trackers are popular because they are easy to create and use in terms of tracking data and performing simple analysis for urgent and immediate needs and simple single process digital data capture. But practically for project controls and for generating KPIs (key performance indicators) that are needed for decision makers to make decisions on projects, beyond data, there is a need for data analysis, data synthesis, and understanding of the domain to generate insights. These objectives cannot be achieved through Excel based trackers.  

Excel as the platform for digitization is limiting for multiple reasons:  

(a) Its inability to eliminate data silos 

(b) Lack of usability in a mobile enabled world  

(c) Inability to extract unstructured information 

(d) Lack of ability to provide KPIs and analytics-based insights for decision support 

For effective construction project controls, the industry must realize the need for an integrated project controls solution. A solution that can create a connected data platform, wherein one can stitch 3D design with schedule, cost, quality, issue, and provide a single source of truth for project information across all stakeholders (internal and external, site and HO).  

The solution should be bi-directionally interoperable with existing design solutions, scheduling solutions, and ERP systems while providing a common interface for collaboration and control across design, procurements, and execution. Ideally, the goal and objective of deploying digital solutions and digitalization should be integration of data, avoiding data entry duplication, and synthesis of information to provide better governance guardrails and with an end-to-end view of data. Success of the digitization efforts should be to have a single source of truth for project information that can generate forward looking KPIs for decision makers in near real time to help them course correct projects and hence avoid time and cost overruns.