“If You Build It…”

Moments after setting down his glasses and rubbing his eyes, Bruce Fleming, vice-president and CIO of EllisDon Construction Ltd., sees the humour of his involuntary response to a question about the long working days and weeks during the past 15 months. His action draws a sympathetic laugh from president and CEO Geoffrey Smith and chief technology officer Gerry Murphy, seated across the boardroom table from him at the company’s Toronto head office.

With the blessing of Smith and the cooperation of Murphy and his staff of five, Fleming has transformed the role of IS at EllisDon – one of Canada’s pre-eminent general contracting firms – from that of a capable if low-profile supporter of the business to a pivotal player in the company’s business strategy, providing unique capabilities that have given EllisDon a compelling business advantage.

Fleming describes himself as a structural engineer with an MBA and an interest in technology. The former chief engineer was promoted to vice-president and CIO in 2000. The move reflected an effort to enhance the stature and profile of IT within the company, raising it from a corporate service to a strategic business contributor, with the potential to be a large profit centre.

Responding to Industry Change

The 50-year-old firm has a proven engineering capability, but today’s clients are also looking for risk protection – evidence that a contractor’s documentation management is in order and up to date. General contractors are information brokers who traditionally have controlled the information. Now owners are taking control of that information.

About two or three years ago, clients started demanding more involvement from project teams, explains CEO Smith. Not only did they want builders to be able to do the building and guarantee the work, they also wanted them “to be more like consultants”. They wanted both a partner and an open book relationship.

Fleming recalls that at a presentation to win the contract to build the parking garage at the Lester B. Pearson International Airport in Mississauga, EllisDon’s technical competency impressed the building project authority, but its information management did not. After a couple of reflective days, Smith charged Fleming with the task of bringing EllisDon’s information management capabilities up to the level of best in the business.

Fleming recalls there was little doubt a new project management system was needed. Teams of five or six people each were working on projects across the country. It wasn’t unusual for a handful of people to be responsible for a $100 million project involving hundreds of people and thousands of interactions. Their work basically amounted to managing information. And unfortunately the paper load was brutal. Job teams weren’t benefiting from improvements made to accounting.

Shopping for a System

Fleming found 200 project management systems on the market – none of which were developed by builders – and compared them to the checklist of qualities he was looking for (see sidebar). ActiveProject by Texas-based Engineered Business Solutions, Inc. got the highest mark, but met only 70 per cent of the requirements.

EllisDon reviewed its options and saw only three possible courses of action: it could choose ActiveProject and hope the product would improve; it could wait for a better system to come along; or it could develop a system of its own. In November 1999, Smith instructed Fleming to investigate the latter option. When the number-crunching was done, the decision was made to build a system in-house, and the company’s EDgeBuilder project was born.

Creating EDgeBuilder

The EDgeBuilder project management system applies Internet technology to support the collaboration of owners, consultants, contractors, construction managers, suppliers and subcontractors. It does this through standardized processes and by providing a single source of reliable information to users.

Taking the approach that “in order for information to be useful, it has to be shared,” all EllisDon project management processes, scope of work items and

contract checklists are on-line within EDgeBuilder. The system uses 128-bit encryption and keeps such information strictly private.

Rather than creating repositories of data, the system follows inherent workflows. Fleming’s team mapped out internal processes crossing organizational boundaries. “Workflow is where the savings are,” he says. “The success [of this system is that] it improves administrative efficiency.”

Construction professionals are required only to perform normal construction management activities, while logging is performed automatically by the system.

Owners can use their secure access to their EDgeBuilder Web link and get instant access to the information they need to track their projects’ progress against critical milestones.

Web cameras will be used at many of the sites, enabling owners and management to log in at any time and see the progress being made. Owners can also access live data being used by all participants to make decisions relating to specific aspects of the project. A mouse click on any line item takes the user deeper to supporting detail in an underlying document.

EllisDon uses two Web servers – one in London, Ont. and the other in Toronto. They balance the load access of the Website and update each other every 15 minutes. Both sites have built-in redundancy to ensure system reliability. An EDgeBuilder server at the project level replicates data every 15 minutes and pushes it to several area servers throughout North America so teams and project managers can access information readily, easily seeing if a document has been changed.

EDgeBuilder system manager Scott Patterson describes the system as Web-enabled rather than Web-based, because many of the job sites do not have high-speed Internet connection. “We don’t want technology to be a constraining factor,” Fleming stresses.

A Tsunami of Paper

Fleming notes that the new system hasn’t required much training, even for ‘non-techies’, because it basically automates what people do already, enhancing normal project workflow processes. In the past, that workflow has manifested itself in a tsunami of paper.

“Our business is not data; it is documents and reports,” says Fleming. He claims to have browsed the files from a recent $100 million project and counted 100,000 documents, of which about 40,000 were not duplicates. Documents included details on refuted claims, payment of subcontractors, and so on. There were even documents documenting that the original documentation was communicated!

Fleming says the company will use paper in a different way now. Instead of filing it when finished with it, people can actually throw it out. With EDgeBuilder, a document becomes only a printed version of the information archived on the system.

Towards Knowledge Management

Although the system was originally intended to streamline workflow, Fleming says, “as we got into it, we saw greater potential.” The plan is now to integrate it with marketing and accounting functions. In time, knowledge management techniques will be applied so that the information can be leveraged throughout the company.

He suggests, for example, that a history of a dozen or so jobs might reveal that a certain subcontractor typically had a large number of changes requested on each of its jobs. That information could be taken into account when deciding on awarding work.

“People come and go, or move to another area of the company, and memories get hazy,” he explains. “We can augment anecdotal information and draw on live and historical knowledge. The equity of the company is the skill of our people and the historical knowledge. We’re trying to leverage both of these.”

Fleming describes one veteran senior project manager as carrying a 43-step project guide with him religiously. Having that wealth of information available

on-line to all project managers, as well as automating those workflow processes, has certainly been well received by staff.

“I’m amazed at so little resistance,” Fleming marvels. “The problem has been holding them back.”

Impact on Staffing

The impact of the system has been far-reaching, even affecting how staffing is done. Fleming says EllisDon attracts better people by giving them better tools. Training is easier. The workflow is so well defined that new project managers have more time to learn by shadowing senior staff rather than spending most of their days filling out the shop drawing log. The system shows who did what and when, and who sent it to whom. That eliminates paper chases and lost reports, which in turn saves time and money.

A “ball in court” functionality shows at any time the status of a particular item and who is responsible for taking the next action. When a task such as a subtrade’s request for more information is received on-line, it is automatically moved to the next person in line to deal with it. This on-line automatic forwarding and charting of responsibility has cut down the typical four to six weeks of letting a subcontract to a day or less.

Above all, the system ensures there are no surprises. It not only ensures everyone is rowing in the same direction, but that everyone is rowing. “There’s no place to hide,” says CEO Smith.

“It’s a tool that has helped project managers develop great relationships with

clients,” adds Fleming.

Applying New Technology

Fleming is obviously hooked on boosting efficiency through the latest technology. He eagerly looks forward to the use of wireless tablets in the field, and he expects to add a wireless local area network within a year.

He even talks about wearable computing devices, citing the example of a tradesperson currently having to look at a drawing, then climb a ladder to do the work, and then climb back down to look at the drawing again to confirm that

the details were remembered correctly. Instead, the person might have a miniature screen mounted to his or her safety helmet, showing the relevant detail of the drawing.

Fleming predicts this capability may only be a couple of years away. EllisDon’s systems platform is designed to accommodate such advances. He says the company has created an architecture that is “ahead of where we need it, but not so far that we won’t need it.”

Grand Introduction

EDgeBuilder is being put through its paces in grand style. At press time about 17 projects throughout North America were being run with it, totalling $568 million in value. Fleming says EllisDon expects to have $1 billion worth of work going through the system within its first year. The first 10 jobs have been undergoing comprehensive testing and in February were at the final testing phase.

Fleming, Murphy and Smith are convinced EllisDon has a strong competitive edge now that it has built its own system and is eating its own cooking. Attending a Construct Canada conference seminar recently, Fleming listened hard to the questions asked by staff from other firms. He came away with the impression that EllisDon is 15 to 18 months ahead the competition. The response of a client last year seemed further confirmation of the value of their system. The client accepted their building proposal on the condition that EllisDon would also sell them their project management system.

Fleming and staff managed in 15 months to update the corporate IT infrastructure to handle EDgeBuilder while maintaining existing management functions – all without adding staff. It is the memory of those challenging months that are nearly at their end that prompts him to rub his tired eyes. We figure he’s entitled to a yawn or two. Freelance writer Susan Maclean, principal of Sumac Communication, covers a wide range IT applications. She is based in Guelph, Ontario and can be reached atwww.sumac.net.

Sidebar: Taking the lead with technology

EllisDon Construction Ltd. has no intention of being the best buggy whip company in the automobile age. The construction company has never shied away from incorporating change.

In 1956, it became the first contractor in Canada to purchase and operate its own fleet of tower cranes. In 1968, it was the country’s first building company to fully computerize its accounting and cost control systems.

In 1986, it was awarded the design and build contract for Toronto’s SkyDome, the world’s first stadium with a fully retractable roof. Two years later, it completed the $500 million Cami Automotive Plant, the largest car plant in North America to be completed under a design and build, guaranteed price contract. In 1990, it established the building industry’s first freestanding research and development department in an effort to maintain its leadership in the science of building.

EllisDon also built the Athlete’s Village for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, the Canary Wharf Development in England, and the Institute Kejuruteraan Teknologi Tenagi Nasional in Malaysia. The company has completed projects in ten different countries, with the U.S. accounting for about half of its business.

“Technology offers threat and opportunity,” president Geoffrey Smith stresses. “We have to change ourselves. We tell staff nobody is going to become unemployed because of technology. In fact, because of technology they may get a better job.”

The CIO’s Shopping List

CIO Bruce Fleming created a wish list for the qualities he wanted to see in the company’s IS overhaul. He determined that their new system should be:

    comprehensive – it had to cover all the administrative processes, including correspondence, meeting minutes, change controls and other project management details;uniform – members of a team are reassembled for each project, so the system had to be consistent from project to project so teams could manage by exception;easy to use by ‘non-techies’;able to eliminate duplication – over the years, processes had evolved to the extent that there were many steps to a project. Too often, data was re-keyed, increasing the chance of errors;Internet/Intranet compatible – on-line communication among team members and subcontractors, contractors and consultants would facilitate the sharing of key information and expedite projects;accessible by client – clients want to know if projects are on time and on budget and, if not, they want to be able to drill down to find out why.accessible by senior management for a more interactive relationship with the job team.