It’s time to reconsider how information technology can contribute to a robust knowledge capture and business intelligence environment. EYP demonstrates how, when properly implemented, IT can yield strategic advantage.
As the chief information officer at Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering (EYP), I am responsible for formulating and delivering a technology vision and implementation strategy that supports the firm’s business model and strategic goals. My three-year IT strategic plan is revisited annually so that subsequent execution plans can be synchronized. This ensures that forward-looking investments continue to support the firm’s practice vision and business planning objectives.
EYP’s planning and review process (like that at many A/E/C organizations, I suspect) focuses primarily on traditional IT budget line items such as computer upgrades, software contracts, maintenance agreements, and staff training requirements. Although these budget components are critical to the organization’s health and ability to deliver on project obligations, they are generally not recognized as long-term strategic differentiators for the design organization. Yet the advent of cloud computing, virtualization, outsourcing, and other ever-evolving technology offerings makes it increasingly possible to simplify, standardize, and maximize some of these core infrastructure services, making them somewhat easier and less time-consuming to maintain, more cost effective, more reliable, and less in need of direct attention on a daily basis.
In other words, organizations can develop strategic IT initiatives that can add greater value to the business plan rather than simply provide support. IT strategy and subsequent investment decisions should move forward the organization’s brand, strategic vision, or mission.
EYP’s mission is to deliver expertise-driven design. Every technology purchase, every technology project, and every budgeted and resourced initiative must support the firm’s ability to deliver results in a manner consistent with the expertise we expect and that clients value. EYP expertise adds value to all projects because our experts contribute their unique project experience and practice knowledge across the organization for the use of other project team members.
As a business differentiator, expertise-driven design requires us to address how the organization learns so that our knowledge base continues to grow and evolve. It is perhaps in this latter area that IT can play its most important strategic role.
I began exploring this subject by analyzing what we do as an organization and asking some tough questions. What expertise do we have? What do we already know? What do we need to know if we are to maintain and grow our expertise? How do we share what we know? And how do we deliver what we know efficiently and accurately to the right place at the right time once we have identified the need?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that whatever our expertise may be, we needed to develop a clear methodology that could help the firm regularize how we create, capture, and share the stuff worth knowing.
Three-Year IT Strategy
This line of reasoning convinced me to make “Create/Capture/Share” the theme of my three-year IT strategy — a content management and development strategy that would become an integral part of how we deliver services. Given that any significant change in strategy could possibly disrupt project teams, a key requirement of the theme was that it fit snuggly into our normal project workflow. Were this not the case, few would ever devote the time necessary to implement it, and the intended benefits would never be realized.
My next step was to figure out how to manage content in a way that clearly communicates its importance as a cumulative and dynamic resource rather than a static and disconnected distraction. My ultimate goal was to ensure that we build on knowledge and grow expertise with conscious deliberation. We must make every attempt to understand how newly acquired knowledge reinvigorates and transforms what staff experts already know by providing fresh insights into our previous work as well as active and ongoing design efforts.
I found that constructing a successful create/capture/share strategy would be no small undertaking. It required careful consideration of the appropriate tools and technologies within an implementation framework that offers a logical fit with the organization’s business model. And it required buy in and ongoing support from the executive management team.
I focused on four primary areas where improving content management could yield major strategic advantage: design, imagery, finance, and process. To a great degree, these focus areas were dictated by my ability to identify, acquire, and implement tools and technologies that were already widely available and that could support the desired informational outcomes. When I joined the firm two years ago, EYP was already well along in its efforts to adopt building information modeling (BIM) aggressively for design authoring. So I began building my three-year IT strategy by focusing on how we could better support the way EYP creates design information with BIM.
EYP adopted the Autodesk Revit platform of products for authoring building design information. As we continue to embrace BIM, even greater design insights are being derived from models that inform in ever greater detail how our building designs look and how they are expected to perform in the real world. We continue to explore leading building performance analysis tools such as Autodesk Ecotect Analysis and EnergyPlus, applications that help us better understand the impact of natural ecosystems on our design proposals well ahead of construction.
Improving the collective implementation of these design authoring and analysis tools has been the primary focus of Create, the first phase (2008-2009) of my three-year IT strategic plan. Successful implementation often meant investing in faster workstations with more memory and building in better software distribution and management systems. For IT, much of this work was twofold: removing barriers for project teams that needed access to the necessary design authoring and analysis tools, and enabling them to build increasingly sophisticated, content-rich models required by the design task at hand. As an added benefit of the rich content created by the initial BIM authoring task, opportunities to drive processes such as scheduling, cost estimating, construction coordination, and even design fabrication became compelling options for potentially delivering value-added services.
Year two (2009-2010) of the three-year plan is the Capture phase. This phase implements a different set of tools and technologies that can be used to capture information from multiple projects, specifically, images and financial and project process data. Axomic’s OpenAsset became our digital asset management solution. It manages all final corporate images in a Web-based, searchable library accessible to all staff members. While OpenAsset offers value as a product in its own right, access to its underlying SQL database creates opportunities to locate, aggregate, and integrate corporate imagery into other types of applications and informational views as needed. The significance of such database openness will be discussed further; such tools and technologies are preferred for managing other types of project content.
Following the introduction of OpenAsset, we proceeded to improve our enterprise resource planning environment by upgrading from Deltek Advantage to the newer Deltek Vision. As a legacy system, Advantage was due for an upgrade regardless of any strategic planning initiative; the move to Vision was a logical step in our effort to provide better, on-demand access to project finance information. Similar to OpenAsset, Vision is a database-driven application that can integrate with other applications and Web sites. In addition to bringing our finance system up to current specs, Vision establishes a consistent platform for additional modules such as customer relationship management, project planning, and other enterprise applications — each of which can be added as needed. Vision has given our managers and project teams unprecedented access to accurate, timely project information.
The third and final component of Capture is improving the way we capture project process information. After evaluating several leading solutions, we selected Newforma Project Center for project information management. Newforma improves our ability to collaborate by enhancing management of such diverese project-based information as e-mails, RFIs, submittals, project timeline information, and file transfers within and outside the firm. In addition to its core capabilities (and as was the case with OpenAsset and Vision), Newforma is a database-driven application that offers a robust platform for developing and integrating project information management activities.
Unique among many other applications, Newforma can host other types of project content and services inside its project center interface. For example, after applying the optional Vision configuration inside Newforma, project managers can check the status of invoices or automatically query other key indicators on their projects without having to log into Vision separately. Similarly, once the proper integration pieces are configured, team members can navigate to OpenAsset-hosted project images from within the Newforma interface. This type of cross-product functionality enables a more interesting paradigm whereby different users might capture and tailor previously disconnected project information from different sources into unique views specific to their own needs.
Building on the notion of sharing content across applications, the Share phase (2010-2011) of the three-year IT strategy seeks to increase possibilities for rediscovering and sharing content wherever and whenever needed. This focus on sharing knowledge ties back to the strategic starting point: expertise-driven design. For EYP to deliver on its promise of expertise-driven design, we need to be effective at creating, capturing, and sharing knowledge fully and regularly. In other words, content interoperability across key content management systems is vital to our ability to support expertise-driven initiatives throughout the firm. It is during the Share phase that we begin to appreciate the critical significance of our earlier investment decisions to prefer database-driven and Web-based applications. If our project information were not organized within database-driven content management systems, it would be more difficult to aggregate information housed within discrete systems into unique views that stimulate more meaningful project insights among very specific — and very different — viewing audiences. Central to EYP’s realization of Share is the aggregating technology of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS).
While MOSS is the enabling aggregation and presentation technology, the connectors that manage the relationships between various A/E/C-focused content management applications, specifically Newforma, Open- Asset, Vision, and SharePoint, is created by the company Knowledge Architecture. Knowledge Architecture’s connectors and its underlying KA Nexus Server product help ensure that shared information such as project name, project number, project team members, and project description remain synchronized among the various content management systems as staff use and populate them daily in regular project workflow. Synchronization among systems helps ensure that subsequent queries for information based on search variables, such as project number and project name, will deliver intended results. With all of these tools and techniques in place, we can then begin to think more creatively about what we can do with this information management capability and how we can best leverage it for both project teams and clients.
The Digital Project Story
EYP’s brand promise of expertise-driven design requires that we make every effort to deliver to clients and their projects the full benefit of our collective experiences and expertise. Now we have a better handle on how to create, capture, and share information related to project design, imagery, finance, and process; and we know how to maintain synchronization among these systems using off-the-shelf connector products.
We can begin to see how to aggregate this project information into more useful and insight-provoking views. Therefore, our next challenge is to make this information more meaningful, valuable, and available to team members.
To convey our experiences and expertise to a broader internal audience, I’m in the process of creating what I call the “digital project story.” A vital component of the Share phase of the strategy, the digital project story introduces a new approach to pulling together project information from various content management systems with the goal of creating more meaningful and consumable views (and stories) for specific viewers.
One can imagine many benefits to a carefully crafted digital project story structure. Imagine being easily able to share high-level project information on a regular basis with project managers and senior executives, users who might otherwise not have time to learn or access key project information from within the native authoring tools. Perhaps the digital project story schema could be designed in a manner that allows particular project results to be compared across similar projects in real time. The stories could perhaps provide easy access to key project images or project metrics simply by making them a part of the viewers’ project stories default view on a Web site — no more hunting-and-pecking around the network drives to find what you want.
Whatever the desired outcome, digital project stories will be driven dynamically via our daily usage of database-driven products such as OpenAsset, Vision, Newforma Project Center, and SharePoint, and connector products and aggregation techniques available through Knowledge Architecture’s KA Nexus Server.
Furthermore, these stories and their underlying technologies will fuel our appetite for better, more integrated content that can inform our internal design experts on a regular and evolving basis. This is really only the beginning. Ideally, each firm’s digital project story approach would be as unique to its organization as the stories designed to support the firm’s specific values, culture, and approach to project delivery.
Brad Horst is a principal and chief information officer at Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering . He is responsible for driving the technical and strategic vision of the firm’s IT organization. Before joining EYP, he was a product marketing manager for architectural solutions at Autodesk, where he was responsible for marketing the Revit Architecture software application. Horst earned his Master of Architecture degree from The Ohio State University and is an NCARB-certified architect.