Several key technology trends are allowing firms to be more efficient, compete in a global marketplace, and be more profitable.

Business management tools, formerly deployed by larger firms, are now available to firms of all sizes, anywhere, any time. Three technology trends that are transforming the design process include collaboration tools, business intelligence tools, and the cloud.

Social Collaboration Enriches Team Work

How do your teams collaborate on projects? My bet is many of you would say most of the collaboration that goes on in your organization is using email. A project gets started, an email goes out to the team with project-specific dates, tasks, files, and the email collaboration begins. 20 reply all’s later, your email box is clogged with information you don’t know what to do with, and that’s just for one project. What about the other 100 emails you get a day? If you join the project later, how do you see everything that’s happened? The problem is, these tools are not project collaboration tools, and they are not tools that are connected and allow you to get the entire picture of a project you are working on. With email, we need to organize them, prioritize them, and search for them when we need to retrieve information. None of it is shared with others unless we include them on the email. Maybe in your organization you use tools like SharePoint when working on a design project with coworkers, an ftp site to manage presentations or proposals, LinkedIn to collaborate with external professionals and groups, or an intranet for internal groups at work — the 401K group, the running group. With tools like SharePoint or an intranet, there are challenges when we want to have others outside our organization access information. What we are working on and how a project is progressing is always a challenge if we are using multiple tools and email to collaborate and get things done. That’s where social collaboration tools come in to support projects.

What is Social Business Collaboration?

Social Business Collaboration leverages applications to enhance, cultivate and facilitate communication and collaboration in a way that feels natural and unrestricted…and happens from anywhere at any time. So for example, on a personal level, think Facebook, it allows people all over the world to connect with each other. Social Business Collaboration is unlocking the potential of people and businesses by being the virtual equivalent of an open office environment. The future is going social. Mckinsey cites 75% of enterprise level organizations will adopt a social collaboration platform in 2013. So, why would you want to use a social collaboration tool when managing projects?

Social collaboration brings people together to collaborate with each other on projects, tasks and interests. It allows not just employees to collaborate, but it allows people outside the firm– like contractors and customers to participate in the process of completing the project. It allows for one common space for individuals to get together, share ideas, share tasks, manage tasks, share files, share calendars and collaborate with the entire group to move the project to completion.

What are the Advantages of Using Social Collaboration?

It allows you to create one virtual place for your team’s purpose: Give everyone connected to your team’s purpose or project a common place to communicate, share, and save information. End the wastefulness of everyone duplicating effort by receiving and saving the same information in their own specific ways.

It allows for an interactive shared calendar and schedule: If your team or project has regular meetings, events, or due dates for actions and tasks, make them viewable and known to everyone in the team or on the project. When a date changes, have one person responsible for making the change that cascades effortlessly to everyone else’s personal calendar. Nobody on your team should waste time manually updating their personal calendar related to your project.

It connects communication within the team to CONTEXT: Everything you’re asking of your team members ties back to a purpose you’re trying to achieve together. Sending out emails with information about a task or calendar event that’s not connected and organized within a central place for the team puts the effort on each individual to make the connection on their own. It becomes just one more thing they’ve got to deal with in their inbox. But if you connect all communication to the context of the team’s purpose, you’ll make it easier for them to engage.

Business 2.0 is here and embracing social collaboration on design projects will allow your firm to create valuable customer experiences, drive workforce productivity and effectiveness, and accelerate innovation, all while keeping your project teams connected.

Business Intelligence Improves Firm Management

Years ago, companies did not have access to real-time data in a secure environment, or the means to share common, consistent data among the workforce as they do today. The technology and systems for business intelligence have evolved at a remarkable pace to give companies serious competitive advantage in the marketplace.

What is Business Intelligence?

Business Intelligence (BI) represents the tools that play a key role in the strategic planning process of an organization. These tools allow a company to gather, store, access and analyze data to aid in decision-making. For professional service organizations, BI can help show project trends and multipliers, project status, and key performance indicators.  

I have seen many organizations thrive using their business intelligence programs, while others claim to have business intelligence, but show no measurable difference it has made in their business. Business intelligence is an investment you make in your organization — an investment, which should produce immediate returns.

All companies need business intelligence — regardless of size or industry. But it’s how a company utilizes business intelligence that makes the difference between ‘having’ BI and ‘using’ BI.

Part of the success of your business is to evaluate what is going on in the business — monitor organizational performance, leverage a feedback loop, make adjustments as things change in the organization and measure results — monitor, adjust and evolve. How do you do that? Organizations employing strong data integration practices and using advanced analytics are more likely to be successful. Business Intelligence is important. If it is used right, it drives business decision-making that leads to improved performance.

The Value of Business Intelligence

Business intelligence tools offer KPIs and dashboards with information important to users, and real-time information that can be used to gain increased visibility into organizational performance. This intelligence is used to make key decisions about running the organization. Business intelligence information can offer alerts and data for better decision-making. Business intelligence data can be tailored to the user. For example, a CFO may want to know how profits are trending, and a project manager may want to know if projects are on budget.

Showing key performance metrics, having this data easily available, and making the data easily viewed in different ways are important to making business intelligence more usable. Set alerts if a project is over-budget, if the aged AR is too large, or if your resources are over or under-utilized.

Having a feedback loop in an organization is very important because it allows for more effective decisions. The first step in a feedback loop is evidence — Performance of the organization must be measured, captured, and stored. Organizations need a disciplined work process to capture relevant data in the business system in a consistent, constant matter. Successful companies that use business intelligence have diligently thought through what it is that they need to measure in order to monitor the health of the business. BI is not a series of reports — it’s analysis that enables you to measure your business using defined metrics.

The second step in the feedback loop is relevance — Set the context that makes the data relevant in terms of the organization’s goals. Your team needs to ask the tough questions and agree on the top metrics you will use to measure the overall business. Once you’ve determined that, your team can begin to break down those metrics even further to measure the business at a division, department, business line, or project level. If your metrics are so important, they should be reviewed monthly, quarterly, annually, and be incorporated into the heart of the business. At any given time, department heads should be able to see key trends that impact the health and growth of their portion of the business.

The third step is consequence — Information must illuminate one or more paths ahead, the consequence of what the organization is doing leads it in one direction or another.

The fourth step is action — Make a decision based on the information presented, act on that decision, close the loop, and start the process to measure again.

You will find that companies which have achieved a return on investment from their business intelligence system follow a standardized approach to continuous improvement. They not only set goals, but follow a process of recording the results, measuring the impact on business goals, and share the impact with employees.

Business Intelligence Best Practices

It’s very important to establish business intelligence best practices.  

1. Communication — Share the numbers, advertise why decisions are made.

2. Goals — Define what success looks like. Identify goals that are realistic and forward-looking. Show the value of how data-driven decisions improve performance.

3. Business Fundamentals — Establish a common language for terms and metrics. Success requires commitment. It is intentional, and takes time.

4. Leverage BI software — Utilize purpose-built tools.

Having data easily available, easily viewed in different ways, by different metrics is important. Business intelligence can make a difference in the way businesses operate and enable an organization to make key decisions with accurate, up-to-date, real-time data.  

Cloud Computing Simplifies Technology Deployment

Until recently the only option you had to deploy a comprehensive business management system was to deploy the solution within the organizations four walls, on premise. Lately there is a lot of talk about deploying business management systems in the cloud.

What is the Cloud?

Cloud-based solutions are deployed in a secure environment accessed through the web. Solutions in the cloud are accessible from anywhere, highly secure, and always up-to-date. Think Apple’s iTunes. For professional service organizations, cloud deployment of a business management solution allows the solution to be managed for you. You avoid the hassles of hardware, software updates, data back-ups, and security monitoring.

What are the Benefits of the Cloud?

Easy to Buy: Acquiring large-scale software applications is disruptive for organizations of any size. It requires arduous capital budgeting, resource-intensive readiness of servers and infrastructure, and cash intensive licensing. The cloud eliminates the purchasing hassles typical of most comprehensive business solutions. Flexible subscription pricing is cash-flow-friendly, avoiding heavy up-front capital investment by spreading an economical monthly expense over time. Because there’s no infrastructure to purchase or prepare, cloud applications are immediately available, and avoid the long preparation phase found in most on-site deployments.

Simple to Own: Owning a comprehensive business management system typically means you need skilled experts to maintain the infrastructure — backing up data, ensuring security, installing patches, and managing upgrades. This effort takes away IT’s focus from other work, and stretches the expertise of scarce and overworked resources.

Cloud solutions allow firms to eliminate ownership costs and maintenance responsibilities while receiving higher quality-of-service than you can ask of your own IT team. The cloud can allow firms to stay current with the latest version updates, monitor security, create back-ups, and even upgrade the underlying infrastructure.

Simple ownership also means you’re not boxed in by rigid tools. You can make changes when you need to. You can modify views, build custom reports, or adapt workflow — before you “go live,” or at any time thereafter. You’re also not pinned down by inflexible licensing that forces you to purchase more seats than you need or more capabilities than you want, just to hedge against future growth. Flexible subscriptions let you choose the term that meets your level of commitment, add users when you need, and expand with additional modules when you’re ready.

Available and Secure: Entrusting your growing firm to the cloud doesn’t mean putting your firm’s data at risk. Cloud solutions allow your solution to be available any time to anyone in your firm who needs it — and keeps your information safe from anyone who shouldn’t have it. Most cloud-based datacenters assure a level of accessibility and security that any on-site IT department would be hard-pressed to match.

Ease, simplicity and secure availability make cloud solutions attractive to growing professional service firms, and help firms focus their resources on running their business, not managing their software applications. 

These three technology trends can help transform the design process by allowing people to collaborate in an open, efficient way. Design firms can leverage business intelligence to provide the visibility they need into their projects and financial performance to run their businesses better. They can focus their resources on what they do best, not on managing their software applications.

As a design firm, you don’t have to act on all three trends at once. Depending on the size of your company, your strategy, and your markets, one or another trend may be more relevant at a certain point in time. However, it’s important to be aware of all three trends, and their fit for your organization. They can potentially give you a competitive advantage over firms who don’t adopt these tools. And they can transform how you work on your designs, how you manage your projects, how you run your firm, and how you perform in the marketplace.

As Executive VP and General Manager — Professional Services, Claus Thorsgaard is responsible for managing Deltek’s Professional Services business worldwide. He oversees sales and marketing for Deltek’s Vision, Maconomy, and People Planner solutions and is also responsible for managing Deltek’s services offerings in support of application sales.