Advice for small firms and entrepreneurs

One of the costs many companies explore cutting in difficult economic times is technology. So you can bet that professional service firms around the world are taking a close look at the overall value of the technology they employ.

One of the costs many companies explore cutting in difficult economic times is technology. So you can bet that professional service firms around the world are taking a close look at the overall value of the technology they employ.

Some firms take the attitude that if the economy gets bad enough, they can go back to hand drafting on the boards. Since such firms do not perceive technology as one of their core values, they have the misconception that cutting technology and personnel budgets will allow them to remain above water. They see technology as a cost of doing business rather than an asset. This tactic may save money for the short term, but we are in the midst of the greatest transition of wealth the world has ever seen. Firms that invest for their future while maintaining their current obligations will not just survive but thrive.

These times are a wonderful opportunity to reassess technology goals and objectives and re-establish technology as a core value creator for the company. This means getting back to basics and looking at the past to learn for the future.

Technology-based solutions like CAD have brought new values, new revenues, and new processes to design and the business of constructing buildings. But as we have transitioned from employing technology as an electronic pencil to using it as the basis for business and communication, an entire generation of professionals has been caught in a purgatory between old and new. The tools of one generation are fundamentally different from the tools of the next.

But there is an expectation that the next generation of design leaders will move forward in great ways. Technology as a communication medium rather than a computing tool will break into the creative side of the design professions, creating easier-to-use tools, new materials, new methods, and new processes that result in a more efficient, effective, and aesthetically pleasing built environment. Holistic design will be a reality due to the integration of information technology, building technology, and creative financial resources.

Information technology needs to be an integral piece of a firm’s overall strategic plan and should have its own strategic plan. An IT strategic plan provides a roadmap for technology use, decision making, and purchasing that brings the world of IT into the language of business.

Design IT Strategic Plan

An IT strategic plan is a living document that is meant to be revised periodically to respond to a firm’s changing needs as well as the evolving economic environment. Best practice states that a design firm should develop its IT strategic plan based on a four-part format.

1. The vision is a statement that captures the guiding principles of the firm’s IT. These principles are derived from the firm’s needs and desires for IT. The vision must also align with the firm’s core strategies and initiatives. The vision section of an IT strategic plan should describe the process, review the findings, and provide the IT map to frame the IT strategic plan.

This concise vision statement should be used as the benchmark and provide the direction for all IT decisions. The vision can be a compelling description of the state and function of the firm once it has implemented the IT strategic plan. It can be as simple as “Our firm is committed to the innovative use of technology to improve our efficiency and promote a better built environment.”

The next step will be to create a mission statement, which is used to describe the overall purpose of IT in the firm. When wording the mission statement, consider the firm’s services, markets, values, and unique differentiators in the market. The final step will be to make a list of needs and wants of the firm with regard to IT. It can be forward thinking or pragmatic. The idea is to get all of these items listed so that a priority list can be developed, which will become the IT goals for the firm.

The vision phase is where most firms have problems. Some goals are very tangible, such as creating a built-in obsolescence plan for computer hardware. This could mean, for example, that once a year, one-third of the computers are replaced, which keeps replacement costs within a set budget. Other goals are harder to identify, like the knowledge necessary to understand what new technologies are available on an ongoing basis.

2. An assessment, sometimes referred to as an audit, is an IT asset inventory. The audit consists of three components:

  • Hardware inventory that includes manufacturer, serial number, type, processor and speed, RAM, size of hard drives, and ports for the equipment being inventoried.
  • Software inventory of everything in the firm and on machines within the firm. Information reported should include program name, manufacturer, and version number. This effort should include identifying and matching licenses for each piece of software in the firm’s domain.
  • Network mapping is should identify all of the firm’s IT network routes, including cable, routers, and switches.

The computer network itself can perform the task of data gathering. There are numerous network software programs available that reach out into a firm’s networked computers and reports back what the hardware specifications are and what software is loaded on the computer. This can save an enormous amount of time and money. In addition, this software can remain on the network to perform audits on a semi-annual or annual basis.

3. The gap analysis looks at the completed assessment in relation to the firm’s future goals as they relate to IT solutions and services. The variances between these two points – gaps — will help identify steps the firm needs to take to get from here to there. Based on these gaps, various combinations of scenarios can be run to rationalize the best result for the firm with regard to existing equipment, hardware, and networks.

In certain cases, a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis can also be used as a gap analysis tool by creating situations to be managed. The inventory and goals use tools to identify data elements, while the next phase of the strategic IT plan fills in the gaps with a planning document.

4. Planning documents are aided by the gap analysis. Describe how the firm’s allocation of resources (people, cost, and time) will create solutions to the shortcomings revealed in the gap analysis. This planning document will also identify the features and functionality of proposed solutions.

When additional detail is necessary, a feasibility study becomes part of the planning document. During this phase of the project, the firm will be asked to affirm or revise fundamental process work issues about how it conducts business. The timing of these decision points will be critical to the successful on-time completion of this phase. A meaningful plan must consider your firm’s forward fiscal budgeting plan and generalized personnel costs to establish a long-term plan for the overall IT program. The planning document (or feasibility study) should also provide an overview of the training issues and costs to be considered in implementing the IT strategic plan.

A feasibility study should include the functionality criteria for each identified system and solution. This study should identify the best commercially available products along with a technical analysis of their ability to fill the identified gap as well as provide a cost analysis and a timeline of implementation for each recommended solution. Vendors should then be invited to demonstrate their system or solution. Following the demonstrations, a budget analysis can be prepared for each solution. Finally, in conjunction with the appropriate personnel, a tentative implementation schedule should be prepared for each of the systems.

Technology Rules

The main driver and tool in the transformation of our industry is technology. When properly planned, implemented, and used, technology is transparent to business objectives. When was the last time you thought about the technical aspects of how a cell phone call is accomplished? You don’t really care how it’s done, just that you need to connect with someone.

The timing and combination of technology innovation, multi-enterprise workflow, business process change, and economic need has brought us a rare gift. We can design the meaningful change that is beginning to shift the value that each of us brings to the table. We are at the same point the banking industry was 20 years ago. Labor-intensive and paper workflow-based, the banking industry began a transformation to data and digitization that has fundamentally changed the way we bank today. Could you imagine life without an ATM?

Fast forward to 2009 and take a look at your own design business. Labor-intensive and paper workflow-based, the design industry is poised for digitization that will affect and be affected by new processes that are beginning to streamline decisions, transactions, and value along a path that focuses on the management of profitability.

These difficult economic times are opportunities. Taking the proper steps in modifying or creating an IT strategic plan will pay dividends beyond expectations and assist your firm in navigating the treacherous waters of our times.

Paul Doherty is a registered architect. He is a thought leader, strategist, and integrator of process, technology, and business who is currently managing director of the Digit Group, headquartered in Shanghai, China. He is an author, educator, analyst, and consultant to Fortune 500 organizations, global government agencies, and institutions, as well as architectural, engineering, and contracting firms around the world.