As companies in the engineering and construction industry react, respond and reprioritize in the wake of COVID-19, their business needs are drastically changing as well. To satisfy those needs, companies are having to adapt technology, and do so quickly. As Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella put it, “We have seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months.”
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Patty Sullivan, project manager of strategic initiatives at Burns & McDonnell, about what they are seeing regarding technological advancements. Patty is incredibly forthright, so it was a great opportunity to get a clear picture of how Burns & McDonnell has used EcoSys Enterprise Project Performance software over the past few months. We discussed changing business needs and how the firm has been able to move with agility to meet new challenges.
What are some of the ways Burns & McDonnell has had to adapt its technology in order to deliver projects in the face of COVID-19?
There are certain industries the government has deemed to be critical infrastructure during the pandemic. As we started to pick up more work in those sectors, we needed a way to easily identify those projects and report on them. We also wanted to be able to show our clients that we cover these critical infrastructure projects.
When we started looking at it, there was no way to identify in the system which projects were specific to COVID-19. Some examples of these projects could be converting a hotel into a hospital or making changes to existing infrastructure to adhere to new safety or health standards as a result of the coronavirus. We’re even expanding a data center to provide better internet bandwidth for people that are working from home due to the pandemic. We’re well-positioned to tackle such critical projects because of the different market segments we cover.
How did you address the issue of identifying and reporting on COVID-19 projects?
We were able to build it into our project attributes in EcoSys. When a project is set up, we assign many business attributes. For example, what kind of asset are we building? What roles are we performing on a project? What services are we providing?
We added a COVID-19 flag to track critical infrastructure projects. We were able to go back and assign that flag on inflight projects in addition to being able to add the flag to new projects.
We take that data out of the system when we integrate to Oracle and drop it off within our enterprise data hub. From there, we build data models around it.
How long did it take to change the system to accommodate the new process?
When I woke up that morning and logged into my computer, there was a directive coming from the top to identify and report on COVID-19 projects. Our leadership was inundated with trying to figure out how to meet this new requirement.
The first thought was that we might be able to write it into the project description or put it in the project name. But I knew there was a small chance that anyone would do that.
Thinking we could add it to EcoSys through the standard integration, our team came up with an example to share after only 10 minutes, showcasing the ability to configure the system quickly to meet changing business needs.
In total, all of this took about four hours, which included making adjustments to EcoSys and the integrations. The screen configuration was done in under an hour; we tweaked it a little from a user-experience standpoint. We then modified an existing interface to transmit data out of EcoSys and into our enterprise reporting hub. After we drop it at the hub, the analytics team picks it up from there. It’s a fast, efficient process.
For us, it highlighted the flexibility of EcoSys, which is one of the reasons why we invested in it. We needed a system that was easily configurable. If this was a custom-built system like our last system, where you’re coding in the background, that would have taken weeks, not hours. Additionally, it highlighted the value of configuration over customization for our leadership team.
Are there other times where you’ve leveraged configurability to meet changing business needs or is that level of agility something that is rarely needed?
Another great example of that is us onboarding AZCO when we acquired the premier industrial construction company a couple of years ago. A self-perform union construction company or union construction job is much different than an engineering job.
Our existing EcoSys implementation was centered around our engineering work and some of our construction management type work, but not necessarily designed to accommodate a self-performed construction company. They have different project attributes that have to be collected for the union as well as a code of accounts they use on their work breakdown structure that needed to be kept. The ability to show our capabilities then integrate their requirements was very beneficial.
Rather than tweaking a screen and having my engineering teams log in to EcoSys and sift through data that didn’t apply to them, we put a new attribute screen in place and assigned it to a new menu. Now, when AZCO employees log in, they see one version of EcoSys. When Burns & McDonnell employees log in, they see a different version. You could not do that with a custom-built system. It would take forever.
What other impacts has COVID-19 had on Burns & McDonnell from a technology standpoint?
What also became quickly apparent during the pandemic was the need to shift an entire enterprise to a work-from-home operation. We are a more than 100-year-old company that has never had to employ a work-from-home strategy. Then, virtually overnight, everybody around the world had to work from home.
If we had not shifted from our old system to EcoSys, we would not be able to manage our project financials today.
The pandemic highlighted the importance of a cloud-first strategy that Burns & McDonnell has been implementing over the last couple of years. And, again, we are really impressed with how EcoSys has handled the shift to this new world that we’re living in.
We immediately started getting calls from people thanking us for EcoSys and saying, “If we had not shifted from our old system to EcoSys, we would not be able to manage our project financials today.”
And that is 100% correct. The system that EcoSys replaced would not have allowed us to do our project financials from home. EcoSys is transparent. It doesn’t matter where someone sits. They log in and do their work. When we first replaced the old system with EcoSys, there was a lot of pushback because change is hard. Some of those same people are reaching out to us now. Our COO is getting calls thanking us for getting EcoSys in the door from those who hated it at first but now love it.
Wait, what do you mean they hated it at first?
When we first rolled out EcoSys, we got immediate pushback — they didn’t like some usability piece of it. When we launched in 2017, we did a survey a few months later, and 50% loved it, 50% hated it.
We listened to the comments, especially those that related to process flow and usability. Taking the feedback into consideration, we were able to quickly revamp screens as well as the process to make it simpler.
And they loved it, 80% to be exact. On an enterprise implementation of any system, 80% is extremely good. You’re never going to make everybody happy. Could we have done that with customization? No. You can do it with a configurable system, and that has been highlighted time and time again with EcoSys. We love it, and that’s why we keep investing in it.
How do you think the use of EcoSys will evolve in a post-COVID world?
Every time we think we’re done with EcoSys, we find another way we can use it. Integrations with agreements, integrations with our CRM platform, and the new estimating module is going to be a game changer for Burns & McDonnell. There’s just so much that we think we can still do with it. That is why it is considered one of the top three pillar applications at the company. It’s a core application that our operation depends on. EcoSys, for us, is critical infrastructure.
We recognize that it’s worth every single penny and more. The day we had to have everyone work from home, every penny we’ve spent was justified. Every single penny.
Any advice to other companies that are less mature in their technology implementations as they try to navigate new challenges?
If you’ve got a performance issue and your infrastructure is solid, then you’ve got a problem in your configuration and you need to go back and redo it. But you need to think outside of the box.
I think a lot of companies try to do a standard IT implementation; the way the book tells me I’m supposed to do an implementation. I see people get into trouble with that. We’ve never had a performance issue. And I think it’s the way we built it.
Here’s where I see companies make a huge mistake. They take a new system and then try to force it to do what the old system did.
You may have to adjust your process to get full benefit of the system, not try to shoehorn an inefficient process into a new system. Companies fall into this trap of saying this is the way we’ve done it, instead of letting a new system change the way you do business. You need somebody in a strategic role that will challenge team members to embrace change, especially when it’s for the better.
How can technology providers like EcoSys help meet changing business needs in the case of something like COVID-19?
Let’s continue to work in partnership with technology vendors to build better applications.
If we’re in a true partnership between the industry and a technology vendor, then we would never ever need to rip and replace software because we would be constantly communicating our needs as the industry shifts and changes. The technology, therefore, would meet all of our requirements. Why would we ever need replace it?
It doesn’t matter if you’re building a power plant or high-rise or a mid-rise or a house. They use the same processes and have the same needs. Communicating as a team to the technology company builds a more concrete solution.
We’re always looking at the whole project lifecycle, and we want to try to keep our pillars to a minimum. We want people logging into as few systems as possible to get their jobs done right and efficiently.
Isn’t it nice to simply create an original budget from an estimate? Absolutely. Understanding lifecycle process as well as the roles and mapping needs require highly flexible pillar platforms like EcoSys.
More information on the use of EcoSys at Burns & McDonnell
Patty Sullivan is a project manager at Burns & McDonnell with 30+ years of project and operations management experience in both the construction and manufacturing industries. Patty focuses on project execution technologies and best practices to optimize the efforts of the Burns & McDonnell project teams.
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