Cloud-based apps put small contractors on equal footing

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The cloud has transformed the way construction companies interact not only with each other but also with their workers. Capable of serving as both storage and sync point, the cloud makes possible the seamless transfer of information, which is efficient and effective for contractors that have projects and crews in multiple locations.

Contrary to what its name implies, however, the cloud is not uploading and downloading content from somewhere in the sky. It consists of multiple networks of servers that allow applications, or apps, to run and be accessed through the internet rather than on, for example, a local network of computers in an office. That means anyone with the correct password can tap into essential programs for accounting, workflow, safety, project management and more with any compatible device that has internet access.

This also allows companies to take advantage of Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions rather than traditional products that must be installed manually and then regularly replaced with new versions. SaaS apps are automatically updated, usually as part of a subscription or other access fee.

While these technologies have been a productivity boon for many companies in the construction arena, some smaller contractors might think using the cloud is expensive, complicated and exclusively geared toward large construction firms. That is not the case. In fact, smaller firms may be in a position to benefit the most from the cloud.

Benefits to small contractors

“There’s so much tech available to the small firms,” said Andy Verone, vice president of product strategy at Oracle Construction and Engineering. “The cloud makes apps and construction tech accessible to everyone … and democratizes it across the industry.”

One of the reasons for this is that entry comes at a relatively low price. Running cloud-based programs is less expensive than trying to establish an in-house IT operation, which, Verone said, would require contractors to invest in costly infrastructure and staff and spend even more money on related elements like security.

In fact, the lower cost allows small contractors to compete with their larger rivals almost immediately, said Michael Fritsch, COO of tech consultancy Confoe. The cloud, he said, helps small contractors work smarter through the elimination of time- and money-wasting redundancies caused by the disorganized flow of emails, documents and other project paperwork.

In addition, the cloud, Fritsch said, enables field and office personnel to stay updated with the latest job-related facts and figures through syncing and simultaneous updates across devices. Team members also benefit from the efficiency of detailed reporting, which can reduce the need for time-consuming meetings.

Jump on the cloud or be left behind

Even though the benefits are clear, there are still a number of hurdles to wider adoption of cloud-based technologies in the construction industry – the first being resistance to change, Fritsch said.

Hand in hand with that hesitancy is the simple fact that the cloud can be intimidating to many contractors and full of unknown answers to questions like how much time is required to spend on the computer, where exactly is the cloud and whether information in the cloud is safe there.

To that last point, David Epps, director of construction technology at Atlanta general contracting firm Winter Construction, said a security benefit of running apps in the cloud is that contractors can easily revoke access to those no longer associated with the company or project with a “flip of the switch.”

Epps said Winter Construction writes into its contracts that subcontractors must access project documents like revisions or addenda through cloud-based apps. As more contractors start to make this a condition of their construction agreements, he said, smaller firms that don't get up to speed with the cloud-based technologies are going to lose business to competitors that are.

But then again, he said, forced conversion isn’t usually the best avenue, particularly because some small firms are often dealing with real barriers. Sometimes the big obstacle is a matter of not wanting to reveal an ignorance about the technology. However, once that lightbulb goes off, Epps added, contractors are full of questions about the other ways cloud-based solutions can help their businesses.

Cost also is sometimes a barrier, but the price tag has come down significantly. For instance, Epps said, the Autodesk suite of products Winter Construction uses includes 17 programs, all for an annual fee that the firm used to pay for a yearly update for just one.

An added bonus: software bundles, he said, have been made more accessible and affordable through the cloud, giving contractors exposure to other helpful tools they might have never discovered otherwise.

But first, Epps said, contractors have to be convinced to make the leap. “You have to put it in language they can understand,” he said. “How many hours have they wasted [reviewing] outdated drawings? How many hours have they spent searching for blueprints under the front seat of their truck?”

Cloud-based apps are increasingly catering to construction professionals at the trade level, too. In February, mobile field management platform Fieldwire announced a partnership with Hilti, the tool manufacturer and supplier of construction technology. Garrett Harley, vice president of business development at Fieldwire, said the partnership is an example of how the cloud can bring together hardware, software and people to create an Internet of Things (IoT) connected construction site where owners, general contractors, subcontractors and suppliers can gain a comprehensive view of a project and what needs to be done on a daily basis to complete hands-on work efficiently.

Where to start?

Verone said that before contractors start moving to the cloud, they need to make a few decisions and come to terms with how the changes will play out. The process is not a point-in-time shift, he said, it's a transformation with ongoing planning, so it's important that contractors don't get demoralized when their operations aren't promptly 100% efficiently cloud-based.

But that doesn't mean that some apps shouldn't provide immediate value, Harley said.

Contractors need to decide what capabilities are most critical to their businesses, Verone said, and that's where they should start. A painless way to evaluate any cloud-based app is by taking advantage of product free trials, he added.

A project-only implementation strategy is also a consideration, Verone said. Introducing cloud-based apps to one project gives the company the chance to develop a process and see how the new flow addresses business challenges, providing the opportunity to find success before launching a company-wide initiative.

How can construction firms make sure they start with apps that meet their needs? General contractors, Epps said, should figure out what their competitors are employing. Architects and engineers are good sources of information about what the contractors they work with are using, and app providers often have case studies detailing how their products met and solved specific contractor challenges.

Likewise, subcontractors should ask the general contractor they're working with about what their other subcontractors use. If the general contractor has the same app, Epps said that chances are the project manager, or some other company employee, will be happy to help with instruction and tips on how to get the most out of it.

"If you know how to use these tools, you'll be a better member of the team and provide more value," Epps said.

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