John Jacobs isn’t your average construction tech executive. Coming out of the world of operations, Jacobs has the innate ability to combine process and technology in his role now as CIO (chief information officer) for JE Dunn Construction, www.jedunn.com, Kansas City, Mo. He sits down with Constructech to dispel some myths, as well as provide some perspective, on mobile technology in construction.
Constructech: John, you have the unique experience of coming at IT from an operations perspective, being an ex-operations guy yourself. Talk a bit about how that provides a different perspective on the technology decisions you make at JE Dunn.
Jacobs: Each Fall my team does a fairly extensive deep dive with our operations teams, asking them where they would like us to go (with technology) and trying to get the pulse of our company. We turn that into an annual strategy that we then try to roll out our IT initiatives around. So from a pure IT standpoint in 2013 we are focused on advancing a leading-edge position that JE Dunn has, which is focused on three things: collaboration, mobility, and insight (business intelligence). From a collaboration standpoint we have an award-winning platform called Dunn Dashboard. But as it relates to our mobility strategy, the idea is to leverage access to Dunn Dashboard, making it a project Website for every project, allowing realtime access to information for all of our key partners.
From a mobility standpoint, our focus is both on hardware and software that allows access to Dunn Dashboard, but also to any key data wherever our employees are located. And from the insight perspective, that means access to data that allows us to perform better and to increase our efficiency.
Insight is really more of a concept than a piece of hardware or software, and it is aimed at providing a single point of access to integrated data. To us that means we want everyone on the team to have access to realtime accounting data, project management data, and design data. And this requires both of the elements that I mentioned earlier—collaboration and mobility—in order to deliver on that (objective). And this poses some great challenges for me too when talking about wanting to integrate data.
Constructech: Expand a bit on the mobile portion. Are we talking about a mobile app? How does that apply with something like Dunn Dashboards?
Jacobs: Yes, it is a mobile app, which at this point is primarily focused for internal JE Dunn users and has not been opened up externally quite yet. The thing that is different about our app is that the majority of our IT developers really grew out of a time where we were designing and developing reports that would access data from (our enterprise system). We bought in, a long time ago, to the power of integrated data as having access to both accounting and project management simultaneously. And we were writing reports that gave us access to get to that data.
So our concept for the mobile app was perhaps different than most, in that we started with trying to deliver that (integrated) information in a mobile platform. This means realtime access to our ERP (enterprise-resource planning) from a phone. Our app is device agnostic and is truly dynamic so that through that app you can get access to realtime accounting information in order to get billing status, the documents associated with that billing, key financial reports, etc. Regardless of where you are you need access to data quickly.
Also, there is an expectation from our owners that we should have all the answers at our fingertips at all times. Now the question is should we give them the ability to go mine that data on their own or should we be providing that to them? With that we have a two-part strategy: one is JE Dunn mobile that gives our guys access to that information, and two is Dunn Dashboard that give the owner access to that information, which is a bit more controlled from a role-based status.
So the app allows us access to that accounting and project management information, and I think one of the greatest things about our mobile app is that our project managers at any point can run reports that summarize everything that a subcontractor will need in realtime (right out in the field). So they can see things like if they owe a pay application, a warranty document, a submittal, a response to an RFI (request for information), etc. All this information is rolled up in that mobile app because we are drawing straight out of our ERP in realtime.
Constructech: So with this app, are you adopting a BYOD (bring your own device) philosophy with employees?
Jacobs: We have about 1,500 users at JE Dunn, but we are not a BYOD company. And I know that I am in the minority with this decision, but we are working hard to deliver what we believe is leading-edge technology and we think we can understand corporate need and solve that corporate need better by developing and offering what we believe is best-in-breed technology. So from a mobile phone standpoint we are always surveying the options on the market and then letting our employees choose from a very select list. Sometimes that is cross mobile platform, whereas other times it is only a single option.
But we choose to select best-inbreed hardware and then issue that to our employees and then we design our applications to work best on those devices. Now we also know that we have to develop with an eye to BYOD because as much as I can control my user base, I can’t control, nor will I ever be able to control and don’t want to control, my external users.
So where I have more than 5,000 external users that are now collaborating with me through my Dunn Dashboards or through any mobile device they want to bring, I also need to develop towards that sort of broad spectrum and we’ve developed our tools to be able to be utilized by all those platforms.
Constructech: It sounds like with everything you are talking about, the strategy is for custom development with technology. Do you believe this will ultimately be the way to go with things like collaboration and mobility?
Jacobs: My take, and this is more of an industry analysis, is software vendors are constantly one-upping each other in order to add functionality and we’ll focus on one aspect of construction and we’ll strike a chord with some of our operations folks. If you’re focused solely on finding the best vendor to go buy collaboration software from, you are going to be at the whim of operations drawing you from one vendor to another. As CIO I’m left trying to implement enterprise-wide transitions from vendor to vendor.
So our strategy has been prioritizing need as the business asks, and then developing internally as we can. Now, certainly we can’t do everything internally so we have to be able to integrate with applications externally to have a best-of-breed solution. But we are trying to make it so that we develop the core functionality and then we outsource only as necessary.
Constructech: So how do you balance it all? Where does this all lead us as technology continues to transform the construction industry?
Jacobs: From JE Dunn’s standpoint we will let the business tell us what’s important and not just deploy technology for technology’s sake. I want to keep the company in a leadership position and look to be really responsive to the business. And for us, the business means not only internal JE Dunn employees, but also our clients, both our owners and our architects. We’ve already enabled collaboration and mobility to support both groups and now we can go ask them how we can we be better. The answers have been pretty enlightening.
Also, I think pervasive connectivity continues to be our big push to both the office and field, as well as to external partners. When you look at things like pervasive connectivity, the big question is around whether that is going to be Wi-Fi or cellular connectivity in the form of something like 4G LTE. And there’s a big question of which one is going to win. The second thing from a construction standpoint involves connectivity limitations at the jobsite. I think we need to keep a close eye on how to provide that connectivity or provide offline functionality that’s realistic to have access to that data.
And one final piece around which we have had a great deal of internal discussions about is the question about workers being tied to the computer and not out in the field. The old saying is that I want my superintendents out in the field managing work and keeping an eye on cost quality and schedule. And now there has been somewhat of a perception of “Now my guys are just tied to the computer” and that is seen as a negative. Well, our answer to that is “Yes, of course you are tied to the computer because in order to make better decisions you need to have access to that data.” With that being said, we better allow our workers to be able to take their computer out to the field with them in a form factor that isn’t bulky or unsafe, but with enough power and enough connectivity to enable them to do their work better. And I think we are doing just that.