Last week I travelled to Brentford and the London offices of Sword CTSpace to learn more about the company’s FusionLive platform. After blogging about the product’s launch last month, I had been invited by business unit director John Pomeroy to meet some of the FusionLive team (including George Britton, Andre Gunter and Mathieu Pollet) and learn more about the company, its plans and applications.
On-premise and SaaS applications
John and I narrowly missed working together during the mid-1990s. He was at electronic document management system vendor Cimage just before it was acquired by my then employer Tarmac Professional Services, and I subsquently took on responsibility for over-seeing its PR and marketing outputs. I mention this because Cimage was acquired by Sword in 2004 and merged with CTSpace last year, and the Cimage (later Cimage Novasoft) EDMS, Fusion, remains part of Sword CTSpace’s product portfolio. John explained the ‘fit’:
“FusionEnterprise is our on-premise solution. We are not a single solution provider; we can go and talk to a potential customer and match a solution to meet their need, whether it’s for an internally hosted system or for a Software-as-a-Service platform. Indeed, when we looked at the two platforms’ customer bases, we noticed some overlaps: organisations were deploying Fusion for internal collaboration and SaaS products when they needed to share information with a range of external supply chain companies.
“We also have some slick integration between the two systems, particularly as they share common approaches to content management, asset data, and workflows such as transmittals or technical queries.
“We are not just providing the same application either hosted by us or in-house. These are different versions designed to run as in-house and built to run on a customer’s existing IBM FileNet P8 or Microsoft SharePoint environments. There is no other vendor that provides this.”
I heard how the the parent Sword group (1785 staff, €180.6m revenues in 2009, 6% organic growth excluding acquisitions and dispositions) provides considerable support to its specialist subsidiaries. The latter can call upon expertise from:
- Sword partners including Microsoft, Documentum, IBM, Oracle, Bentley Systems and Autodesk
- vertical industry experts in fields such as banking or insurance
- group services in customer relationship management; governance, regulation and compliance (GRC); and business process management, and
- regional specialists located in different countries and continents.
The group also centralises expertise and support on areas like finance, hosting, and research and development. As a result, Sword CTSpace’s focus on process and project control for energy and construction customers could be enhanced by a much wider pool of knowledge, extending way beyond its core markets and main operational centres (US, UK, Germany, France, Dubai, Poland, plus a development centre in India).
Our meeting took place immediately after the weekend in which the final users of the former BuildOnline system were migrated to the new FusionLive platform. “We decided it was not feasible to continue to support two increasingly outdated products, or to upgrade them,” said Andre. “We opted instead for an aggressive route in which we migrated everyone to the new system.”
The process was planned and managed over some months. The team held extensive consultations with its key customers (“We have a very vocal user group – some more vocal than others!”) and sought to address any concerns about the changeover through workshops, distribution of training materials, discussion forums and explanatory videos. While there was inevitably some resistance to change, it appears most users were soon persuaded that FusionLive would be a significant improvement on the existing system.
However, the changeover was more than just a change of applications. Sword CTSpace took the opportunity to make significant changes to its system architecture. Upgrading the core Oracle database and centralising the application and data on new shared hosting facilities meant the same number of users could now be supported on a platform that needed 50% less hardware (hosting is provided by Cable & Wireless, with hosting centres in the UK, Dubai and on the US West Coast).
For the end-users, however, the most noticeable changes relate to the user interface (UI). For example, Mathieu showed me how drawing registers could be tailored to suit a user’s requirements by moving and resizing columns, grouping and prioritising items, and – courtesy of AJAX technologies – enabling multi-tasking with different panes open simultaneously within the FusionLive UI. As these features were being developed, they were discussed with users and the ‘look and feel’ owes much to users’ experiences of using Microsoft Outlook, Google Mail and search engines, he said (the consultation process apparently also threw up a lot of WIBNIs – short for ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if…’). Workspaces can also be customised to display particular images or customer branding, and dashboard views can aggregate information into helpful graphics such as bar charts rather than just lists.
Building on Microsoft Office integration capabilities developed for FusionEnterprise, an Outlook Integration application for FusionLive will be available later this year, along with other features. A ‘drag and drop’ workflow engine allowing users to create any kind of form and assign actions and people to its processing will be delivered in the autumn, Mathieu said, as will NEC3-compliant contract management capabilities and a weather gadget. (I couldn’t help but point out that these capabilities are things that some rival platforms have had for a while; my former employer BIW, for instance, has supported NEC process management since 2006 as well as Outlook integration.)
We talked about desktop gadgets and APIs (a recurring theme among vendors in recent months – see post re Aconex, Asite, 4Projects, etc). A CTSpace iPhone app is already in development by a third-party developer, and the API has also been used to create a single sign-on system for FusionLive and other cloud-computing tools. The potential to allow screen-sharing is also being explored.
Looking further forward
I asked if the Sword CTSpace team was planning investment in technologies to support building information modelling, BIM. Interest in BIM was “very low” in the UK, I was told, but there was some interest in the US, particularly among customers working in the oil and gas sector, which was more likely to take a long-term interest in the operation and management of the finished asset and so justify the additional expense of BIM, whereas most contractors don’t tend to look much beyond project delivery and handover.
In 2009, John told me, the Sword CTSpace business achieved revenues of €18m across all its applications, and employed 90 staff. The construction collaboration technology market in the UK – where the company has about 25 staff – was described by Sword CTSpace as “very tight, very competitive”. Eastern Europe and north Africa were “picking up”, and they thought the US market was also beginning to grow again (a view shared by Aconex this week and 4Projects earlier this month).
We also talked about building the industry business case for collaboration, which led us to discuss Sword CTSpace’s online Engineering Collaboration Community, launched last week (see my pwcom blog post, Sword’s collaborative community). This aims to be a neutral industry site, not specific to Sword CTSpace; I have registered with the site and may contribute further as the community grows.
Having always held that the process of merger and acquisition among SaaS businesses poses particular challenges when it comes to managing the resulting product portfolio, it was interesting to talk to a company that had – as I put it last month – ‘grasped the nettle’ and decided to compel users to migrate to a new SaaS platform. This migration will, I think, have been attractive to many users. For a start, the business sought feedback on the migration process and on the application users would be moving to, and to most users the resulting application will have represented a significant step forward (as opposed to a sideways step to a parallel system).
The user-configurable interface and the dashboard gadgets are changes in line with software developments elsewhere. Today’s web users are increasingly able to configure and customise the applications they use, even combining different applications in a single view, and while some construction collaboration technologies have often adopted a modular approach (allowing users to select what modules to display on their desktop, for example), they haven’t so far allowed such fine degrees of control such as the ability to change the sequence or size of columns in views of data, or to multi-task.
Sword CTSpace claims to be unique in offering both SaaS and on-premise AEC solutions (its approach is different to Unit4 Collaboration Software, formerly Business Collaborator, which offers a core application in both flavours). SaaS purists might contest the logic of such a dual approach, but the legacy knowledge behind the different solutions, the apparent overlap between the two principal alternatives and the considerable shared resources available to their integrated development makes this twin-track approach commercially sensible. The company could conceivably see the SaaS solution used to deliver a client’s project or programme of works involving an extensive network of external partners, and then enable the client to switch to an on-premise solution when it requires mainly internal use of the data created during delivery (recognising that many firms still prefer to retain key data in-house).