With electronic document management increasingly commoditised, Anglo-German SaaS construction collaboration specialist Conject believes the future will increasingly be about how businesses manage cost and programme information.
In just about every part of the supply chain, differentiation has always been difficult in the hugely fragmented architecture, engineering and construction collaboration sector, and it is no different when it comes to technology. Numerous internet startups were launched around the turn of the century, many targeting the construction drawing and document management sector. And the various vendors were all competing to win over initially sceptical construction businesses nervous about web-based technologies, about companies with little or no track records, and about replacing paper-based communications with electronic exchange of information.
Even once the principle became accepted, there was often little to choose between the various vendors; their applications all provided broadly the same functionality, so it often became a question of quality and reliability of service, of trust, and – of course (this is construction, after all) – of price. After the dotcom bubble burst, the surviving vendors gradually began to offer new options. For example, in the early 2000s, Conject (then BIW Technologies) developed Health and Safety File data capture, created a financial control module that increased visibility of the financial implications of design changes, and added contract change control. These additions helped retain key customers such as Sainsbury’s, Bovis LendLease and Mace while also appealing to new ones, but – excepting financial control – were easily emulated by rival UK-oriented vendors.
The benefits of that early development of SaaS cost control expertise are now beginning to be felt, says Conject’s professional services director Nick Sansome. While rival AEC SaaS technology vendors (eg: 4Projects) have started to develop project cost management functionality (post), or have acquired businesses with that expertise (eg: Aconex acquired Worksite last month), the Conject team has been consolidating its now mature financial control toolset, including strengthening the earned value management (EVM) toolset it began promoting nearly two years ago.
However, it is not about trying to replace a customer’s existing systems, but integrating with the various applications they use. “Most construction businesses deploy numerous tools and they no longer work in isolation,” says Nick:
“By developing APIs [application programming interfaces] with most of the common ERP systems – Oracle, Peoplesoft, Coda, COINS – we can ensure relevant project cost information from Conject Financial Control can be seamlessly exchanged with corporate systems. And we have also been extending our integration with Primavera P6 and Microsoft Project, as neither are particularly effective for EVM. Ultimately, our commercial management toolset will work as part of suite of Conject and non-Conject applications enabling customers to focus on the key time, cost and quality aspects of their projects, to deliver business intelligence from cross-project reporting, and to connect asset information with the project delivery piece.”
New Financial Control enhancements are being developed in parallel with changes to the core Conject project control system. The look and feel of the application is being revamped, with HTML5 used extensively to improve its reach across different devices and operating systems, email integration is being extended, a new iOS mobile application has been launched this week, and BIM-related work (see March 2015 post) in relation to model visualisation, federation and COBie/IFC data management continues. But Nick Sansome sees financial control – not BIM – as the key competitive area:
“All the vendors used to compete on their document management capabilities but these are no longer differentiators – there are many cost-effective solutions out there (Dropbox, Sharepoint, etc) – and in markets like the US document management functionality is practically given away alongside mission-critical tools to manage scheduling and project costs. BIM is making us more data-centric, and it is also increasing the opportunity to incorporate time and cost – so-called 5D BIM – and to be more focused on the asset lifecycle. These are all Conject strengths.”
iOS mobile application
The new iOS application, ConjectPC Mobile, was launched on the Apple iStore this week (Android and Windows variants will be available soon). From their iPhone or iPad, authorised users will be able to access project information and deal with information requests, approval processes, etc, direct from their devices. Notifications are presented in an easy-to-read visual dashboard, showing the number of items and using a traffic light system to indicate levels of urgency.