Guy Barlow, global commercial director for Connected Cost at Aconex, was speaking at the Project Controls Expo in London last week (16 November 2017). I talked to him before his presentation (on the world’s emerging ‘Giga projects’).
Just over six months ago, Melbourne, Australia-based SaaS construction collaboration vendor Aconex finally publicly launched its Connected Cost solution, filling a gap in its product portfolio compared to several competitors, particularly in north America. The July 2015 Worksite acquisition from ARES Corporation (also at the Expo) had apparently already encouraged some customers looking for project cost functionality, and the deal to acquire Anglo-German rival Conject in March 2016 added further project cost control functionality into the Aconex SaaS stack.
Guy Barlow joined Aconex from Oracle’s Primavera team in late 2016 (with a CV boasting earlier spells at PwC, IBM and Bearing Point), and has subsequently been joined by several other Oracle colleagues. Compared to Oracle, he said it was an opportunity to be “a bigger fish in a relatively small pond,” but also to work in an innovative and growing company changing the industry, and, with Connected Cost: “a product that will break the status quo.”
Selling Connected Cost to the former Conject customer base
Connected Cost was soft-launched in November 2016, with marketing starting in earnest in April 2017. Currently, the Conject Financial Cost solution remains a separate product to Connected Cost. Barlow said:
“Over time, you pull the best from what you’ve got and build it into your existing product, but for now the two are separate. Naturally, our goal is to sell Connected Cost to our Conject customers, filling in the gaps where the original product didn’t meet their needs.”
We talked about internationalising Software-as-a-Service products, and developing consistent process naming conventions, as well as accommodating different language needs. “Things like NEC capability, while not unique to the UK, have to be accommodated to fit different markets,” Barlow said.
“Connected Cost has made the Aconex platform more attractive to some clients. Some recent deals would not have been done without Connected Cost. It is getting us into a whole new space. Document management and collaboration is hugely important to the industry and has helped Aconex grow over the last 16 years, but project controls get us to a new spot, helps us elevate the conversation, and get into more enterprise-type deals.”
ERP and ecosystems
In some markets such as Asia, Barlow said spreadsheets are often still used to manage project controls, but customers have been looking at Aconex as it allows them to quickly adopt and deploy a solution that already has the “familiar look and feel of a spreadsheet but with all the collaboration built underneath it” (in his ‘Giga-project’ presentation later, Barlow said “the deployment time of Aconex was one thing that excited me about the technology”). He said “clients are tired of clunky, on-premise legacy solutions built on old software architecture“, and are looking for cloud-based alternatives.
However, he was clear that Connected Cost does not replace enterprise ERP or scheduling systems; it becomes part of a complementary enterprise software ‘ecosystem’.
“The corporate ERP system is great for looking in the rear-view mirror, but in a project-intensive industry you want to have forward-facing sight of how your projects are performing. We sit in that ‘sweet spot’ between ERP and scheduling (we have native, out-of-box integration with [Primavera] P6), and marry up the real-time data coming in with the budget information to give them that picture.
Construction payment management
In April 2017, Aconex founder Rob Phillpot talked about moving into construction payment management and supplier finance. Barlow said claims and payments / progress claim capabilities are one of the key areas in Connected Cost, describing current practice as “so backwards” (ie: in need of digitisation). “Supply chain finance is something we’re moving forward with, and we have someone working with Rob in Melbourne on this.”
As an ex-Oracle executive, Barlow had little contact with Textura when it was acquired by Oracle in April 2016 for US$663m – and accepted that Aconex’s Connected Cost CPM push would see him in direct competition with former colleagues, but he could only speculate about how Textura might fit alongside other Oracle products such as Primavera. (Other products in this sector include Zuuse’s Progressclaim, branded as PayApps.com in the UK, and, in the UK, OpenECX’s WebContractor.)
Connected Cost and 5D BIM
Taking the cost conversation a stage further we talked about building information modelling and cost management: so-called 5D BIM. “This is definitely on our roadmap,” Barlow said. “If a change is made in the 3D model, you obviously want to reflect that change in the cost, though, right now, we have priorities in other areas.” The roadmap also extends to augmented reality and drones, he said.
With one-time Worksite executive Tim Olshansky now CTO of Aconex, Barlow said Connected Cost would benefit from Olshansky’s push on pan-Aconex initiatives like Aconex API integration (“hugely important to us”), dashboarding, and the continued migration of Conject functionality to help retain those customers. Portfolio planning and risk management were areas that Barlow was interested in, potentially a logical extension of the company’s project controls capabilities, that could be augmented by business intelligence tools interrogating the “incredibly rich datasets” now being managed through Connected Cost.
Update (29 November 2017) – Guy Barlow has also been interviewed in the CIOB’s Global Construction Review.