Mobile technology could help South African construction companies to boost productivity as they seek to optimise efficiencies in the face of a long industry slump, writes Matthew Kibby, vice-president: enterprise, Africa and Middle East at Sage.
South Africa’s construction industry takes mobile technology for granted, with contractors and project managers in the field using smartphones to take pictures, text message, and send and receive emails.
However, construction companies are not taking advantage of the full potential of mobile technology for two reasons:
* Many mobile tools don’t integrate with the back-office systems contractors use to run their businesses.
* The industry takes a conservative view on the adoption of new technologies.
But with mobile solutions becoming easier to integrate and use, the first concern is starting to fall away. On the second point, the construction industry is under pressure to improve productivity of people and assets in the face of rising costs. It also needs to optimise business processes following a seven-year growth slump and the fall-out of an investigation by the Competition Commission into industry collusion.
Connecting the field and the office
Today, most mobile applications for the construction industry are point solutions.
They do a good job of solving a particular problem but don’t connect their data to anything else in the organisation. That means opportunities are missed to streamline processes by reducing the need for redundant data capture, and to use data to gain better visibility into the business.
Project managers or superintendents on the job site may use a mobile app to handle things like ordering materials, yet this data might not be fed through automatically to the billing and finance systems. Someone in the office will often need to recapture this data, duplicating effort as well as allowing human error to creep in. Thus, the next step for construction companies is to link apps used on the job site with their business management systems.
When this type of integration occurs, executives have a much more holistic picture of what is happening with each project. This, in turn, means everyone in the field and the office can make better decisions. They also have a reliable audit trail of what happened on the project and C-suite executives can get a holistic view of performance across multiple projects.
Right-sizing the mobile solution
Increasing back-office integration to mobile solutions also gives contractors more options to choose from to best fit a project’s needs.
Many jobs need only light mobility to more easily view drawing changes, handle RFIs, and submit daily field reports. Other projects are more complex and require more robust collaboration systems to make sure all the players – owner, architect, engineer, and sub-contractors – stay in sync. With back-office integration available for either of these scenarios, contractors can tier their projects in terms of which will require a heavy collaboration system and which will need only a light mobility tool.
Mobile solutions also offer the possibility for human resources departments to gather data to be used to optimise workforce productivity and performance. Though labour costs in South Africa and the rest of Africa are relatively low compared to the rest of the world, many construction groups are starting to see high productivity as an important lever for financial performance.
With an integrated business management solution and human capital management (HCM) platform with strong mobile functionality, construction firms can gather and analyse richer data about the workforce – from working hours and location. They can even use Internet of Things sensors to monitor carbon dioxide levels to which workers are exposed.
Wearables will bring a new level of sophistication that will have a profound impact on businesses in this space. Smart vests with embedded GPS sensors and smart eyewear could, in future, be used to track workers’ biometrics, heart rates, location and more. This information could help shape a safer workforce as well as to speed up decision-making and improve collaboration.
From explaining the past to predicting the future
Advances such as these are allowing construction businesses today to track and measure their workforce to a degree not previously possible. Using HCM systems, managers can measure, funnel and interpret data collected in near real-time and provide feedback to executive decision makers and people on the ground.
Organisations are starting to move away from historical reporting towards having more predictive capabilities – they can start to predict how the workforce will perform in the future rather than simply explaining why productivity slumped in the last quarter or why there were more workplace accidents than usual.