Enterprise Project Management (EPM) Software Choices for Small Contractors

Part i: 10 Things to Consider Before Selecting EPM Software

SaaS. EPM. What do these acronyms mean, and does a small to mid-size construction team need to know about them? Well, that depends on your company’s profile. Quite simply put, software-as-a-service (SaaS) products allow you and your project team, or partners, to access and upload/download any project documentation, including drawing files, to and from a given web-based platform or browser, and store all your data in its Cloud. EPMs, or Enterprise Project Management software using the SaaS delivery system, have been around since the late nineties, yet development seems to have been flat since then.

On its bland surface, EPM software looks remarkably 1990’s. I believe that, in part, developers don’t want to scare any boot-strap engineer sorts away, with flash or hot-skins ubiquitous in software found in what they perceive as more progressive sectors. I have experienced such shock responses first-hand. Another reason is that software for small construction companies tends to be simplified or dumbed-down, to accommodate what developers have always assumed to be is a market whose constituents boast only modest IT skills.  That being said, developers still have had to keep up with advances in processing and bandwidth. Thus, under the hood they have become perhaps a little more sophisticated, and now run on more powerful engines than last century.

SaaS can greatly facilitate on-line collaboration using EPM software, even if your partners don’t sign up. At worst, even if use is limited to in-house use, you still might realize a decent ROI, if for nothing else, its organizational benefits both in the field and office. Compared to the organization of most back offices this would be a great enhancement. However, EPMs tout maximum range (team-wide usage) and control over document management. Ideally, that would be realized in an IPD (integrated project delivery) environment, where a collaborative approach is intended to establish collective common goals to eliminate waste and boost productivity. I.e., the whole project team signs up. IPD is the future path for large, complex, public projects. For the uninitiated, EPMs are a good place to start.

As its name suggests, EPM software gives you the organizational tools with which to manage your entire enterprise, or all your projects together in one or more portfolios, both on and off-line, and using iOS and Android platforms. The promise of EPM software lies in its all-encompassing bundle of collaborative project management tools. Depending on how your office IT is structured, you may already have many of these modules on desktops, or your LAN: e.g., scheduling, estimating, MS templates, or proprietary file types that EPM software can store or convert, but likely lack the FTP (file-transfer-protocol) facility that all EPMs offer. Are you going to replace these programs with the EPM bundle, or run them in parallel – what I like to call double-entry? If the latter is true, you may want to reassess your investment, as your project management approach will invariably become fragmented. Indeed, many contractors already find themselves using the fragmented approach.

For example, a project manager may enter completion values on his AIA Continuation Sheet and Payment App, however, the bookkeeper must enter the AP/AR account information in a separate accounting program, as well. In another example, estimators may use an on-line take-off app, only to turn their pdf tallies over to a chief estimator who transposes them to an MS Excel spreadsheet. He then gives it all to an account exec to attach an MS Word cover. The whole proposal may then be converted to pdf and uploaded back to the EPM node. The point being: if EPMs offer the whole repertoire, why would you duplicate those efforts with your office software? There could be many reasons, and you must determine if there will be too much overlap, or fragmentation, and most importantly: do the platform modules cut the mustard?

When shopping project management or Enterprise Project Management software for your construction company, it’s important to consider a few things in mind besides cost:

  1. Is it intended to replace or enhance your present back-office software, and will it play-well, or integrate, with other software you use, such as project management, scheduling, communication, and estimating? If not, consider the overhead for double-entry work.
  2. What are the import and export file extensions recognized? Make sure there are no weird conversions going on when you upload or transfer. Most EPMs can read common third-party file extensions, but do not offer operability.
  3. Is Technical Support 24/7, and is it done in-house? Note, sometimes outsourced tech-support can be better than the in-house.
  4. Will your estimators use the program’s on-screen take-off to figure their bids? They might, but they should have full-size hard copies of the drawings for developing their estimates. On-screen take-offs serve as a good adjunct to manual estimation, but must not replace it.
  5. If the vendor isn’t well established, will your clientele be open to using it? And what about vendors and subcontractors? If everyone is not on-board, you might not end up running on eight cylinders.
  6. How much Cloud storage comes with the program, and does the company have sufficient infrastructure (servers) to back up your data?
  7. Don’t buy a product based on the demo, or front-end. If you’re not sure, ask the vendor if they offer training seminars, or have a trial version – as most do. Although a trial won’t have all the features of the full version or let you get under the hood, it should give you a rough idea.
  8. If you purchase an EPM program from a third-party, be sure that the technical support package from the vendor is included, or you may end up having to buy a separate support contract. Better yet: never buy from a third-party if you can help it.
  9. Did you include overhead for employee training in your budget? And who covers their workload while they are in training.
  10. Does it have Android and I/OS versions, and are they as well developed as the PC version?

With these ideas in mind, you will be able to make all the necessary informed choices when considering purchase of an EPM program. Most importantly, encourage input from your staff before you commit. No one likes to be surprised with new comprehensive protocols and SOPs that EPMs create.

Derek Graham is an independent building consultant with RepOne and the author of “Managing Residential Construction Projects: Strategies & Solutions,” McGraw Hill: New York (2006).

-> Part 2