Understanding and feeling comfortable with all the technology tools available today is a daunting task for even the most accomplished IT professional. It is no wonder that many home builders feel overwhelmed trying to integrate technology into their day-to-day operations. Selecting, implementing and making effective use of technology tools is difficult when your daily life revolves around delivering homes on time, on budget and within acceptable quality guidelines.
In this new column our aim is to make your job easier. We’ll eliminate the jargon and PR-speak and provide clear information that helps you understand the implications of technology decisions.
I could start with a story of an unsuccessful attempt to get a job cost or purchase order system operational, but instead I will tell you that you are not alone if you’ve failed at it. My experience is that most builders fail at the process three times. In all cases, it takes much longer to implement a system than they first thought, and the end result is often less than stellar.
For inexperienced technology leaders, it is difficult to grasp how hardware, software, the Internet, skills training and systems connectivity come together. I will say that when technology and good process flow, running your company can be astoundingly easy. The other side of the coin is that when you attempt to integrate technology with poor processes, your business can be severely crippled or even fail.
So how do you go from reacting to technology to proactively making it a part of your management strategy? As builders you understand the importance of stable soils, solid footings and excellent framing when constructing a house; technology innovation is no different.
As in most cases, the fundamentals of good leadership apply -- you must visualize the end result. My clients want to increase gross margins, net margins and revenue per employee. Most builders I know have very busy days -- not always as effective as they would like -- but no doubt full working days. To change this scenario, companies must strive to improve their systems and increase daily use of technology that is readily available.
Outlined below are some of the critical elements of the technology innovation process. Depending on the size of your company, these tasks will be delegated according to the skills in house. Your team should consist of the natural technology leaders in your firm, outside professionals to supplement your team’s weaknesses and your senior managers.
A clear technology leader: This person needs to have good business judgment and leadership skills, comprehend technology well enough to manage an IT professional and understand how the business operates.
A clear process leader: He or she must understand how the business operates from prospect to warranty and should be a good communicator and team builder.
An objective assessment of where your company is on the technology curve: You need to be realistic about your place on the technology curve. If you have avoided investment in technology, you will pay a higher price to get back in the game. It is better to stay current with software, hardware and training than to have to play catch-up. Allocate a budget every year and be generous with your technology investment dollars.
A candid review of the strengths and weaknesses of your technology team: Be objective; have other professionals interview them to ensure technical competence. Your team will make or break your technology initiative, so it is important that you invest in your people’s skills and promote constant self-improvement.
A candid assessment of the skills of your existing staff: You need to understand how much learning will have to take place for technology to be used effectively. Have a local training company set up the plan for your company. Understand where the skills of your people need to be and make training a part of your operating culture. Reward people for working to increase their skill sets.
An objective assessment of how your company manages processes: Have you systematized any of your processes? If not, your software and hardware may only confound an already chaotic situation. Software and hardware should not be the paddle that brings discipline to your processes.
Realistic priorities: To spend your company’s time and money in the right order you need to plan for your expected level of growth realistically. You must have the infrastructure in place to handle operating software. You must train people so they can use it; the data design and logic have to make complete sense. The systems you now have must be improved so they can apply your knowledge of the business.
An unbiased research of the software and hardware available: Hire an outside consultant or have a highly skilled staff person do the research. Establish the guidelines as a team -- a collaborative effort is often the most effective. Speak to other builders but do not rely on their experiences if they have the same or lesser skill set than your team.
Excellent hardware and software infrastructure expertise: No software can work if the very structure it runs on is unstable or inadequate. Many builders do not have the infrastructure in place to capitalize on the latest technology tools. Make sure your vendor has all of the necessary professional certifications.
Web technology applications: It is important that someone on your team understands the evolution from back-office software to Web-enabled software. Additionally, e-commerce is a natural part of this process, and you should make the effort to understand the basics.
A data design and logic specialist for system setup: This is critical to growing companies and is probably one of the most widespread problems affecting all builders. The way you set up the data in your software applications is a key indicator of the long-term viability of your operating system. In most cases, this setup is done without much experience or forethought by upper management or the technology team.
A clear understanding of the importance of doing any task correctly vs. connecting every task: Understand that connecting processes is less important than doing things right consistently. Many builders get swayed into the idea that integrated systems are the answer, but if you don’t complete each task correctly, why would you want to connect a string of tasks done wrong? Get good at a task, prove it for a while and then connect.
An appreciation of every victory to keep the team positive: There are times when this transformation can be very frustrating, filled with confusion and generally no fun at all. It is very important that you as the leader maintain the tenacity and good spirit necessary to transform the organization. When you have even small victories, be sure to celebrate them.
Do not waver from the plan. Be confident of what you set out to do and stick to it. Do not throw in the towel when it seems to take too long or cost too much. Keep trying and adjusting until it works. It will, and you will be glad that you transformed yourself from a reactive technophobe to a proactive technology innovator.
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About the Author: Noelle Tarabulski founded and runs Builder Software Tools Inc., a technology and operations consulting firm specializing in home building. She began her professional career with Toll Bros. as a field operations manager. In addition to BST, she also runs Tara Builders, a home builder in suburban Philadelphia.