Technology consultants who talk only about the features and benefits of their products miss the point. Innovative technology is important, but a project can succeed only if the company is ready to make some changes. Here's how you can prepare for new technology:
Write a mission statement. I used to think mission statements were touchy-feely slogans for the back of a sales brochure, but not anymore. A technology project forces your people outside of their comfort zones. A well-crafted mission statement can help guide your staff when they're unsure of what to do next.
Take inventory. Before you can figure out what you need, you need to know what you have, and I don't mean just your computer resources. It's even more important to inventory your people. When I evaluate a builder's readiness for a technology initiative, I use a survey that helps me uncover the computer skill levels of the employees, which employees are the happiest in their jobs, and which ones will be the most committed to making the project succeed. One negative employee can doom an entire project. If an employee can't come to terms with the direction the company is heading, the best thing to do is let him or her find a job somewhere else, because chances are that employee won't be there at the end anyway.
Automate with care. You don't want to overload the staff with new technology. Find ways to accommodate their low-tech ways. For example, forcing your field project managers to deal with a PDA just to update your scheduling system doesn't make sense if a five-minute phone call from a complish the same thing. The coordinator could update the scheduling software on the phone and fax the updates back out to a job trailer or home office, ready for everyone's low-tech clipboards the next day.
Cross-train employees. I've worked with builders who were somehow building 350 homes per year with only one estimator, one construction coordinator, or one selections coordinator. Unless there is someone who can step in, something as simple as a case of the flu can back up workflow for weeks. Add a complicated piece of software to that person's job, and you have a recipe for disaster. To combat “indispensable position” syndrome, clearly define and document each person's job description and standard operating procedure for that role, and then cross-train to ensure every position is covered in the event of an emergency. Some employees will feel threatened at first, but eventually they will be relieved when they can take a few days off without worrying about the work piling up when they return.
Hire a few temps. Even the most gung-ho builders will start to show signs of fatigue and lose momentum when the going gets tough. Big technology projects often require people to have to do the equivalent of two jobs as they transition from one system to another. Add required re-training on top of an increased workload and people will crack. More than once I have seen 20-year company veterans quit suddenly with no notice, leaving their departments in turmoil. Builders can counter this tendency by making sure people are fully covered during transition and training periods and watching for signs of burnout. Having someone else intercept and return phone calls during training sessions and bringing in temps to help with mundane data entry while someone is learning a new system can work miracles to preserve the sanity of your staff—and the success of your technology project.
Joe Stoddard is a process/technology consultant to the building industry. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.