Construction company CIO builds a better business with the cloud

There's no question the cloud has revolutionized the way global business is done - increasing efficiency, cutting costs and making collaboration simpler, even when customers and partners are half a world away. Vince Sarrubi, CIO of Webcor Builders, talks with CIO.com about changing older workers' minds, finding technology "cheerleaders," and how his company has leveraged cloud technology to take a bricks-and-mortar business to new heights.

CIO.com: Blue-collar industries are typically slower to "modernize" and adopt new technology, but Webcor seems to be ahead of the curve. What were the catalysts for this shift? Vince Sarrubi: Blue collar industries tend to focus on completing tasks, meeting deadlines and doing what they know how to do best to minimize time loss. New technologies mean changes to physical work practices, which could mean missing a deadline. These workers live in the physical world and have been manually practicing their art for years.  There's a mentality of 'head down and nose to the grindstone gets the work done' and 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.' However, we're seeing a mindset change, especially in construction. And the change is coming from the onslaught of new college graduates who have embraced technology from their early years in school to get work done. These new workers are early adopters of new ways to produce a higher-quality product in less time with less work.  And, they are more collaborative than older generations, which is likely the result of colleges including more collaborative team exercises into the student's curriculum. Once older workers see a 'greenhorn' -- a new construction worker -- using technology to manage a job, the older, senior superintendents begin to see the benefits of the technology and start to hop on the wagon. Albeit slowly, their mindset starts to turn. The truth in construction is, if you can get a senior superintendent to adopt a new technology, it is considered a technology win! For example, our enterprise adoption of Box grew out of a trial at one job site and just took off, caught fire, adoption-wise. There was a 1970's shampoo commercial where one person told a friend, and that person told two friends and those people told two friends - that's what happened here. All of a sudden, what started as a small group test project grew into almost one hundred Box users within a few weeks!  The match that lit the Box fuse was word-of-mouth employee testimonials within the company. CIO.com: How has the construction industry benefitted from leveraging tech like the cloud? VS: The cloud has brought collaboration to the collective construction masses.  In the past, there were construction collaboration platforms available for on-line review and real-time collaboration. Unfortunately, the cost of these platforms limited their availability to larger contractors and subcontractors. Cloud technology, and its decreasing cost of entry, has brought low-cost collaboration and electronic document management to companies who could not previously afford cloud's power. Today, for the cost of an iPad, a cellular account and a small access fee, all entities on the construction site can access drawings, 3-D models, collaborate, use streaming video to view issues in real time and provide near-real-time feedback. This means lower costs, faster construction processes, faster decision making, and up-to-date information in everyone's hands. CIO.com: What specific technologies are most in-demand in the construction industry right now?  VS: We are seeing two technologies gathering major steam in the construction industry: tablets and collaboration.  Tablets bring all the paperwork, such as drawings, RFIs, and inspection forms and outcomes, and puts them on a single device that can easily be carried in a worker's jacket pocket or work case. Now, the worker has less to carry, and, who wants more to carry?  The benefits we are seeing are in real-time changes made to drawings or updates the worker provides on an inspection that now have real-time impact on the job. Parties are notified immediately of issues and changes rather than waiting several hours or days for updates. Secondly, real-time virtual collaboration tools for models and drawings have time and cost-savings impacts to the construction schedule.  Using virtual collaboration, companies can whittle down several week-long processes of phone calls and face-to-face meetings to a couple of weeks through collaborative online tools such as Autodesk BIM 360 Glue, for instance. To add another piece to the puzzle, virtual collaboration is leading to increased use of cost-effective and productive off-shoring production of construction drawings and 3-D modeling that would not have been available without virtual collaboration. CIO.com: Are there specific best-practices, applications, tips, tricks you've learned over the years to best handle this continuing transition and embrace of technology? VS: I always fall back on the simple rules of adoption - the technology has to be as easy as using Amazon or Expedia (or whatever your favorite online retailer is). Have you ever seen a video on how to use Amazon or Expedia?  No.  Why?  It's so easy anyone can do it without training.  And that's how easy new technology has to be for successful adoption. Over the years -- yes, I'm starting to sound old -- I've seen great applications die on the vine. Why? Too complicated to use. They solve a problem, sure, but either it takes more effort to use the app than to solve the problem using the 'traditional' method, or a competing app that's easier to use springs up and eats that for lunch. I've also seen the flipside; mediocre applications that may not solve the entire problem take root and become wildly successful because they're so easy to use. So, one of the keys is that ease-of-use trumps functionality any day, at least in this industry. I've also learned to find my cheerleaders. They say more people are swayed to purchase by real customer reviews than by company advertising, so why not use the same principal inside a company? Let's face it, no one is going to listen to me, the CIO nerd, exhort the virtues of a new technology and how it will save them time and hassle. But when they hear the same story from another employee who loves the technology, all of a sudden I have another adoptee. There's no sleight-of-hand or trickery. It's just a matter of who is delivering the message. And there's no better messenger than a colleague wearing his or her 'same boots'? CIO.com: How does embracing technology like this ultimately benefit your business? How does it benefit your customers and partners? VS: The biggest benefits we see from new technologies are quality and cost savings. Yes, it's great to have all the details I need on a tablet rather than lugging 3-ring binders and rolls of drawings around with me. Yes, it's faster to update time reporting while the employee is on the construction site than to trek a city block back to the job trailer to update time cards.  But the real benefits shine in the quality of delivered products due to the real-time collaboration and feedback, which leads to cost savings and increased profits.  Customers receive higher-quality buildings earlier than scheduled -- this can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars in unexpected owner profit from rents or sales -- and partners benefit from reducing costs, reducing re-work, and enhanced productivity.CIO.com: How do you decide which technology is best for your company when there are so many choices? VS: I sometimes get asked this question by younger workers, the upcoming future leaders in the workforce. I tell them, besides the usual consideration of costs, scalability and ROI, there is no crystal ball to give you the answer.  Everyone from the C-suite-level down through senior management is making their best decision based on what they know now and what they think is going to happen in the near future.I tell them to look at all their possible options, boil decisions down to the best two or three choices, and then ask themselves, 'If I were the recipient of this new technology the CIO is providing for me to use, would I be happy to adopt it?' Slip on the user's boots and walk a mile. That'll usually tell them which choice is best.CIO.com: What's the industry outlook for construction for the next 12 to 18 months?  VS: We think the outlook for construction is still strong in the next one to two years. However, it is very difficult to tell what the future of the economy will be with our current uncertain economic state.Construction is tied to real estate prices and interest rates.  Commercial loans are still reasonably priced, with banks flush with cash and the Federal Reserve keeping interest rates at historic lows. 

In the San Francisco Bay Area, construction is booming and home prices are escalating again, quickly. On the flip side, unemployment is still an issue; consumer sentiment is still not where we would like it to be. Combine this with any sudden economic reaction to reduced spending, Fed policy changes, interest rate increases, or bank lending practices, and the construction industry can come to a halt quickly. The 'new economy' has put long-term blinders on many of us, and our forecasts do not push out much further than two to three years.

This story, "Construction company CIO builds a better business with the cloud" was originally published by CIO.

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