Tech Talk: Software helps contractor manager

Project management software keeps getting more capable. Keith Watson, a general contractor in northeastern Georgia who has followed the evolution of project management programs almost from their beginning, shudders at the thought of trying to run his business without them.
Watson got his first taste of project software on a Navy job 20 years ago. The Navy insisted that he use a program that offered little more than visualization of critical paths. But it helped him organize the work, so when that job was done, he moved up to a more capable program called Timeline. Next came Microsoft Project, which he praises for its general scheduling capabilities.
But Watson needed more construction-specific help as his business grew. Today, Bowen & Watson in Toccoa, Ga., runs about a dozen non-residential building projects simultaneously. Some are as small as $250,000 but most range between $5 million and $10 million. Schools are the company’s specialty. It’s no surprise to Watson that more and more owners are insisting that their contractors employ the latest project management software.
A year and a half ago, Watson upgraded to Primavera’s SureTrak for project scheduling and Expedition for project management. Primavera is the big gorilla in project management programs for builders and engineers. Half of its $80 million annual volume comes from non-residential construction software.
SureTrak is Primavera’s entry-level program. Priced at $499 for a single user, it competes with Microsoft Project. Watson also added Primavera’s Expedition, which starts at $2,500 for a single user, because he needed its project controls. Watson bought licenses for multiple users because he wanted to tie in all his project managers, owners, architects, suppliers, and subcontractors. The latest version, which Watson has not yet fully implemented, will enable Watson to put everything on his secure Web site to provide unified control, reporting, and communication.
Expedition was important to Watson because it consolidates and manages the full range of documents: submittals, requests for information, contracts, purchase orders, change orders, phone logs, and more. For example, when a fax comes it, it is no longer printed. It is scanned, saved as an image file, sent to its intended destination via e-mail and linked to the appropriate project file.
Meeting minutes are handled with equal slickness, impressing owners, Watson said. Time management controls make doubled appointments less likely. Telephone records can be attached to specific projects. All communication about a specific project is gathered in one place, making it quick and easy to prepare for a meeting.
Watson especially likes Expedition’s ability to identify a specific situation as an “issue,” so that all relevant correspondence can be tagged with a link to it. Watson cited a current example of an unexpected drainage situation. Tagging it as an issue means that it won’t be easily forgotten or ignored.
“This is important because I might not know some situation is an issue right away,” he says. “With Expedition, I can find things in predictable places. Even if I lose something, Expedition can find it for me.”
But what about job superintendents, especially the ones who don’t type and are less than computer literate?
“The most satisfied superintendents are those who use the system the most,” Watson says. “When they find out how it simplifies their paperwork, they’re hooked.”
Watson’s admiration for the program grows daily as he sees how it anticipates his needs. Despite all the power of the program, his favorite feature is one that he calls “The ball is in your court.” It relates to a wry bit of counsel that defines effective management as the process of moving paper from my desk to your desk. One of Watson’s pet peeves is being ignored when he asks for action or information. Sometimes, he says, the whole project can be completed and a subcontractor still has not furnished some important piece of documentation. Expedition will nag the recalcitrant correspondent with customized, professional-looking letters.
“Our submittals are going the smoothest I’ve ever seen,” Watson says. “It’s a form letter, but it looks so professional that it puts the receiver on notice that a computer is tracking them. Some issues die if we let them. That’s just poor management, and the smaller the job it is, the easier it is to forget to follow up.”
The next step, Watson said, will be to put the entire system on the Web.
Before settling on Primavera, Watson considered several other options, including project management software by Timberline and Prolog by Meridian Project Systems. The Timberline option was especially appealing because Bowen & Watson has been using Timberline’s accounting and estimating software for 15 years. However, for security reasons, Watson elected not to tie job costing with project management.
“We track contracts redundantly in both processes,” Watson says.
He passed up Prolog primarily because it was less mature at the time he was deciding.

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