Command of data is the difference

Dec 26, 2021

Unanet’s inaugural AEC benchmarking study reveals the data-management practices that separate the best firms from the rest.

AEC firms are constantly collecting information. And as we found in Unanet’s first AEC Inspire benchmarking report, it’s how they use that data once it’s collected that can make all the difference.

As a co-author of the 2021 AEC Inspire report, which is based on a survey of leaders and executives from more than 175 AEC firms, one of my biggest takeaways from the results we gathered is the growing but still uncertain relationship many firms have with data, and because of that, the real competitive advantage a firm stands to gain simply by doing a better job of managing and deriving insight from their data. As we learned from our analysis, many firms struggle to leverage their data to make better-informed decisions, measure and track key performance indicators, and make more accurate forecasts related to pipeline, revenue, project schedules, and resources. In an intensely competitive business like AEC, excelling in these critical areas can be a true difference-maker. High-performing, data-driven firms (those that report using data regularly) expect to outperform their counterparts by three times in terms of expected revenue growth in 2021, and by more than two times in terms of expected profit.

Winning new business, improving operational efficiencies, executing profitable projects on time and on budget – all these growth factors come down to how well a firm manages and leverages the data it collects. But as valuable a resource as data can be, our benchmarking report shows that it also is underutilized. For example:

  • In terms of data usage, more than half of AEC execs (54 percent) say they use data on a regular, daily basis; one in three sometimes use data, depending on the situation. As more firm decision-makers realize how critical data is to making the right calls in terms of forecasting, planning, resource-maximization, and which new work to pursue, we expect these data-usage figures will increase substantially. Certainly this is an indicator worth watching in subsequent AEC Inspire reports.
  • Regarding data accessibility, more than one-third (35 percent) of respondents told us that a lack of data availability hinders their ability to use it. Evidently silos and the lack of ready access to data from across the business and from individual projects continue to hamper timely, well-informed decision-making.
  • In the area of missing or inaccurate data, close to half (47 percent) of respondents indicated that missing or inaccurate data is a challenge. An ongoing reliance on manual, spreadsheet- and paper-focused processes, and a lack of integration between software and systems, can handicap firm leaders and project managers in their efforts to gain the accurate, complete insight they need to effectively steer projects and the firm as a whole.
  • On the forecasting front, more than half of the executives we surveyed pointed to forecasting as their most significant financial (58 percent) and project-related (57 percent) challenge. Better forecasting in areas like budgeting, resource allocation, and scheduling tends to translate into better project outcomes, enhanced project-specific and firm-wide efficiencies, and in terms of growth opportunities, a greater ability to gauge resources, prioritize pursuits accordingly, and land the types of projects the firm covets.

As part of the AEC Inspire report, we dug a little deeper to determine why data accessibility and accuracy, along with forecasting, are a struggle for a sizable portion of firms. We discovered that the culprit, in many cases, are the business applications and tools AEC firms use, along with how those tools are leveraged. For example, we learned that most firms continue to depend on a patchwork of business intelligence tools and spreadsheets, with more than one-third using spreadsheets alone to measure and report on KPIs. Two-thirds of organizations said their applications are only partially integrated, while one in 10 indicated there’s little-to-no integration between their business apps. That was a big eye-opener, as was the share of firms that reported using a single, common business intelligence platform: a disturbingly low 6 percent.

In light of how few firms currently operate within a fully integrated ecosystem with centralized data and analytics, we weren’t surprised to learn that many execs feel their firms are under-equipped to perform certain functions and processes that are key to long-term growth and competitiveness. For example:

  • Nearly half of AEC firms indicated that not having sufficient tools to access, integrate, and analyze data (45 percent) is a significant challenge for them.
  • More than one-third (35 percent) said not having sufficient tools to communicate performance metrics is a hindrance. 

There are, of course, different ways to view these findings. I prefer the glass-half-full perspective, which suggests that firms with a strong grip on their data, and the ability to analyze that data for insight, put themselves in a great position to operate more efficiently, deliver better project outcomes and win more new business. By cross-referencing revenue and profitability with company use of data, we uncovered a clear connection between a firm’s performance and its use of data on a regular, daily basis to operate their business. Those that do so significantly outperform those that do not.

Put in those terms, becoming better at managing and leveraging data seems paramount for firms that are seeking to sustain growth through 2022 and beyond. If our 2021 AEC report “inspires” more architecture, engineering and construction firms to achieve better results through their data, our benchmarking work on the industry’s behalf will have been worthwhile.

Click here to download a free digital copy of the 2021 AEC Inspire Report

Lucas Hayden is director of AEC strategy for Unanet, a leading provider of project-based ERP and CRM solutions purpose-built for Government Contractors, architecture, engineering, construction, and professional services. Email him at

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.