Steps for effective technology upgrades

Dec 17, 2023

Technology evolves quickly and it is imperative that AEC firms make smart decisions when selecting the software that powers project files, data storage, and financials.

Throughout 25 years in business, my company, Eclipse Engineering, has seen digital technology incorporated into every aspect of firm management. With the array of options on the market and complicated internal needs to address, a starting point can be difficult to find.

The leadership team at Eclipse believes these seven key steps are critical to making effective technology decisions:

  1. Identify the problem. Having a detailed summary of the problem is essential, otherwise, it is easy to be distracted by solutions to irrelevant problems. When you go to the grocery store hungry, you may buy more than you need, but when you have a specific recipe, you can make a shopping list and shop more efficiently.
    Example: In 2018, our firm had a key technology decision to make: the project management/accounting software that had once been a positive step forward was now posing problems. The software provider had been sold to a larger conglomerate and customer service plummeted which made it difficult and expensive to access the financial information we needed to make business decisions.
    We formally identified many problems, including poor customer service, increased software subscription costs, accounting modules that required special training, and the lack of free access to our data within their program.
  2. Engage the creative brain. Engage in a classic brainstorming session to discover useful ideas. Be in a positive environment with no time constraints and ask lots of questions. Can the problem be solved internally? Do current staff have skill sets that could contribute? What are external solutions?
    Example: Along with our accounting, leadership, and IT teams, we identified several possible solutions:
    1. Do nothing.
    2. Choose different proprietary software.
    3. Return to QuickBooks, which had been used before, with self-generated reports.
    4. Develop our own software.
  3. Engage the logical brain. From the creative list, what solutions have the best chance of success? Which has the least risk? Balance the upside with the potential risk and identify your risk-adjusted return.
    Example: Making the software switch within an accounting system takes a tremendous amount of time, has a high level of risk, and is never as smooth as advertised. Change is clunky and data is not easily transferable. With change comes uncertainty which can be disruptive to business operations.
    The option to develop internal software was alluring as it would give us more control over our data, and we could focus on the specifics of the problem we were trying to solve. The risk could be quantified and if we were successful, our product may be useful to firms like ours.
  4. Time. What is the time frame needed to find a solution? Can the timeframe be phased? Is this a short-term issue or do you have time to develop a permanent solution? How long will this solution be in place?
    Example: We had flexibility with our time requirement, since we were functioning with the current system and had no short-term time constraints. Therefore, we enjoyed the freedom to develop something internally.
  5. Check your work. Is the solution identified solving the original problem? Meet with your team and confirm the solution meets the needs originally identified.
    Example: Developing our own solution came with some risk, but it posed real benefits: we would be our own customer service, we would not increase software costs as our company grew, we could build something internally that could interface with QuickBooks, and we would be in control of our own data. Building an internal solution was our best option.
  6. Financial considerations. What are the known costs associated with the solution? Can you break out hard and soft costs? Do you have a margin of safety built into your analysis? Understand the opportunity cost associated with the timeline.
    Example: The fixed costs of the status quo were easily quantified, but it came with substantial costs of putting our data to work. The costs of building an internal system became integrated with our internal IT team. By building a solution internally, we would eliminate yearly subscription costs and reduce the ongoing burden of per-user fees as we grew.
  7. Postmortem. Once implemented, review the decision and process with your team. Has the problem been solved and is it still the best solution? Be sure to revisit this decision annually and be open to new opportunities.
    Example: We have been using our internally built system, RYZE, for five years and it has served us well. We saved tens of thousands of dollars by not paying subscription fees, and have used the data within our system to improve our business. Ryze works in parallel with QuickBooks, which has greatly reduced friction with our accounting team since it’s a commonly used program. We accomplished the switch without too much disruption to our existing systems and processes.

Technology never stands still, and five years after our last big technology revamp, we find ourselves back at step one. Our company has grown significantly, technological factors have changed, and our internal capabilities have expanded. We are revisiting our current system and identifying a new set of problems to solve. I’m confident that by following the process we’ll be successful again and I would encourage other firms to try it out the next time they’re faced with such questions. 

Jesse Fortune, P.E., is CEO at Eclipse Engineering and is headquartered in Missoula, Montana. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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