Instant access to critical data via the Internet

July 1, 2000
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BOSTON, MA — “Many of our contractors have asked us how to get critical information to the field,” said Steve Curro, vice-president of sales for SHAKER Computer and Management Services. “These are critical issues like job cost reports that they often have to wait for.”

Curro told MCAA attendees that it is vitally important to have current, up-to-date information in the hands of field project managers, and one of the best ways to keep the information flow going is by using the Internet.

“The people away from the home base also need this information in some type of easily defined format they can pass on to their customers,” Curro stated. “For example, customers may need to have access to the service history of their equipment — and it is possible via the Internet.”

Connecting to the outside world

To enable a business to open up a pathway to the outside world of information, many companies have established a Management Infor-mation Systems (MIS) department. Curro cited statistics concerning construction business from the Construction Financial Manage-ment Association (CFMA).

“The CFMA is a great source of information and I recommend that your company’s controller uses them as a resource,” Curro added. (The organization’s Web site is www.cfma.org.)

Curro cited some CFMA statistics regarding the construction industry:

  • 28% of companies have a dedicated MIS department.

  • 79% of companies are networked.

  • 13% use a “wide-area” network (referring to anyone doing work away from the home site who is connected back to the home site).

  • 70% use database software.

  • 83% are online.

  • While online, 31% check e-mail, 21% do research, and 19% maintain a Web site.

  • The construction industry ranks 87th globally among all industries in the pace of technology adoption. Curro listed some of the feedback he gets when his company visits with contractors and talks about the information flow:

  • “Too little information during the job cycle.”

  • “The information cannot be user defined.”

  • “Our system is a prison of information.”

“Contractors want information now,” Curro added. “It doesn’t matter if a manager is in his office in Minnesota or vacationing in Florida. He wants it today. And he wants to be able to define what the information looks like.”

Curro assumes that most companies utilize a job cost accounting system where transactions are processed, information is stored, information is accessible, and reporting and inquiry requirements are defined.

Pull vs. push

Curro cited the difference between the “push” and “pull” methods of obtaining information. The push method involves centralized data being sent out to the field, which workers have to wait for. The pull method, which he addressed in his seminar, involves pulling data from the Internet.

“In a push method, we manually prepare reports, make copies of them, put them in the mail, and send them off to jobsites,” said Curro. “Hard copy reports and inquiries are non-system generated. Are these problems for the project manager? Yes!”

The technologically advanced method of information distribution is the pull method — web-based reporting. The advantages of this method include:

  • Instant access to information;

  • Real time information;

  • Access from any web browser

  • Low cost of operation; and

  • Control of information.

Curro went on to explain how the web-based advanced information system works. “Our basic assumption is that we are running some type of transactional database,” he added.

He listed the system components and added his comments:

  • Job cost accounting system (“You may need to know many details about your accounting system, such as payroll and job cost overruns.”);

  • Connection to the Internet;

  • Website/server;

  • The EIS (request for job information) system;

  • Data flow (“The request travels from the PC to the web server to the database. The data travels back to the end user via the database to the web server to the PC.”).

Curro said the information is kept secure by a number of “firewalls,” including a user ID and password to enter the web server and the database. There is also an “Intranet” firewall. “There are potentially three layers of security if someone wants to get in,” he added.

Is your system a candidate for advanced information reporting? Curro said that you need the following:

  • Web browser (e.g., Netscape, MS Explorer, AOL);

  • Modem;

  • Web site/server; and

  • Data mining tool (e.g., MS Access, Crystal Reports, Webspeed).

Curro added that there are certain steps to take if contractors want to design the best information system for their businesses.

  • “Survey the management for needs, put it in the manager’s hands.”

  • “Organize the information with a workflow diagram.”

  • “Decide about user interface; will it be interactive or have static data?”

  • “Prepare a design specification.”

  • “Partner with an I/S supporter.”

The key element, according to Curro: “Involve the enduser in your system design.”

Curro can be reached at coins@shakercom.com.

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