By Sam Lamonica, CIO, Rudolph & Sletten
At first glance, bringing mobility to a construction firm looks similar to any other industry. You've got the same type of connectivity endpoints: headquarters, regional and satellite offices, and a mix of fixed and mobile individuals who want the same thing: anywhere, anytime communications and IT services. But there are major differences to consider when setting up a mobile environment in construction.
Challenges of the Construction Site
To start, it's not permanent.
By contrast, your average business campus seems quiet and orderly as a monastery!
Physical Security for Construction Sites
One of the biggest challenges with mobility in the construction industry is physical security. Imagine how much sleep you'd get with a humongous server full of intellectual property set deep in the woods where the sheriff is on the other side of the mountain. And the tools needed to break in, and even the vehicles needed to cart it off, are right there on site! Decentralization is not an option, and that means your mobile infrastructure is going to have to carry an even heavier load.
There are some interesting possibilities involving the combination of RFID and GPS technologies that I'm looking at for some help with security, at least as far as making sure that some expensive piece of construction equipment doesn't suddenly turn up missing. It would be nice to have things set up where my operations people can get an alert telling them that a $60,000 trailer-mounted generator just left the job site where it was installed. But right now none of the RFID or GPS equipment I've seen is really tough enough to stand up to a typical construction environment. If you've ever been up-close to a working piece of heavy construction equipment, like one of those haulers with wheels taller than your house, you would know what I mean: grease, dirt, fumes, vibration, heat.
Overcoming Poor Visibility
When I arrived at Rudolph and Sletten five years ago, our IT infrastructure wasn't up to the challenges of mobility. The worst problem—and it had quite a bite to it—was poor visibility. I asked the operations people how they knew when something was broken, and was told either "when the phone rings off the hook" or "we go into the server room and the lights aren't blinking." And the company's Cisco VPN concentrator was a piece of "shelfware"—they hadn't gotten around to installing it yet and were still using an open-source solution that just didn't measure up. The first thing I had to do was get availability up to 99 percent, and then see what I could do about mobility.
Once you get your infrastructure up to par, then you can start building mobility on top of it, not before. I was able to extend our mobile communications to job sites—for instance, using satellites for really remote areas, and then within them. Big job sites can extend over a considerable area, with many physical obstacles to communications, from mountains to deep holes. Being able to move a trailer anywhere on a job site and have it still connected, or knowing that a supervisor's laptop isn't going to lose connectivity when he jumps in a truck and roars off to a remote corner of the site or into a tunnel—was a big win.
Videoconferencing turned out to be a big deal, too. It started between headquarters and the regional offices, but there was still too much time chewed up traveling, so we extended it to job sites, and now we can have video meetings between on-site personnel, the customer, the architect, regulatory authorities, you name it. Everyone appreciates the convenience, and the green aspect of it is important too, because we have a lot invested in sustainable construction.
Taking it Slow Pays Off
But, in the end, it doesn't matter what industry you're in, because going mobile involves the same tasks and cautions as any other IT initiative. Don't make the mistake that many CIOs do, of going for the "big gulp," the flashy project that'll solve multiple problems at once. Grab the low-hanging fruit first: take things one step at a time, choose your projects wisely, and be sure to celebrate your successes.
The payoff can be huge, even from those first small steps. Each successful move towards greater mobility means you're a little farther from getting stopped in the hallway by an executive who wants to complain about something and a little closer to getting invited into the boardroom for strategic discussions. That's a career path you want to be on.