Aug 18 2009

Designing IT Success

The Barton Malow construction management and general contracting firm leverages unified communications and virtualization to meet customer needs and grow its business.

Photo: Paul S. Howell

Phil Go, CIO at Barton Malow, says information technology used effectively provides a competitive advantage for the engineering and construction management firm.

Cranes, girders and concrete may seem far removed from the typical high-tech enterprise. But in an increasingly digital world, no company can afford to be left behind. For Phil Go, CIO at Barton Malow, this is a given.

Over the past decade, Go and other business and IT leaders at the Southfield, Mich., engineering and construction management firm have worked to transform the $1.6 billion company into a technology leader.

With 12 offices in the United States and one in Mexico, Barton Malow handles an array of megaprojects, including schools, hospitals, office buildings, stadiums and manufacturing facilities. Among the firm’s landmark projects: Philips Arena in Atlanta; Coors Field in Denver; Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston; General Motors’ Global V6 Engine Facility in Flint, Mich.; and the School of Nursing at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

To manage these projects effectively, Barton Malow has embraced several IT solutions, including unified communications (UC), high-definition video conferencing, collaboration software, server virtualization and enterprise resource planning.

In addition, Go is migrating toward additional tools and technologies, including a service-oriented architecture (SOA) and Web 2.0 applications. “These technologies help us manage work better,” Go says. “Ultimately, they make us more responsive and attractive to customers.”

Unified Communications

Design, engineering and construction are highly competitive fields that require sophisticated project management and collaboration capabilities. In today’s tough economic climate, organizations work diligently to eke out every productivity gain possible. For Barton Malow, the stakes are extraordinarily high. Operating efficiency and outstanding customer service are paramount.

“The earlier we’re able to identify issues and make adjustments, the better we’re able to perform,” Go says. “Customers like the fact that they’re able to work with a firm that’s more technologically advanced.”

For Barton Malow, the road to success is paved with formidable challenges. Construction sites come and go, and with them the need for temporary voice and data networks. The ability to route calls and data to the right person at the right time can determine whether a project flourishes or winds up mired in delays and cost overruns.

“These days, people require immediate access to phone calls, e-mail, faxes and other sources of business information,” Go notes. “Having everything reside in a single mailbox is a huge time-saver.”

The heart of Barton Malow’s IT initiative lies in collaboration and communication. In 2001, the company introduced IP telephony along with a unified inbox at its headquarters. It has since rolled out UC to four offices. Today, employees plug in Cisco 7900-series Unified IP Phones, which connect to the network via Cisco Catalyst switches and routers. Cisco CallManager software directs the incoming calls to the IP phones.

Thus, staff can receive calls in the office, in the field and while on the road, provided they connect through their computer via the company’s virtual private network. Barton Malow also has begun to implement wireless IP phones that connect to 802.11x access points.

The result? Employees not only are able to receive their messages in a single inbox, but Barton Malow saves several thousand dollars a month on long-distance charges.

Routing the calls through the firm’s internal network rather than the standard phone network helps the company gain greater control over network resources and phone setups. There’s no reprogramming a private branch exchange when someone changes offices or locations. There’s also no need to pull cable and constantly wire and rewire offices. What’s more, a Voice over IP system reduces bandwidth demands. UC also makes integrating enterprise applications and databases easier and reduces demand for fax machines and paper.

More than anything, UC facilitates communication. The collaborative nature of engineering and construction means that employees need constant access to information. A unified inbox makes it easier for engineers, architects, project managers and construction managers to forward and share voicemail messages as well as e-mail and faxes. “The bottom line is that a single inbox helps Barton Malow achieve greater flexibility and agility,” Go says.

Moving Beyond the Talk

Although UC provides numerous benefits for Barton Malow, it isn’t the only collaboration tool in its IT arsenal. The company has Polycom HDX 9000 Series high-definition video-conferencing systems in place at several of its offices.

Employees regularly use the systems (or Polycom iPower systems) to hold virtual meetings and to connect with customers and business partners. Video conferencing has helped trim travel costs and ratchet up the firm’s responsiveness, Go says.

Barton Malow also relies on document- and web-sharing tools available through Autodesk AutoCAD, Meridian Systems Prolog project management system, and Building Information Modeling (BIM) applications from Autodesk and Bentley Systems. Microsoft SharePoint allows employees and others using Barton Malow systems to connect to the data they need.

This reduces the need for overnight courier services and more cumbersome solutions, such as e-mail and faxes. In addition, Barton Malow uses online web conferencing services such as WebEx to facilitate real-time presentations and document sharing.

Such connectivity also extends to building and construction sites. By establishing a wireless LAN, employees can access project and labor data on the spot and participate in conference calls and other group activities as needed.

Virtualization also has emerged as a key to Barton Malow’s IT strategy. Relying on VMware virtualization software, the firm has reduced the number of physical servers from 71 to 34 since introducing the technology in December 2008.

Virtualization has helped Barton Malow lower overall IT hardware costs, improve utilization rates for servers, boost energy efficiency and free up data center space. It has also allowed Barton Malow to ratchet up high availability, disaster recovery and business continuity.

With a solid IT foundation in place, Barton Malow is now tackling an array of other initiatives. It will unveil a new ERP system from SAP, scheduled for deployment in January 2010. The system will allow Barton Malow to improve performance in several areas, including project management, business process support, supplier relationship management, budgeting, financials and human resources.

Finally, Go says Barton Malow is turning to SOA and Web 2.0 tools. A more modular component-based architecture will help slash costs and provide greater IT flexibility. Web 2.0 apps — including wikis and social networking tools — will further improve internal communication. Of course, all of these initiatives must exist within a framework of robust security.

“We take information security very seriously,” Go says. “For us, the ROI is that we haven’t been breached. We view it as an insurance policy.”