Information by design Featured

9:52am EDT July 22, 2002

As Mark Dietrick fiddled with a drawing from Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann’s Philadelphia office while his boss simultaneously did the same from his office in Pittsburgh, the full realization of what an information technology revamp would mean to the architectural firm struck him.

An architect by training, it became abundantly clear to Dietrick at that instant — after 18 months of preparation — that the system the company had spent a good part of 1998 building was going to affect it dramatically in the way it would do its work.

Not surprisingly, the professionals at Burt Hill like to be able to work on drawings simultaneously in two or more cities — one of many features provided by the new system. What might seem a little bewildering at first glance is why it took so long to put such a system into place, given that Burt Hill is a large, progressive architectural firm that has never been technology shy.

The fact of the matter, says Dietrick, chief information officer, is that Burt Hill has always embraced new technologies that allow it to do its work more efficiently and service its clients more effectively. And PC Solutions, the Pittsburgh-based systems integrator that assisted Burt Hill throughout the project, has been helping the firm implement such systems for at least a decade.

But the tendency for technology users has been to add technology without necessarily adding connectivity. As a result, technology systems may work well, but operate independently of one another. There’s also a tendency to milk every purchase for all it’s worth, even if it means passing up opportunities to gain productivity or realizing an advantage with new technology.

“I think we always had technology and are at the forefront of bringing technology to our profession,” says Dietrick. “We didn’t always do it in smart ways.”

Now, Burt Hill is at the vanguard of architectural firms in terms of technology.

“They’ve taken the next step that a lot of companies are talking about,” says Steve Wirth, executive vice president of PC Solutions, who describes Burt Hill as among the top companies when it comes to mature networks.

Without connectivity at Burt Hill, drawings for a project in one location might be developed by professionals and consultants in several locations. Shuttling the drawings around by fax for mark-up and changes meant faxing documents back and forth many times or travel by professionals from one office to another.

For Burt Hill, with offices in Pittsburgh, Butler, Pa., Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and projects in cities around the globe, the lack of connectivity was becoming a handicap. By early 1998, says Dietrick, the firm realized there was a need for a change and that the time was right.

It was strong financially, there were Y2K issues to be resolved, and Burt Hill saw the need for a system that allowed its professionals to work more effectively among its various offices.

Visioning

The next step was to determine what the new system would have to do. PC Solutions began by interviewing a cross-section of the firm’s employees, including engineers, architects, sales and marketing executives and administrative assistants.

PC Solutions then developed and recommended initiatives that included Internet connectivity, standardized workstations and software, remote access, Y2K compliance and a host of others.

Implementation

With 400 workstations firmwide (most slated for replacement), and more than 50 software applications and connections to the Internet backbone to be installed, the project had to be implemented over a nine-month period.

Integrators swapped the old computers in groups of about 10 users, two groups a week. The changes had to be coordinated with individual office schedules. Employees then received two days of training while the new workstations were being installed.

What to consider

Companies facing a major IT project should realize that it’s not enough to simply throw money at a technology solution, Deitrick and Wirth stress. The decision will affect the entire organization, its clients and its competitiveness. There must be a visioning process that identifies needs and goals. Consider:

  • Top management must buy into the vision.

    “The commitment starts internally with the management of the firm,” says Deitrick. The clients who are most successful, adds Wirth, “have an appreciation that they could be making better use of technology.”

    The vision then must be sold to the rest of the organization by assessing their needs and keeping them informed as the project progresses.

  • Create a master plan tied to the goals of the organization.

    For Burt Hill, having Internet connectivity means that expertise can be more easily exported from one location to another. An architect in Pittsburgh with special knowledge can work on a project out of the Philadelphia office without traveling across the state.

    It also means clients, along with architects and engineers, can view the progress of their projects over the Internet, even if they are in Russia, the Pacific Rim or the Middle East. The firm’s projects and databases can be accessed from computers at an architect’s home or from a laptop or workstation in virtually any office anywhere.

    Offering clients and customers the opportunity to see their projects’ progress and having access to professionals who might otherwise be hard to utilize are appealing to new prospects and offer a powerful marketing edge, says Dietrick.

  • Make a thorough evaluation of the vendor.

    Wirth points out that the reputation of the systems integrator and the suitability for the job at hand should be the first consideration.

    “You start bidding this out and it doesn’t make sense.”

  • Allow enough time.

    Although Burt Hill’s project was completed ahead of schedule, Dietrick acknowledges that sometimes, he wasn’t sure the deadline would be met.

    “It got a little scary there a couple of times.”

How to reach: Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann, (412) 394-7000 or www.burthill.com; PC Solutions, (412) 394-7094 or www.pc-solutions.com

Ray Marano (rmarano@sbnnet.com) is associate editor at SBN.