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As a new generation of millennials enters the construction industry in full force, their voracious media consumption habits will follow. It may be hard to believe that the iPhone was released nearly nine years ago, a device that ushered the word “app” into the mainstream.

Calling the iPhone a phone may be considered a stretch in itself: Reports have shown that apps dominate mobile device usage, with 85 percent of a user’s time spent in apps rather than talking or texting.

The business world has been wary of this development, to say the least. IT departments are well aware of the high cost of creating mobile apps using traditional software development methods. A single app, from testing to deployment, can cost anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000 or more.

Before examining the level of investment and effort any further, it’s important to consider the difference between traditional “applications” such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) or customer relationship management (CRM) systems and small, one-to-two function mobile “apps.”

Applications vs. Apps

Construction organizations have invested significant resources in acquiring and implementing technology to support their operations. One of the most critical decisions in this process is selecting the back-end ERP and CRM applications that help run the business. These large, complex applications have been developed with desktop user interfaces in mind. Often these system interfaces are complex, with hundreds of functions despite the fact that the user probably only uses a handful for their job.

The “app” has fundamentally changed how users view working with “applications.” Rather than present users with a multitude of functions regardless of their relevance to their job, apps present one to two key functions that allow the user to complete a task quickly and move onto other tasks. A good way to illustrate this from a consumer standpoint would be purchasing and using plane tickets. Though some airline apps have the ability to book tickets, it’s highly likely a consumer may use a deal-finding app to book tickets, and use an airline app to show the boarding pass and board the flight. Each app has a specific function, and after it is used it fades back into the background.

Apps in the Construction World

The shift from applications to apps presents a key opportunity for the construction industry. This opportunity is to rethink how workers do their jobs in the office, on the road and on the jobsite. For example, the sales quoting process has been a fairly standard procedure for years: The salesperson visits the site, collects data on the materials and work required, returns to the office and calculates the quote manually. With three to four sales appointments per day, this process may take multiple days to complete multiple quotes.

Not only is this status quo, manual process inefficient, it’s costing organizations significant revenue as mobile technologies enter the market (and competitors start using them). A salesperson with a mobile app tied to a back-end CRM system is able to speak with a customer and generate on-the-fly quotes that are more accurate and based on historical data. Each mobile device turns users into efficient data collectors. This data is used not to only be more responsive to customers, but also to be better understand the market and competition. Not all customers and jobs are equally profitable. Data collected from apps can help sales management only bid on the jobs that deliver value to the customer and help the organization's bottom line.

Breaking Down the Barriers to Mobilization

Considering the potential value of mobility, the aforementioned hefty investment in software development may seem worth it, but it’s critical to consider other options before moving forward. Two critical steps will help break down the barriers for construction organizations looking to mobilize their workforce.

  1. Rethink the app development process. Rather than try to build a single app that does it all, start with a single app project to make one cumbersome business process more efficient. A good place to start is by identifying all the paper-based processes that remain in the organization. Each of these can be modernized and digitized through the use of apps on mobile devices. Which is the process that would provide the easiest-to-measure return if digitized? Creating a single app and piloting it with a small group of users that would greatly value the app will yield a more refined and productive user experience.
  2. Find new tools and try innovative technologies that work with the company’s resources. Traditional software development is expensive and wasteful, even with an army of programmers. Leading independent technology research firms, such as Gartner, have begun to cover the “Rapid Mobile App Development” (RMAD) space. The goal of any RMAD platform is to lower the cost and time associated with traditional software development and maintenance. These platforms typically allow less-skilled workers—even those outside of IT and in lines of business—to use simple low- or no-code interfaces to create apps. Additionally, they may provide easier compatibility with multiple devices.
Regardless of the method or tools chosen, construction organizations that begin down the path of mobilizing business operations will gain an edge on those that do not. Each app deployed can help drive operational excellence through iterative improvements in each process an app supports. By rethinking the role of apps and how they can be created, construction organizations can truly unlock their value and gradually drive operational excellence in each segment of their business.

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