Recently I visited eight North American cities to moderate panel discussions on data and the future of engineering technology. What I found will come as no surprise to you, but you may enjoy knowing you’re not alone.

I set out to provoke – and create an environment for – conversations among panelists and attendees. We tackled topical areas prone to keep engineers up at night:

  • Are projects – and hence your company – at risk because of mismanaged data?
  • How do you manage the sheer volume of data?
  • How do you keep up with evolving technology?

One conclusion jumped at us: Data is the basis of more successful projects, but it can also be a four-letter word.

Déjà vu

Time and time again (eerily like “Groundhog Day”) attendees said managing a project – and the associated data –across offices and across geographic locations is a huge challenge. As a result, it’s hard for engineering firms to meet needs and stay on budget.

One attendee summed up the issue in a way that became the unofficial theme of the roadshow. He said, “the volume of digital data has advanced beyond the person’s ability to deal with it.”

But with problems come opportunities. It stands to reason that the organizations that harness the power of data who will be the companies that stand apart from the crowd.

Throughout the discussion and out-loud problem-solving, five themes emerged from city to city.

New York panelists

New York panelists

1. Engineering fees are under pressure.

After the economic downturn eight years ago, many laid-off engineers started their own companies. Small businesses with small overheads can deliver services for less. This pressure is flattening rates.

Despite being a professional service, which by definition is highly specialized and differentiated, engineering firms fight the tendency to be treated as commodities.

Unfortunately, the pressure engineers are experiencing right now doesn’t end at commoditized rates.

Atlanta panelists

Atlanta panelists

2. Customer expectations add more pressure.

Client expectations are going up. They’re under pressure to do more with less, so they pass along that pressure to vendors. And our always-on culture means when they want answers, they want them now.

One way to stay in the game – if not stand out – is to improve customer service via quicker responsiveness. The faster a firm can get to the bottom of an issue and provide answers, the happier clients will be. Answer a question while the caller is still on the phone and you’ll be reinforcing the relationship.

Many attendees talked about their hopes to leverage technology to improve customer service. Better-managed data would give them this ability. But to manage data, a firm must at least have proven processes already in place.

Houston panelists

Houston panelists

3. Technology is no substitute for a good process.

Engineering firms get more from technology when the tech improves an already-good operating procedure. Technology in and of itself is not the answer. The right mix is a complementary one.

Attendees left the roundtables with a feeling that they needed to be more open to technology but wise to the fact that, while you may need a hammer, you also need a smart person to swing it.

Toronto panelists

Toronto panelists

4. Information and technology silos are widening.

I sensed frustration that across the industry there are a lot of software tools, but few of them talk to each other. These disparate information silos are making it challenging to communicate.

Couple those silos with data growing seemingly exponentially, and you have a challenge.

Like the other takeaways, this isn’t a problem to be solved overnight as it will require further consideration and innovation to resolve.

Chicago panelists

Chicago panelists

5. We’re all in this together

While we may not have come up with answers to all the shared problems, one thing was clear: Even though attendees shared problems, they seemed (almost) happy to find out they weren’t the only ones experiencing them.

Is there some other engineering technology aspect that is keeping you up at night? Have any ideas on how to solve the ones I mentioned above? Post your comment below and let’s continue the conversation.

Also, submit your email address in the field at the top of this page and we’ll post a future update when the more complete roundtable report is ready.

 

Tyler Ferguson is the director of engineering industry solutions for Newforma.

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