The Digital World Of Construction: Technology Implementation Done Right With Bob Armbrister | Ep. 170

When was the last time a software salesperson hit you up, promising to solve all of your issues?  The truth is, there is no easy solution to the technology challenges you face in your business. SPARK Business Works CEO Bob Armbrister does not trumpet one single answer to his problems. He believes that each challenge is unique and calls for no specific, standard formula. In this episode, he sits with Eric Anderton and brings a refreshing approach to the implementation of technology in a company. Listen in as they dive deep into practical, straightforward solutions you can use to increase your profitability and productivity.

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The Digital World Of Construction: Technology Implementation Done Right With Bob Armbrister

When was the last time a software salesperson hit you up, promising you the world, holding in their hand the easy button that if you press after giving them a bunch of money will solve all of your issues in your construction company? There is no easy solution to the technology challenges you face in your business. Construction is so unique. Every single project that you build and every single company is unique. That’s why technology adoption can be so challenging.

My guest is Bob Armbrister. He is the President and CEO at SPARK Business Works, a company that creates custom digital solutions for construction companies to aid construction businesses in their digital transformations. The thing that I like about Bob is that he does not trumpet one solution for your technology issues. He brings a very fresh approach to figuring out how you might use technology in your company to increase productivity, profitability and all that good stuff.

In our interview, we dive into detail into practical, straightforward things you should be doing before even bringing in any technology solution to solve your problems. You’re going to find this incredibly helpful. Please make close note of the insights that he shares because they will assist you in making sure that when you are adopting technology, it fixes problems that you’re facing and helps you to improve productivity and profitability. Thanks to Bob for coming to the show. Feel free to share this interview with other people who you think may benefit. Reach out to Bob with any questions that you may have. Enjoy my interview with Bob.

Bob, welcome to the show.

Thanks for having me, Eric.

My favorite baseball player of all time is Barry Bonds. I don’t care if he took steroids or not. Everybody knows the dude should be in the Hall of Fame. What he was super famous for was hitting home runs. Your specialty is technology in the realm of construction. Your conviction is that construction companies shouldn’t look to be like Barry Bonds hitting home runs but they should be more like Pete Rose. They should be focused on singles and doubles, not grand slams. Can you tell me a little bit about that, please?

The singles and doubles versus the grand slam, it’s about a construction technology that the pain that many people have had is they’ve had projects fail when it comes to technology. Most of the time, it’s because they were trying to bite off more than they could chew. They are trying to save time typically. What we have seen work is cultures and companies that are more adept to change have better odds of success. The way that you build those types of cultures and companies is by having small wins, gaining momentum. The way you do that is through singles and doubles, small projects and initiatives.

When people see things that pop up as opportunities for improvement, something happens and it gets addressed, it changes the company. Maybe it’s construction but there are people reading that are nodding their heads because it’s not easy in construction. If you can start to show progress like that through singles and doubles, you start to change an organization and move the needle.

If I’m looking at my construction company, I’m the president or the CEO, where should I be looking first for those singles and doubles opportunities in terms of technology adoption?

That’s easy. Ask your team. Make sure your team is comfortable sharing. We do that a lot. With a lot of clients of ours, we’ll ask and do an exercise called the Stop, Start and Keep. What are things we should stop doing, start doing and keep doing? That’ll typically expose some. Talk to enough people that you’re going to get some trends.

Most presidents and executives will turn around in the office and ask those questions. That’s a big no-no. You want to be out where the work’s getting done. Most of the time, we see a lot of challenges because there’s a gap between the people using the technology and the needs. Talking to those end-users is what they should be doing.

The first stop for the CEO should be the field, see what the guys and gals are doing out there and figure out what the needs are as far as roadblocks they are experiencing?

 

Most technology projects fail because companies try to bite off more than they could chew. Share on X

 

Assuming that your firm is doing work in the field, yes. The people that are closest to the work are going to be the ones that will share the challenges they have. You fix their challenges. Your technology adoption challenges are going to go way down. When you’re doing stuff that makes their lives easier, they are much more adept at getting on board. That’s for sure.

When you’re doing this process of Stop, Start and Keep, how do you identify an issue that could be addressed by technology as opposed to a people issue? Technology folks can have the idea that software is going to solve everything but that’s not always necessarily the case. What should I be looking for when I’m doing that exercise with my team in terms of opportunities to leverage technology?

A lot of times, the executive team or maybe the resident think technology is this magical thing that can make problems go away when it is behavior. We have clients that are maybe struggling with some data or the ability to make decisions off a certain data. It has nothing to do with technology. It’s that they can’t get their team to use the tool.

Another exercise would be the Five Whys. “Why is your forecast off?” “The data is old.” “Why is it old?” “They don’t go in there enough to update it.” “Why don’t they go in there enough to update?” You ask why enough times. You can typically work your way to see whether or not this is a behavior thing or if it is an actual system thing and a tool. It is going in there with an open mind, not assuming if it is a software thing or a technology thing.

Most construction firms are doing things as efficiently as they can. These are very intelligent companies that have been doing what they are doing for a long time. Most of the time, they are not doing things inefficiently on purpose. It is going in there and assuming good intentions of the people that put the systems in place and asking a lot of questions.

You mentioned a behavior thing and a system thing. How do you distinguish between those two in terms of the adoption of technology?

This goes back to the user. In a software company, we use a user-centered design approach to solving problems. We are speaking with the end-users and understanding their needs. What they are responsible for is typically where we want to start. You get to that point and share with them, “Here are the business objectives, what the organization’s trying to do, how you are involved in that and what we need from this team.”

When you throw that on the table, then ask around, “Here’s the data we need. Here are the possible systems.” If you do the technology last and you start with the user’s needs first, 9 times out of 10, the technology that’s chosen is going to be agreeable by all parties because they are on the same page from the need standpoint.

This is one of the dilemmas that construction companies have when it comes to adopting technology. They have salespeople knocking on their door all day, every day, saying, “This is your problem. I have a solution.” It may not be a sufficient problem to go through the pain and agony of adopting a new technology solution but beginning with the users and getting their pains identified. What that takes is a degree of initiative on the part of the leadership in a construction company. They need to be agnostic as they are going into those discussions about what technology they are going to use.

A lot of times, what you see is executives or leadership teams say, “I was at a conference. I learned about this tool.” Their sales guy says, “It’ll connect with all of the systems we already use. It is great.” They go, “Okay.” They show that to the team and say, “Want you to sit in this demo.” The decision has been made versus, “Let’s sit with the team. Here’s what we’re trying to do. Let’s map all this out, go to market and try to find a solution.”

We call it the easy button. Clients typically get oversold. When they roll it out, it is like, “We integrated with your accounting system but we didn’t send job costs the way that you do job cost. It doesn’t work that way. We do it the way but we did say integrated and you’re technically right. It did integrate but not to the point that our teams need it to integrate.”

Having executives ask detailed questions around, instead of saying, “Does it integrate with X, Y or Z?” It is, “How does it integrate? Show me. Let me talk to a customer, find a customer that does job cost our way, material management or tool tracking, those unique things.” It takes more time and diligence. You don’t have to be a tech-savvy person to get it to a point where you’re like, “I need you to explain it to me in layman’s terms. I need to see it for myself.”

COGE 169 | Technology Implementation
Technology Implementation: If you do the technology last and start with the user’s needs first, the technology that’s chosen will be agreeable to all parties, because they are on the same page from the need standpoint.

 

Going back to the analogy of the singles, doubles and home runs, how do I distinguish between what would be single and a home run? As a problem surfaced, how do I understand which one to go after first? I might find multiple problems when I go into the field and survey folks.

What I like to do for our clients that we’re helping with these types of things is say, “Where do you want to be in the next years? Are you going to double in size, stay the same size or go triple?” I don’t see how anyone can make any decisions without the greater context of the organization, especially from a technology standpoint.

I don’t know if that was the CTO, CIO part of me but I don’t think any good technology decision be made without that. It is understanding the big picture and then mapping out that’s where we got to go. We need a roadmap. It doesn’t have to be super complicated. It might be like, “It makes sense to do this thing first and then the next thing.”

You get that roadmap figured out on what is the right order that things need to happen to make it easier and less expensive. You break it down even further and say, “What’s the smallest first step?” Typically, the highest ROI project is going to be the first one, the one with the biggest bang for the buck. You typically go down in value from there. Taking that and saying, “How can we test this thing? How can we make sure that what we’re going to implement is going to work?” It is finding a small group to then start with.

Instead of rolling it out to 2,000 employees on day 1, maybe it is like, “We’re going to try this 1 project to 5 people. We’re going to learn our lessons and change them. Let’s take it to two projects.” That is not the most glamorous thing and what a lot of executives want. They want the easy button and something that’s going to get rolled out immediately and get done.

Doing it that way, you’re going to probably end up in the same place, get systems implemented and they are going to work but you’re going to do it without damaging the culture as much. It is going to be easier. You’re going to learn lessons when they are not as risky and expensive. It begins to build a culture of innovation as well. When teams are listened to and responded to and things change with their input, you create an environment where this stuff starts going faster.

You don’t have to be in the field necessarily. You could be talking to your project managers or accounting but you’re talking to the end-users, the people who are dealing with the issues. You’re doing a Stop, Start and Keep. When an issue arises, you’re taking a deeper dive using the Five Whys. You’re framing it in terms of your strategic approach where you want to be in the next years. When I think of technology adoption, I think of dominoes many times. “If I do this, then this will happen.” You were talking about the highest ROI. Is the highest ROI always the first domino? What if it is the fourth domino but I need to do other stuff first before I get to the highest ROI? Does that ever happen?

It does. It depends on the client. Another misconception is that technology needs to be this giant bucket of wasteful spending. We have clients that will say, “We’re not doing anything that doesn’t pay for itself in twelve months.” It’s having some of these innovation principles for an organization. An example might be, “It’s got to pay for itself in twelve months.” That is one principle we see that is often implemented. Another one might be something we’ve seen some firms do. They’ve had great success by saying, “We are not going to do anything that doesn’t improve the life of the field employee.”

We have got a client that has those two principles. That changes everything. The amount of stuff that gets wiped off people’s plates as not necessities when you have principles like that is amazing. They are not going to do anything that doesn’t improve the field employee. A project comes up. “Executive, we want to do this thing. How does it help the field?”

Why is it that they have that focus on the field?

It is their focus. Their culture is about employee engagement. The employees are the center point or the face of the company. They want to make their lives easier. They do that for all sorts of reasons, employer retention, customer satisfaction, every other reason in the world. Having some of those principles helps them cut through the noise. They focus on stuff that makes sense. The field teams and employees love it. Their lives are getting easier through the technology that’s getting implemented. That is not hard to do when you have principles like that.

 

Cultures that embrace change and innovation more than others have better odds of success. Share on X

 

As a construction company, my money is made in the field. If I don’t do what I’m supposed to do in the field, I either don’t make money or lose money. I want to go back to this twelve months thing because I can picture what happens. You get the enterprise solution coming in with this 3, 4-year timeline. You have got a bunch of money dumped in. The salespeople are saying, “That is the way it goes because this is what is got to happen for us to get this implemented.” Why is it a twelve-month timeframe?

For that client, it is twelve months. We have got other clients with longer ROIs. We bring up business. It is in our name. We are a business-focus software firm. We need to understand how the business operates. For that one client, that’s their thing, twelve months. I don’t know how the ownership structure there came up with that but that was theirs. They are all about productivity.

They are saying, “If I can save every field employee 1 hour times 500, here’s what my average rate is.” You keep finding us more efficiencies and they are making the lives easier for those team members. I don’t know where they come up with it. We can get super technical with finance and a weighted average cost of capital. Who knows how they are coming up with it but that’s what they are doing?

What that does is a constraint. The constraint would limit the extent of any technology adoption. That limit would be there with an understanding that we are going to see incremental improvement over time in small areas going back to that idea of singles and doubles. What happens when I have with good intentions made a technology adoption and it is not working? What are the best things I should do if my executive team, the field and myself are telling me the truth that what I’ve tried is not working?

I don’t think that you did not get anything for that. You’ve learned something. In software, we call them retrospectives. You’ve done with a project and sit with a client. Maybe it is a milestone and you do a retrospective. “What went well? What didn’t go well? What could we have done?” Too often, we see it from the elders in a construction firm. It will key into why things happen and the pains but the new people never got those lessons.

From an organization, it’s understanding why certain things didn’t work and making sure those don’t end up in some person’s head that leaves the company one day but it gets crystallized and said, “Here’s what we learned.” How do you create a system or process to make sure that checklists are great for this? We’ve seen firms where the HR team isn’t talking to the IT team. Someone is buying a piece of software that isn’t going to integrate with something else. All they had to do was talk.

Have a checklist that says, “Before you do something, you’re going to meet with these department heads or the field.” You’re going to make sure it has an ROI. You’re going to do the business case. What’s the total cost of ownership? Typically, as you’re experiencing some of those challenges, I don’t want to call them failures because they are not. You paid money and learned something. Make sure you save that in time somehow, you don’t do it again and make your company stronger.

What in your mind are the top 3, 4 reasons a technology adoption would fail in your experience?

One would be culture but it is the individuals not understanding the why. You’ve seen it. “The executive team wants us to do this and that.” They don’t realize the why. It’s something I try to tell my team. “We’re a software company but we sell time. That’s our business. We have to have time in our daily and it’s got to be detailed,” instead of hammering people for time entry. Customers are asking for data every day. We’re trying to schedule resources. We give them the why around it.

A lot of times in construction, it is like, “The back office wants us to use this new tool.” No one sat down and explained to them why, how it benefits them and why we got to do that. Typically, the why or the culture is one. Integration is a big one. A lot of times, we’ll see in the sales process technology not living up to the expectations.

When something does integrate or connect to certain different devices or field stuff, it is not living up to the expectations that were set during the sales process. That goes back to another reason which is talking to the people that are going to use it, getting them involved. It is typically not a resource or money. Most people think the money is the holdup but it is not a lack of resources. It is that user-centered approach.

COGE 169 | Technology Implementation
Technology Implementation: When teams are listened to, things change with their input, and you create an environment where things start going faster.

 

Let me ask you about the integration piece. Following the logic of your approach, let’s say I do hit those singles and doubles but one’s may be in accounting, the others in the field, one’s in project management, there are different pieces of software, perhaps even from different companies. That integration issue then comes up. How should a construction company be approaching that integration issue and overcoming that particular challenge?

It is understanding that five-year plan. We see this a lot in construction. It takes fifteen minutes a week to do that, export, import. Maybe you don’t need to be integrated. If you think that in the next years you’re going to be doing ten times the volume, then you do need to learn about that integration. Going back to understanding the larger context and where the organization’s going is a big deal because the scale can change the need for integration.

It is understanding how the business is going to use that integration. Construction is one of the most unique industries. Almost every project is different and every company does things differently. We work with firms in the same regions, competing firms and built systems for each. They couldn’t use each other’s systems. This one calls it people customers. Other ones call it clients, jobs, projects and milestones.

A lot of times, technology companies say, “We have that integration. No problem.” You need to understand how that business operates. Does it integrate the way they need it to integrate? What I tell firms is, “Put your eyeballs on it. Make them show it to you. Make sure your use case and workflow, the way that you do business will be supported,” versus taking their word for it and saying, “It says it integrates.”

It is one of the fundamental issues. One of the fundamental reasons why construction companies struggle is because the large enterprise software solutions are coming in with a one size fits all but that is not construction. It is local and unique. Every project is unique. That’s one of the challenges with integration.

Based on my strategic plan, let’s say I’ve got a five-year plan of growth. If I’m doing a technology adoption that is single and it is going to need to be integrated, I should be talking to the providers of that solution about the integration ability of that piece. I should be dialed in on that from the beginning otherwise, I’m going to come across some failure when the growth occurs. Do I hear that right?

Yes, understanding that is key.

Let’s say I’m a present CEO in my 50s, 60s. I’m a Gen Xer or a Baby Boomer. I was born without the internet. I’m relatively comfortable with technology but at the end of the day, I want to be getting belly-to-belly with my customers, selling work and maybe developing my people. Technology is not my gig. I need it but it’s still a black box for me. How involved do I need to be in the whole process that you’ve been describing so far?

Regardless of your age or technology background, you should be able to go to the field. The people that are out there with the customers will say, “How’s that new tool working? Is it making your life easier? What could be improved?” The individuals that have those guiding principles around innovation and technology, how it needs to be used and deployed in the organization at a high level, you don’t have to get much technical and more technical than that.

Talking to the end-users, walking around. You don’t need to know how PropCo works or this integration over here. You need to be able to walk up to your accounting team and say, “How’s it going?” “I’m sitting here for eight hours a day processing invoices.” “Why is that?” “This thing doesn’t connect to that.” You don’t need to be a technology expert. Go around and ask people how things are going.

I want to get started with this process. There are opportunities for leverage that I’m not taking advantage of. Perhaps I do have an idea of where I want to be in a few years. What are 2 or 3 action items the president or the CEO of a construction company should take to begin this journey or perhaps restart the journey of looking into technologies that could help the business?

 

Technology does not need to be this giant bucket of wasteful spending. Share on X

 

If you already have that five-year plan or whatever timeframe you want, next would be the metrics that you want to track. A lot of times, those are left out, so you don’t have success defined for the team you put in charge of it. It would be very stressful for the team.

Tell me what you mean by that, a little more on the metrics.

A lot of times, you’ll have executives and construction say, “We need to replace our accounting system, adopt blank or improve this.” You put a team together. You should have a multifaceted team of individuals in charge of helping this initiative. Without a metric, that says, “I want productivity per person to increase by this much.” Have some type of success metric.

What happens is a lot of times those teams are flounder because the executive or the leadership team hasn’t provided what success looks like. Know your five-year plan and what you need to do to get there. Maybe it has something to do with billable time percentage, waste, profit per employee or whatever the metric is. You put the team in charge and say, “Here’s what we’re trying to do and what success looks like.”

Maybe it is a few different things, a metric, a customer or an employee satisfaction survey. Maybe there are a few different things in there. There’s a success. You get that team that is a diverse group of individuals, young, old, field, office, tech-savvy and non-tech-savvy. We want the least tech-savvy people in those meetings too. We want the people that walk by a computer screen and get all data keys like everything breaks whenever they touch it. We want those people involved in those teams, the ones that’ll tell you every reason why something won’t work.

Most people will avoid those types of individuals when rolling out the technology. Get them involved from day one. Make them part of the solution. When this thing rolls out, they are going to be a cheerleader. They can’t speak negatively about something they were involved in. You get that group together and tell them singles and doubles. There’s the framework.

You would task the team with those conversations with the end-users, surfacing those issues that might be able to be addressed?

You see that I didn’t mention any solution. No technology should be talked about yet. You might get that group together and they find out that it is a behavior thing, accountability thing or a process thing. You don’t start with, “I want to replace the back-office accounting system.” You would say, “We have too many team members per field,” or whatever your thing is. Figure it out then. Technology is maybe a solution but you don’t start there.

You begin with your plan, identify those metrics, put together that diverse team and task them with finding out the issues that may be addressed by technology. You may find out that they are not addressed by technology. We’re talking a lot about finding specific issues. Tell me a little bit more about what your company does in terms of working with construction companies.

We are a custom software and design company. We were spun out of a construction firm. I had a software company. One of my customers was a construction firm. They saw what we were doing and said, “This industry needs this.” That was years ago. We’ve grown to almost 50 team members. We help construction firms become more efficient, productive and profitable. We build custom tools that will interface with the big systems that help them become more efficient.

We don’t build accounting systems and pro course of the world. We embed ourselves with their company on a several-year engagement to produce positive ROI returns that we want to pay for ourselves through efficiency gains and growth. We will help streamline all the stuff that goes on around those big systems in an organization.

Maybe it is a mobile field app to help team members in the field, a scheduling tool that interfaces with all the other systems, material management or a GIS tool. It all depends on the needs of the customer. We don’t go in there trying to pitch a certain technology. We go in there and understand about their business, what they are trying to achieve and help them get there.

With that in mind, who’s your ideal client?

COGE 169 | Technology Implementation
Technology Implementation: Regardless of your age or technology background, you should be able to go to the field and talk to the end-users. You don’t need to be a technology expert to go around and ask people how things are going.

 

Our ideal client is our privately owned small-medium size construction firms and maybe some of the private equity-owned firms that are acquired and pressured into some massive growth. Typically, our clients are over 100 employees. Sometimes they are smaller than that but some maybe have a few IT people. Maybe they don’t have a CIO yet.

We call them messy middle. They are too small to be big. They don’t have these huge resources and development teams. They are too big to be small and use the tools that are off the shelf. There is a lot of efficiencies to gain there. They are typically growing. The systems that got them where they are at aren’t going to get them to the next stage. They are looking for that opportunity.

Do you position yourself as an outsourced CTO department?

Sometimes we’ll play that role. A lot of times, we’ll partner with certain groups that do that and then execute the effort for them. There’s a strategic play. Sometimes the executive team can already make those decisions and see that but it depends on the client.

How can folks get in touch with you, Bob?

You can find us on the web, SparkBusinessWorks.com. You can also find me on LinkedIn, LinkedIn.com/in/BobArmbrister. We share a ton of free content around construction technology. This is our thing. We love it. We do a lot of different speaking engagements trying to share the tactics that a lot of successful companies aren’t out there telling people about this stuff. We want to help spread that word and give this industry and those people looking for some opportunity.

Bob, as we’re wrapping up here, one final thought. Let’s say I’m a construction company CEO. I’ve invested a bunch of time and money in a solution and it is not working. Give me one thing I need to do right away.

Understand why it is not working with your two eyes. A lot of times, people will say things, and you might hear from two people that are the loudest but it’s getting in there and understanding what’s going on. Using that approach we talked about is key. You don’t need to have a developer background to ask a bunch of why questions.

Bob, I appreciate your time. There have been some tremendous insights here that are very helpful to people. My big takeaway here is that if you focus on those singles and doubles and talk to your people, you can identify the opportunities for leveraging technology. It doesn’t have to be a “write a check and hope for the best” kind of thing. Thanks for joining us here on the show.

Thank you.

Thank you for reading our interview with Bob Armbrister. Make sure to check out SPARK Business Works for all the stuff they do. Feel free to give us a rating or a review. The more you do that, the more we spread across the Interwebs. We’re 160-plus episodes into the show. I’m committed to doing at least 500 episodes. We’re going to keep going at this thing.

Do you have folks who have been promoted into leadership roles and are struggling to make the shift from being, let’s say, a project manager to being a project executive? Those things are different functions and responsibilities. Moving into building teams and people, as opposed to building projects, can be a deep challenge. That is one of the challenges I help my clients address.

If you’d like to chat with me about how I can help your company and leaders make that shift from building projects to building people, reach out to me on my website, ConstructionGenius.com/Contact. Put your details on the contact page. Let’s jump on the phone for ten minutes to figure out if or how I may be able to help your company. Thanks again for reading. I’ll catch you on the next episode.

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About Bob Armbrister

COGE 169 | Technology ImplementationBob Armbrister is the President and CEO at Spark Business Works, a company that creates custom digital solutions for construction companies to aid construction businesses in their digital transformations.

Since the company was founded in 2017, Bob and the team at Spark have helped deliver practical innovation to hundreds of construction companies through custom software, strategic design, business dashboards, and data integration.