Using IT to capitalise on austerity

FM Conway IT chief Ed Lynott talks about how the civil engineering firm uses IT to deal with public sector cuts

There is nothing like starting a new job with a challenge. Ed Lynott joined road maintenance and civil engineering company FM Conway as head of IT to spearhead a £5.5m investment, during a period when the firm’s public sector customers were making substantial spending cuts. Local government, for example, is experiencing a 27% drop in central grants over four years.

But with the cuts, the public sector is also looking for new ways of working, both in tendering road building and maintenance contracts; and in the way it works with contractors, once they are on board. FM Conway’s new system, based around a cloud-hosted Oracle E-business Suite, is set to support both these changes as the company refines its processes.

FM Conway is currently shortlisted, along with joint-venture partner Aecom, for an eight-year £1.8bn framework agreement to supply Transport for London (TfL) and up to 32 London boroughs. The contract serves as an example of how public authorities are striving to create greater efficiency by collaborating across organisational boundaries.

How the Oracle E-business Suite works in the cloud

FM Conway has adopted what head of IT Ed Lynott describes as a “wide footprint” of the Oracle E-business Suite tool set. This includes HR and finance modules, as well as field service management and enterprise asset management. Specific functionality to help the firm meet its complex requirements for managing plant hire will also be available on the cloud-hosted system.

“Having this all in one solution means we get all the benefits of ERP, such as a single version of the truth, workflow, improved efficiency in both front-line services and back-office processes,” Lynott says.

The system will also help FM Conway provide its clients with data on the cost of their work more rapidly and with less effort, because information is not held on separate systems, he says. This should free-up front-line staff to focus on the company’s customers.

Part of FM Conway’s role is to inspect roads on behalf of its clients, to decide when and how they need repairing. With the new system, these inspectors will be equipped with hand-held devices which share data with back-office systems and trigger the workflow necessary to begin the repair process, as well as costing-out jobs.

“From identifying problems in the street, all the way through to the problem being scheduled, the plant and materials arriving, the people arriving, through to subsequent back-office billing, will all be streamlined,” Lynott says.

FM Conway also hopes to save customers time by offering them access to information supporting invoices through an internet portal.

The company’s road-repair workforce will also be connected to Oracle’s system to record their progress on jobs using hand-held devices. Although as yet unspecified, these devices will be able to store small volumes of data when workers are beyond the range of a 3G signal, for example while working in tunnels.

Although Lynott does not have a background in the civil engineering sector, his 30-year career in IT, encompassing retail and professional services, should help his employer meet these demands.

“A large proportion of FM Conway’s revenue comes from doing reactive maintenance work on roads,” Lynott says. “Fixing a road is not a million miles away from fixing a computer. You’ve got to get the right people, materials and equipment to the right location at the right time to do the job at hand.”

In addition, Lynott’s background in implementing supply chain systems is also helping to prepare FM Conway for a new era of public sector procurement, as government agencies try to work more efficiently with their suppliers.

“It was one of the areas that FM Conway was interested in. The construction industry and our user base have had limited exposure to electronic data interchange,” Lynott says.

“With the government being in such a difficult position, a lot of our customers are looking to drive efficiencies by exploiting opportunities to exchange data electronically, as opposed to still being, in many instances, on pieces of paper.

“Supply chain is all about the visibility of information and making sure you give your partners clarity on all of the data they need to execute their part of the process.

“I think local government and the civil engineering industries are catching up with that concept.”

FM Conway’s IT strategy supports a cultural change in road maintenance and civil engineering. Regulations governing noise pollution and health and safety, together with expectations in managing traffic disruption and communicating with the public, all require a response.

“We need to do more than just repair roads, we have to provide evidence that we have done the job on time, to a good quality, that we were courteous to residents and responsive to noise issues. It’s more important that we start thinking about the softer elements of service delivery, as opposed to just the harder elements of services and delivery.

“You need a very strong business system to ensure that, when you deliver your services, you do it in a very professional way,” Lynott says.

FM Conway chose to work with Oracle reseller Inoapps to host the Oracle E-Business Suite in the cloud. It will be used to process finance and resource planning, populate customer portals and store photos of work done.

But the implementation does not end with the technology. The civil engineering contractor has hired process change specialist Engage IT Global to ensure employees adapt to the new ways of working and understand the importance of recording accurate data on the system.

Lynott said his 12-strong IT department will need help engaging employees in the working practices necessary to make the project a success.

A lot of our customers are looking to drive efficiencies by exploiting opportunities to exchange data electronically

“The project has a million and one activities going on at the moment. I have built a strong team, with a dedicated project manager and specialists in documentation and training, transition and data quality,” says Lynott.

“Engage IT Global can come in and take an independent look at what our strategic objectives are for the transformation project and then break that down and deliver them on our behalf. We have over 1,700 people that we need to take on a journey. It is not something that we could take on internally, we needed assistance.”

Engaging with the board

With this transformation, FM Conway hopes to increase its revenue and profit in an extremely competitive and changing market.

TfL expects to award its mammoth contract by the end of this year. Success in winning such work will show whether FM Conway’s ERP system and business processes have helped the company adapt to the challenging business environment.

The ERP rollout at FM Conway comes as part of the plan to reshape the business and help it succeed in a client market now dominated by public sector cuts.

The IT department has worked closely with the board to ensure the project is achieving these strategic objectives. A series of one-to-one interviews with board members created a list of performance metrics against which the project can be measured.

Lynott says the chief executive will have a different view of the company to the chief finance officer.

“For the CFO, getting transparency of costs at a granular level is important,” he says. “We are taking advantage of the ‘dice and slice’ capabilities in the system, so he will be able to drill down into costs.

“But for the CEO, the ability to fulfil our customer expectations is the strategic goal,” he says.

This is why the system will give customers internet portals designed to give them access to billing data.

Currently, customers look for supporting material for about 10% of their invoices, Lynott says.

“That’s currently quite burdensome. By creating a customer portal they will be able to do their 10% by sitting at their desk, to complement or replace going out on site and looking at jobs,” he says.

In this way, FM Conway aims to help its customers manage their contracts at lower cost, which it hopes will help win work in an era of government cuts and austerity.

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