With a portfolio including the tallest skyscraper in Europe, London's 'Shard of Glass', as well as building work around the 2012 Olympic Games in London, global consultancy and construction giant Mace is seeking to position technology as a key element of its unique selling proposition.
Evidence of this is the promotion of Guy Miller, the firm's former IT director who has been elevated to the post of chief information security officer, following several years of work around improving the firm's core underlying infrastructure and systems.
Following the completion of the IT transformation, Mace's board decided it would be appropriate for Miller to 'take a detour' from IT, hand over day-to-day responsibility for technology and adopt an external focus.
"Over the past 12 months, I have been getting much more involved with my colleagues looking after the [building and consultancy] portfolios to bring IT into the mix," Miller told Computer Weekly in an exclusive interview.
"We are looking at how we can help clients use IT in the context of building. We are working closely with a lot of government organisations to improve their office spaces," Miller said.
According to the IT boss, conversations with clients are around bringing together sound building practice and technology to cater for changing office patterns, such as remote working. In some cases, the company has managed to achieve up to 30% savings in property portfolios.
"If you can do something else with that space you get a different sum of the parts. For example, the public sector is typically limited in terms of what they can do with people [to cut costs] as it involves things like TUPE transfers. Technology can achieve certain things, but only if you invest. With processes you can only achieve things by changing the technology or people," said Miller.
"By bringing the place element in to the conversation, [organisations] have an extra lever you can pull to generate savings."
Building efficiency through IT
An example of how Miller works with his construction property colleagues to get them to understand IT and bring technology in at the right time to give a better result is a project undertaken with Hampshire County Council, completed at the end of 2009.
In that assignment, Mace helped the council rebuild and rationalise the civic centre in Winchester, by introducing flexible working and multiple desk occupancy, as well as the right mix of virtualised systems, thin client computing, centralised printing, wireless and voice-over-IP.
Additionally, the rationalisation also looked at the datacentre set-up, which is now located within the building, with excess heat used to heat the site. As a result, the centre earned the 'Excelent' rating by Breeam, the most widelyused environmental assessment method for buildings.
Working for the Olympics
Mace is one of the several companies involved in getting the venues for the London Olympic Games off the ground. According to Miller, one of the most challenging parts of the job from an IT standpoint is getting all the parties to work together.
For all the IT work related to the games the company has been working alongside Atos Origin and the Olympic Delivery Authority to deliver and manage the systems used to support the building work.
The first tranche of IT related to the work the construction firm does around the Olympics was creating platforms to enable communication in the building site and that involves mobile telephony, networks, security systems and cameras based on an IP network.
In addition, systems currently in use cover time, cost and resource planning, as well as managing the huge amount of documentation involved. Primavera project portfolio management systems are being used, along with geographic information systems provided by ESRI, and Bentley design and engineering tools.
"Something like the Olympics is a unique challenge, because the project is huge and it is not just one organisation involved and they all have to share information. Due to the fact that the scale is unprecedented and everyone has got to work together, you can't have silos of information and you have to follow the same design," said Miller.
"We are all working in the same space too, so ensuring that everyone is on the same page in terms of logistics and security is also crucial. There is also the time pressure, which is true in most IT projects, but more so in the Olympics - you can't postpone the Olympic Games."
Gearing up for a global market
Projects such as the Olympics have presented Mace with more opportunities to bid on larger projects worldwide, including international sporting events. This also means that the IT supporting the delivery of these projects will need to evolve.
"These [prospective projects] really tip the scale for us. They are projects of such size and scale that you can't support it with internal IT. You can't just do it alone - they are that much more collaborative and complex," said Miller.
"The geography, as well as client and funding relationships are much more complex, so we are actively working on how we can approach those things differently and looking at technology partners to help us," he said.
Miller said the firm is looking at possible partnerships with suppliers such as Atos Origin and Fujitsu to bolster its abilities in IT to deliver projects better. This could include the global provision of public and private cloud environments where required, as well as the replacement of its bespoke enterprise resource planning platform.
In terms of cloud computing use, Mace is no stranger to the approach. Miller pointed out that cloud has always been a perfect fit to the nature of the construction industry and the company has used cloud-based, construction-focused collaboration tools for many years.
The global reach of the company's projects prompted the company to look at the next step in collaboration, by improving the use of internal knowledge around best practice internally, and effective communication across its 3,000-strong global workforce. Extended use of Sharepoint and social networking tools are some of the options being considered.
The company has also implemented a new information security management system to cater for the needs of increasingly security-conscious clients - partly the reason why Miller was promoted to CISO. The focus in security ripples through all the current and future IT work at the company and every new system gets risk-assessed for security, as well as cost effectiveness.
Laptop computers for key projects are also encrypted due to the fluidity that is typically seen in building sites, with people from various companies mingling in the same location. Security precautions also mean that in some building projects e-mail can't be used, so people have to communicate using the cloud-based document management system, which has different levels of security and access rights.
"[The security of the document management system] is comparable to that of internet banking. It could always be better, but it is quite secure," said Miller.
As Mace's cloud-based systems become more sophisticated, bandwidth has to keep up. That is a persistent issue, in part due to the changeable nature of construction projects. According to Miller, the company couldn't get a line from BT in the past for a particular project, since the site did not have a postcode.
With several projects on his plate for his own company and clients, Miller, formerly an ERP specialist, says that the future of technology at the construction firm is going to be all about flexibility, agility, enabling people to work better and generating cost efficiencies.
"In any industry there is always something [in IT] that promises to revolutionise - such as ERP in the late 1980s - but it is not quite the ticket, so you have got to be aware that these things may not deliver what they promised and fill the gaps," said Miller.
"I used to think that what we did in an organisation was set in stone, according to a five-year strategy. The current model is telling us that you can't do that any more - you need have a five-year vision, and change it every six months, keeping abreast of what is going on. And of course, keep reinventing yourself as an IT enabler".