Simon Bayliss, managing partner of HTA Design; Teri Okoro, founder of Toca; Amrita Mahindroo, founder of Droo Architects; and Jeroen De Paepe, senior director at Deltek, discussed the importance of practices using technology to grow their business and boost profitability.
The speakers spoke about how technology enables them to free up more time for design by streamlining practice operations and finances – and win new business. They also discussed recruitment and retention and the outlook for artificial intelligence (AI) in the sector.
Deltek, a project management software company, recently surveyed approximately 550 architecture, engineering, and consulting firms about their challenges and opportunities for this year.
De Paepe said that the major challenges cited by respondents included keeping top talent, working more sustainably and deploying AI. But these challenges and risks can be complementary: practices can work with AI to integrate sustainability into work strategy, which in turn can help increase staff morale, making retention easier.
The top growth opportunity, according to the survey respondents, was investing in IT systems – which, in turn, will help attract talent and boost cyber security.
De Paepe added that to work out what kind of software they need, practices should look at where they are still running processes manually. Focusing on the highly collaborative construction industry, he said: ‘If you don't have a tool to share documents in the cloud to collaborate, then that probably is the first priority.’
Bayliss said that at 250-strong practice HTA Design, the major question was how to focus on design as much as possible.
His company has used Deltek software for over a decade to manage much of the financial side of the business, including tracking how many new business opportunities are eventually converted into jobs.
‘If we have all the data in here, we can track how our project's going,’ Bayliss said. ‘And it can be quite complex because our organisation is multidisciplinary. A project can have a wide number of work stages and they can be tracked and managed over time.
‘And we can check that the project is on track by simple metrics of what the fee is by contract, what we think the total cost should be to deliver the project, how much we've spent and how far we are through the programme.’
Doing this across hundreds of live projects with dozens of work stages is complex, but the company relies on simple metrics to measure its progress.
Bayliss said: ‘It gives us really simple metrics in board meetings where a group of 15 partners can say “that seems to be going in the right direction, let's move on”.’
HTA’s partners took over the company in a management buyout in 2013, which Bayliss said has helped them focus on doing high-quality work. This, in turn, has fuelled growth. Annual turnover has grown from £6.7 million in 2014 to £18.5 million in 2022. The Deltek software has allowed different parts of the business to work together more closely since the buyout.
Okoro, who runs a London architecture and consultancy practice, said that businesses first need to ask themselves what kind of growth they want. ‘Is it the growth in the size of projects you're undertaking? Or is it growing the types of client you work with?’ she asked.
She said that staff in her business use technology for document management and resource planning, for putting together new business bids and project management, as well as design itself.
She added that looking at what competitors and others both in the sector and outside are doing with technology is also important to stay in step with industry standards.
Okoro said that a key factor was making sure staff were on board and understood any new systems, adding that training often takes longer than expected.
De Paepe agreed. ‘Simplicity is the most important feature,’ he said. ‘If you have 10 people and [a product] is too complex for seven to use it, then, then it's not worth a lot.’
Mahindroo runs a 10-person London practice which has recently begun working internationally. She said that IT systems had helped streamline collaborative work with international practices when her staff were working from the UK.
As one of the directors of a small practice, Mahindroo noted that she works across all parts of the business, including administrative work like invoicing and payroll, human resources and insurance.
‘The design processes and the bidding processes we're only just beginning to streamline through project technology, she said. ‘And that's something that we're hoping to expand on as well.’
Mahindroo said that she and her fellow managing partner forecast their cash flow on Excel spreadsheets.
‘We're always running lean, we're always too small basically for everything we do,’ she said, citing the risk of projects ‘going to sleep’ at the planning stage. She added that her partner was keen to implement a more automated planning system, but they were unsure if it was worth the cost as a smaller business.
‘So as much as we do forecasting in our organic way, there are so many wild cards – every blip in a spreadsheet … is a big punch that we have to navigate around.’
As in many industries, AI is seen as an opportunity and a cause for trepidation by many architects. Mahindroo is using AI for some design and research, Okoro for processing large amounts of data and producing reports, and Bayliss for reviewing contracts.
But De Paepe advised caution. ‘It's a super assistant,’ he said. ‘On the other hand, personally, I would wait a little bit and see what’s adopted by lots of practices and what shows value,’ he said.
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