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Strategic Ideals - technology in practice

Chrofi - Brett Boardman

IMAGE CREDIT
Project: Lune de Sang Sheds
Architect: CHROFI
Photographer: Brett Boardman

When Rodney Drayton joined CHROFI as its executive manager early in 2014, part of his role was to research and implement a new practice and project management system. CHROFI had a number of good systems for measuring transactional events, Drayton says, but they were quite fragmented and needed to be drawn into one place where they could be analysed collectively.

“Data sources were quite disparate and it was hard to put them together to create a picture for strategic decisions,” he says.

“It was important we could fine tune the data and clean up some of the transactional aspects like timesheets, invoicing, and contacts, and have a robust transactional interface. We wanted a comprehensive ability to create alignment with the data so we could make strategic decisions with it.

“Overall we wanted as much visibility into our business assumptions so that strategic decisions are based on quantifiable data.” 

CHROFI director John Choi says that at the core of the business is a decision making and implementation process that relies on good information.

“In order to facilitate decision making, you need reliable information, and a way to get that,” he says.

 “The type of information a system like Synergy enables us to capture is data at a point in time, so we can compare older projects to today and get an apple for apple comparison. The ability to have custom fields means we can define the type of information we want to track now and in the future, all of which can be analysed in custom reports. 

“From that you can create benchmarks and indicators to help make judgments along the way.”

IS IT ALL ABOUT PROFITABILITY?

We’ve recently been exploring the topic of margins in architecture and engineering in another article – in Synergy’s case this relates to profit margin, given that Synergy helps analyse project and practice profitability in its core project accounting function.

John Choi’s view is that profit is an obvious requirement, but not the purpose of the practice.

“Businesses have ambitions and aspirations, every organisation has its own and you need funds to pursue them, and business needs to be sustainable to grow and choose where it wants to go. So profitability is a functional requirement, but not the main focus of why we’re in the business of architecture.”

Drayton says profit is an obvious consideration, but architecture should be about more.
“I heard it said recently that if architects are simply in the time recovery business then it’s a very cold way of looking at the creative process,” he says.

“The business should be about the value proposition, how you design value, which is much more than a process in itself. Capturing time is second to the ultimate value proposition. Yet a good system behind the scenes that allows you to fulfill the creative process is important. That said, people do need to realise there is a baseline financial element to what we do.”

TIME IS VALUE

In terms of time capture CHROFI is focusing on all time, using Synergy to capture any non-fee activity (like this interview!) in addition to fee-based work. Rodney Drayton says this is important when you choose to invest profit in 
design related activities that aren’t directly fee earning.

“You can be as strategic about non-fee activity as you are about fee-based,” he says.

“One of the ways we’re using Synergy is in trying to put as much information around non fee based activities so we can be strategic about how we invest, and to choose to over commit profit or monies, so we can be strategic.

“The idea is to really stretch that assumptions model – changing things like hours per year per staff, starting to nuance staff and staff development and see where they’re going – to base everything on what’s actually happening rather than apply defaults across everything. If we think about it and work out a model, Synergy lets us roll it out and test it in real time.”

John Choi says non-fee earning activities could be completely separate from any direct or business matter.

“It could be we want to have an engagement with the profession, or society at large, about architecture, and business information systems can be used to understand how you can improve your effectiveness to achieve those goals, too,” he says.

“Because Synergy is fairly flexible you can have some means of monitoring how you do that. We can put indicators in to assist with this, though it can take time to know what information is truly useful.

“At the end of the day, the tool only becomes effective if we can be clear about the information we need paired against decisions required.”

COMPETITIVE DIFFERENCE

Synergy project and business management software is not, by itself, a differentiator that provides unique competitive advantage in business – the system can be used by any competitor, replicating any advantage you have (depending on how well it is used) – but it does allow a business to improve effectiveness and efficiency, and saves time that can be used for strategic decision making, focus on clients, and design. Synergy is also flexible in how a business can analyse the data it gathers for its own business and strategy needs.

John Choi says CHROFI doesn’t view competition as necessarily trying to be the number one in a particular market sector.

“We’re more concerned with self defining how we can be valuable to the current market and our various client bases,” he says.

“Then in 10 to 20 years, the body of work needs to show some relevance beyond simply business and serving clients.

TECHNOLOGY AS A STRATEGY

Rodney Drayton’s view of technology for the practice is that there’s a risk of using too many different tools to put out individual fires. It’s better, he says, to find a primary system that does a lot of what the business needs and make it work.

“It’s hard not to just be reactive in the technology needs of the practice,” he says.

“You can spend a lot of time looking ahead to what may be available, but it’s very important to get on with the now. If you wait around for the system that’s going to do everything then you’ll spend too much time waiting and not enough time implementing.

“It’s also important to look at the development path of the software you research. When selecting Synergy we needed a system that provided an advantage right now, and had a beneficial development path for the future. We looked at two or three other options during the selection phase, one of which was developing in the wrong direction for 
us, and another that seemed to be focused on accounting practices more than project and design businesses.

“CHROFI is a Mac shop, but we have various systems that require a Windows operating system so we run Synergy on a Windows server and have Parallels running on the machines that need Windows. We’re also particularly conscious of the need for mobility in the future so we use cloud software where we can, like Office 365 and Xero accounting.

“The next big thing for us is to unlock a collaborative communications platform that can interface with email and projects – a kind of one-stop communications shop.”

It’s clear CHROFI is a strategic business. It’s also clear that the business side coexists with its “idealistic origins”. It seems CHROFI has achieved a measure of balance, choosing its ideal path strategically. Some might call that Synergy.

chrofi---brett-boardman

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