posted 10 Oct 2005 in Volume 9 Issue 2
Customising Caunton for the 21st century
Systems integration was something that had never been a top priority for engineering firm Caunton until a pan-industry strategy forum forced them to look at their internal business systems, structure and processes in a new light. Simon Bingham of Caunton Engineering explores the technical and cultural challenges posed by implementing a new integrated system, and tracks the organisation’s progress over the past eight years.
In the late 1990s, construction and engineering firm Caunton was part of a pan-industry strategy forum facilitated by Warwick Manufacturing Group, called ‘Steel Industry Managers in the 21st Century’. While at the forum, company representatives found themselves tabling some home truths when pressed by a number of industry consultants. Some fascinating observations emerged from these discussions. At the time, and even now, none of what was discussed seemed particularly revolutionary but it marked the beginning of the transitions the company would later go through. This began with the simple realisation that everyone should have access to the same telephone list. By the end of the forum, we were convinced that major competitive advantage in the future would come through greater system integration.
Over the past few years this conviction has snowballed and we have found ourselves immersed in the world of knowledge management (KM), workflow systems and business-process management. For a privately-owned enterprise that employs 170 people and makes £24m in annual sales, it has been an interesting journey.
Thanks to some key investments, including computer-aided design, computer-aided manufacturing and just-in-time manufacturing methods (where inventory is delivered to the factory by suppliers only when it’s needed for assembly), our business had been through a phase of rapid growth and seen a 400 per cent increase in productivity over an eight-year period.
In spite, or perhaps because of, this growth, cracks were beginning to show in our business systems, structure and processes. We also felt that we were suffering from a lack of data integrity. For example, we previously used a single A4 lever arch file for every contract that we won, which worked well when the contracts were small and simple. Over time, however, these contracts grew in size, complexity and scope: one contract had 28 files, 12 of them documenting correspondence alone.
We also needed to stay ahead of our competition. In 1986, we introduced 3D modelling of steel frames and in 1992, 3D modelling was integrated with computer-aided manufacturing. By 1998, the use of three-dimensional computer-aided modelling and manufacturing software had become standard practice among steel fabricators. Competitors were narrowing the business advantage gap and there was a need to increase productivity while reducing the amount of paper handled. Faced with these pressures, we quickly realised we had the wrong tools for the job. Caunton made the decision to implement a corporate knowledge portal through which all company information could be accessed and the knowledge assets of the organisation could be leveraged for competitive advantage. These were our objectives:
For all employees to have self-service access to any piece of data in the business through one window. Ideally, we wanted information to be just three clicks away;
The formation of a consolidated corporate database for contacts, projects, organisations and enquiries;
A KM platform that would be compliant with our Microsoft IT strategy, preferably SQL-based;
Ease of use across all systems.
Lack of data integrity
We felt the issue of data integrity underpinned everything we were trying to change. Over time, our existing systems had become more sophisticated. This was ideal for the business’ efficiency and for the expert user whose daily operations were confined to that single application. However, it was a travesty for occasional users who only wanted a snapshot look at material.
We called these users ‘dippers’ and discovered these users were going straight to the system expert (which Caunton referred to as ‘gatekeepers’) for what they wanted, rather than use the licensed client on their own desktop, because it was quicker. The problem was exacerbated because the information found in each location differed slightly and was not concurrent.
Other software that we use runs under Windows technology. For example, both our accounting system and our manufacturing-management system (
We assessed a range of products and solutions sold under banners such as portal, project extranet, intranet, document management and enterprise-resource planning. As we typically deal with about 40 live projects at a time, project-extranet solutions did not suit us because, at that time, these solutions had a single-project focus rather than looking across multiple projects. The companies providing extranet solutions at that time were not deemed financially stable enough to meet our 12-year warrantee obligations. Since then, a considerable number of extranet-system vendors have since ceased trading.
We considered introducing EFACS, a total business solution from enterprise-resource-planning software company Excel, but the cost would have been £150,000. Its use would also have meant replacing our accounts system and the system would have dictated too many of our working practices.
Having reviewed many systems we found that each only offered a small amount of what we wanted. We could foresee ending up with even more applications, which would simply compound our existing problem and possibly drive up support costs, license fees and maintenance charges. After much deliberation, we embarked on our own in-house development. We set out to design a client-server-based application through which employees could view project data and link accounting data to that project data to provide users with a consolidated view. We employed one person to work on this project full time, which, once created, was highly successful as it satisfied our users’ expectations and made their working lives easier. However, despite the success, we soon realised that updates, roll outs and support were increasing exponentially and development of the system almost ground to a halt. Rather than Caunton controlling the application, the application had started to control us. Our intention was not to become a software house, so we met with our chosen solution provider,
Our implementation strategy revolved around the unique project number that we assign to a contract, as this is a common practice across the business. We had already tidied up our data and consolidated it for our own in-house project, so populating the new system was rapid.
The process of collating and cleaning data should not be underestimated. We amassed everyone’s personal e-mail contact lists, our
Our next target was to provide self-service, browser-based access to all our employees for information relating to contacts, business partners, projects and enquiries. We are a project-centric company, so having a consolidated view of all these aspects was obviously the best way to achieve business benefit.
Workspace was based on Microsoft toolsets and techniques and provided a vehicle through which to bind together our existing knowledge assets by establishing dynamic connections. Workspace also offers a library of connectors for leading back-office applications. Via these connectors, data held about contracts, projects or people held in existing systems was displayed as part of the standard view. In our case, we populated the system with Caunton’s client, contact, project and enquiry information. The solution offered interrelated software modules dealing with: marketing and customer-relationship management, enquiry and bid management, document management, project collaboration, project-data management, sub-contractor and vendor rating, key event management, and the implementation of a corporate intranet or enterprise portal. We tapped into them all.
From our IT manager’s point of view, the solution was the right one for us because it had:
A single view of all IT resources on the corporate network;
An ‘out of the box’ corporate intranet/portal platform;
Browser-based corporate database and document-management-system functionality;
Automated integration of e-mail with document management;
A development platform for creating custom applications within the intranet/portal;
All the relational data for the standard Workspace application was stored within a single MS SQL server database;
Union Squareprovided SQL Server Database Diagrams for all major areas of the system;
Data definition reports can be printed out from the Workspace menu describing all database tables, fields and relationships;
On internally implemented systems, database security is managed using the trusted security model available within SQL Server. Trusts are created between the server hosting the Workspace database and servers running the following components: MS Internet Information Server; MS COM+ services; Windows 2000/NT Fileserver; and Windows Indexing Service.
The base functionality of the Workspace system can be accessed by any PC running Internet Explorer version 5.01 and above, or Netscape Navigator versions 4 and 6. Certain advanced functionality requires IE 6.0 for
Different structures obviously suit different periods of a company’s evolution. Caunton looked at its own existing departmental structure and decided it needed to be reviewed. We chose a multi-functional client-focused team structure for the front end of the business. These teams comprised people and skills from several departments and the emphasis was more on process than on function. Meanwhile, in other areas such as production, we retained a departmental structure. The challenge was how to ensure we maintained the same skill levels and standards after having effectively split up several key departments. In KM terms, these skill bands became communities: for example, we once had a design department who were all seated together but we now have a disparate collective of structural-design engineers physically spread around the building. In order to maintain effective communication and standards, we established a technical community within the new portal. The flexibility of the portal eventually enabled us to look at our business either as a team or a department.
To manage the implementation of Workspace, we set up a senior three-man team comprising the MD, a business-unit manager and our IT manager. We developed a requirements specification, but left the IT team free to determine the best way of meeting it. Our IT manager’s simple mantra: “Tell me what you want to see and then leave us to deliver it” has become instilled in all of us and we meet regularly and review progress through our own virtual community.
The customisation of the system required the equivalent of one man working full time for six months. This process consisted of the addition of some minor tweaks so that we could deliver exactly what our users required, as well as a few extra features that were added following suggestions from our initial user base.
There was a rolling programme of delivery throughout which the implementation team actively stimulated business pull by reporting progress to end-users by all available means. To deliver information to the organisation as a whole, we used formal channels such as the newsletter, internal press releases and meetings, and the grapevine as the informal channel. We made sure that the first team to go live with the product was heavily populated with the most active networkers within the organisation.
Our own Workspace applications are written in ASP and run on Microsoft Web Server utilising Java, Visual Basic scripting and component object models (COM), a software architecture developed by Microsoft to build component-based applications. COM objects are discrete components, each with a unique identity that expose interfaces that allow applications and other components to access their features and SQL server data. The unique IDs assigned to the firm’s projects were used to link to information in our manufacturing-management system (
All company contacts are stored in the system. E-mail, including attachments, is stored in a SQL server database as MIME (multi-purpose internet mail extensions) HTML. Each employee has a portal page containing information on the jobs they are involved in. We also customised standard templates to assist document creation by, and data import to, Microsoft office applications. The system deals with requests for information (RFIs), non-conformance reports on errors, and the raising of variations. Requests for information are logged and associated drawings, typically generated as views of a three dimensional modelling system, are often included. When a variation is raised, related documents are stored in the system, together with an Excel cost schedule. We took great pains to ensure that that the financial and key-performance-indicator information provided via the system is relevant and easy to understand. Thumbnails are displayed when searching for documents and the system’s support for storing and accessing photos has been particularly useful in recording progress on jobs.
The portal supports communities of interest – groups of staff members that share a common interest or concern. Each community has an owner, members, a document store and a discussion group. These range from a non-construction project team put together to solve a problem, through to the managers’ group and even a financial community that we post our monthly accounts into and our bankers visit via the extranet.
We have areas where users can access information relating to more general topics, link through to websites, as well as company policies, expense claim forms and ‘how to’ guides.
Staff also have access to key-performance indicators held within back-office systems and can look at budget variances, sales, profit and loss, and other reports over the internet.
We can provide clients and partners with controlled self-service access to subsets of the information. The implementation of the enterprise portal has resulted in:
Support for controlled self-service access to information by staff, clients and third-party subcontractors;
A single view of any project and associated information in other systems and access to any piece of data within no more than three mouse clicks;
Support for communities of interest within the firm to capture and distil good practice;
Software license and training savings, a reduction in internal support costs and savings in staff time;
Access to the portal’s information using any device capable of connecting to the internet (such as PCs and mobile phones with WAP).
We have introduced many software applications over the years and have fallen flat on our faces more than once. In this instance, we took a different approach and decided to treat it as a change-management project rather than an IT project.
Use internal marketing
We whet people’s appetite and created interest by making sure that Caunton employees were aware of the changes taking place. We used all means possible, from structured releases within newsletters to the verbal network of the company grapevine.
Big wins early
We implemented the simple things first and found out what staff felt were the most pressing areas that needed remedying. For many employees, this was not having the correct site fax number to hand. Not only did we deliver this but also all other contacts on the project, including all relevant telephone, mobile and fax numbers, e-mail addresses and letter templates.
By rectifying these issues first, we gained staff support for the system.
Avoid the jargon
We were mindful of using terms such as knowledge management, mining, silos, tacit and explicit, and so on. Not everyone is interested in the philosophy behind these concepts but what is important to most people is what affect a system will have on them individually. We kept people at the centre throughout and avoided using the term knowledge management internally.
Boundaries between applications can blur
Knowing which application should handle what is something that we’ve found difficult from the start and we still struggle with drawing up definitive boundaries. A sound knowledge of your organisation’s underlying application-development plans is essential. Systems such as Workspace are so easy to develop that one could end up papering over the cracks of poor existing systems. In addition, it may not be the existing software that’s not working to its full potential but the operator.
Return on investment
We calculated that the money Caunton saved on licenses, maintenance, training and support for those users classed as occasional ‘dippers’ actually paid for the Workspace system. Rather than get embroiled in the complex calculation of the cost of retrieving a single piece of paper by one person every hour multiplied by the number of hours, pieces of paper and hourly rate, we now ask how much would we have to be paid to take it out? We are yet to put a figure on this.
Our focus now is mainly on the integration of our KM programme with our business processes and people. For example, we currently handle all personal-development reviews and annual staff appraisals through Workspace and these are routed and managed with workflow logic. We are currently implementing a purchase-order system that integrates fully with the