Feature: Proposal and Project Software Aids in Engineering Companies' Expansion
Professional Surveyor Magazine - September 2003
Switching to new proposal generating and project management software has aided the expansion of two engineering firms. Switching to new proposal generating software has played a major role in helping aerial surveying firm Tuck Engineering, Big Stone Gap, Virginia, win large national projects with complex proposal requirements. The new software provides stronger product integration as well as a wide range of advanced features to automate much of the proposal generating process. Crafton, Tull & Associates, an architectural, engineering and surveying organization, improved the efficiency and accuracy of its financial operations by linking four of its offices via a wide-area network (WAN) and having them use a project management and financial accounting program that runs under Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0, Terminal Server Edition. By linking offices electronically and having all employees use the same project management and financial accounting program, information such as time sheets, invoices, and receipts is entered only once, eliminating the task of data entry and making information more accurate and up-to-date.
Tuck Engineering employs over thirty people and provides aerial photography, surveying, mapping, and modeling. Tuck began automating its back office operations 14 years ago when an auditor suggested they could save a lot of time and avoid errors by automating their project accounting. He had heard about project management software designed specially for professional services firms called the Wind2 Financial Management System (FMS) and suggested they give it a try. Wind2 FMS dramatically improved the management of the business and allowed them to determine precisely how much every job cost to perform. That improved the way they bid future projects, which in turn helped to expand the business.
Based on this success, they kept their eyes open for software that would improve the other paper-intensive aspect of the business: preparing proposals. In early 2001, Wind2 announced the purchase of Infomax, a developer of client relationship management software for project-based services firms. After Wind2 revamped the Infomax product to include a seamless link to Wind2 FMS, the company felt that the new product, Wind2 Award, would significantly streamline the proposal generation process. This has proven to be the case, and is due in large part to Award's direct interface with Microsoft Word and Microsoft Outlook. When creating proposals in Award, Tuck is able to directly access Word's powerful word processing features, and the two-way Outlook interface enables them to synchronize contacts, milestones, schedules, tasks, and activities assigned in Award with the appropriate Outlook folder. Plus, any changes made in Outlook are automatically reflected in Award.
Award works by maintaining a database of information from which the user can easily draw while creating the proposal. The program is organized around the key sections of the proposal: cover page and letter, introduction, project approach, schedule, project organization, project experience, resumes and staff, references, scope of work, and appendices. The new program automates what used to be mostly a manual process, and the company has continually added to and improved the library to where it now has a complete description for nearly every project. Every once in a while, they transfer all of the recent projects from Wind2 FMS to Award and write descriptions for them so they are available for future use. They also keep the list of employees up to date by importing them from Wind2. The whole process moves so much more quickly than with the old software. In fact, it now takes less than one quarter of the time to create a proposal, and these new proposals are more complete and thorough than the past system would allow. The software works so well, they soon began using it to create all proposals, both government and private.
The biggest benefit of all has been the improvement in the quality of proposals, especially the large complicated proposals that are needed to win national contracts. To win the biggest national contracts, they have to put together a team of players from around the country, then generate a proposal that includes the particulars from each company. Tuck has greatly reduced the amount of effort required by storing resumes and references from the companies that they normally work with in the Award database. On the latest proposal, which had exceptionally complicated requirements, they imported the RFP into the proposal generator and used it as the framework of the proposal. The customer said Tuck was the only company that had exactly the right information.
Crafton, Tull and Associates
Founded in Rogers, Arkansas in 1963, Crafton, Tull & Associates (CTA) is an organization of design professionals that provides complete services for architecture, engineering, and surveying projects. CTA maintains six offices in Arkansas and Oklahoma and employs more than 100 design professionals. For 13 years, CTA's home office has been using the Wind2 Financial Management System (FMS). Although the firm was happy with the software, they knew its benefits would be even greater if they had a network linking all the offices and everyone was using the software rather than just the people in the home office. Without network communications, information generated at the branch offices was sent by fax or regular mail to the home office where it was entered into Wind2. One employee spent all day Monday, sometimes working as late as 7:00 p.m., entering the payroll data into Wind2. Often there were errors on the time sheets, such as hours attributed to a closed project, that required the person entering the data to track down the appropriate employees and find the correct information. Due to the inefficiencies of this method, each week started off with a time crunch for the payroll department.
The lack of a network linking all the offices also caused CTA's cash flow to suffer to some extent. Each of the branch offices operated locally, sending out its own invoices and doing its own cash receipts. Most offices generated their invoices in Microsoft Word and faxed a copy to the home office. When the branch offices got paid, they often held onto the checks until they had a sufficient number to mail to the home office. By the time the money was eventually deposited, CTA could have lost a few weeks of interest on it. Also, there were times when the home office didn't receive a copy of the invoice, so it wasn't clear what a payment was for. All in all, the duplication of effort required by having separate offices was limiting the efficiency and accuracy of CTA's financial and project management.
To solve this problem CTA installed a WAN and a version of Wind2 that allows multiple user access over a network. The WAN currently links three of CTA's branch offices and the home office. One of the offices is connected to the home office directly through an ISDN line, while the other two offices have ISDN lines that connect them to an Internet service provider. Novell's Border Services technology is used to create a virtual private network between the four offices. The operating system is Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0, Terminal Server Edition. This is an extension to the Windows NT Server product line that delivers the Windows experience to diverse desktop hardware through terminal emulation. Terminal Server Edition offers the centrally managed environment of the traditional mainframe with terminals, but adds the familiarity, ease of use, and breadth of applications support of the Windows platform. CTA upgraded its existing Wind2 software to Wind2 FMS for Windows, which is one of the few software products that has successfully passed testing by the independent lab Veritest for compatibility with Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0, Terminal Server Edition.
Designers Use It
Once the WAN and Terminal Server was in place, CTA extended the use of Wind2 to both the office staff and design professionals in the four offices connected by the network. Because the software is user-friendly, only minimal training time was required. Now, designers use Wind2 every day to record how they allocate their time. This is done on Wind2 time sheets, a standard feature of the software. CTA has found that this approach is more accurate than the past method, which required designers to indicate the project they worked on by using its a job number. It was easy to enter a wrong number and not realize it. With the Wind2 time sheet, when a user enters a job number, the name of job appears on the screen. If the number is wrong, they can see that right away.
Now that designers enter their own time sheets directly into Wind2, the payroll process has been greatly streamlined. The day that used to be spent entering each employee's data into the computer is no longer necessary. That data is already there, eliminating one day per week of data entry time. Also, because the data is more accurate, it is not necessary for someone to call employees about errors in project numbers. With the new networked system, the time sheet information simply needs to be processed for the payroll. This is done in most cases by mid-afternoon Monday.
The handling of cash receipts is also more effective now that the branch offices are using Wind2. Someone from the branch office deposits the check at the local bank and applies the receipt to the Wind2 records. This information is immediately available to the home office. Not only does the money get deposited sooner this way, it allows the branch offices to bank locally, which fits with CTA's philosophy that each branch office should participate in the local community.
The Wind2 Financial Management System includes tightly integrated modules to eliminate duplicate and inefficient data entry and provide a complete solution to a firm's financial and project management needs. The System Manager module provides utilities to add companies, change company setup options, add users, establish security and manage card file information. The Business Management module uses employee time record, project expenses, and client receipt information for project invoicing, project bidding, management and budget control, project profit analysis, employee evaluation and management, and accounts receivable. The General Ledger serves as the foundation upon which Wind2 FMS addresses financial accounting challenges. The Accounts Payable module provides instant access to payables liability information for managing cash and expenses. The Purchase Order module tracks goods and services that a business orders. The Cash Management module accumulates cash receipt and disbursement information from other Wind2 modules. The Executive Information System module quickly provides summary information concerning client history, client and project billing, accounts receivables, project profitability, project budgets, vendor history, vendor status, accounts payable, purchase orders, financial status, and cash position. The Employee Time and Expense Manager capabilities of Wind2 allows employees to enter time and expense records from workstations at corporate or remote sites.
Foundation for the Future
CTA has found that having branch offices works much better when they are linked electronically to the home office. Now that reliable and affordable networking and terminal server technology is available, the firm's management believes that it makes sense to have all employees enter data directly into the financial accounting and project management program. This approach is far more efficient than having documents sent to the home office by fax or mail. It eliminates duplication of effort, makes the firm's records more accurate, and gives the local offices the flexibility to operate locally.
Jerry Fireman is President of Structured Information, which he founded in 1984. He has written more than 6,000 articles for more than 1,500 trade journals in 24 countries around the world.
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