Vendors Jostle and Profess Economic Stimulus Readiness - Part IV

Part I of this series analyzed the opportunities (as well as the related strings attached) stemming from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), a.k.a. the Economic Stimulus Plan. The inspiration came from my attendance of the Deltek Insight 2009 user conference last May, where Deltek decided to fill a market need and interest by convening a separate “track” that was entitled “Stimulus & Beyond (Navigating the Brave New World).”

Part II of this series then analyzed why Deltek believes it can help government contractors and architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) firms, as well as other public sector organizations in their endeavors to obtain ARRA funds (i.e., the opportunity part) and duly report on them (the strings part for transparency and accountability). Part III then expanded on the construction industry’s current challenges, its outlook, and market trends.

Although Deltek inspired this series and while the company caters to AEC firms, its focus and software capabilities are in the design or planning stage of an infrastructure object. But the entire infrastructure lifecycle management (ILM) encompasses the following phases that denote yet another three-letter acronym (TLA) – “PBO”:

  • Plan: Manage project pipelines, site development, entitlements, etc.

  • Build: Track budgets, contracts, changes, schedules, scopes, and quality

  • Operate: Direct asset management, work orders, and maintenance management

Enter PBObama

To that end, Meridian Systems, a software provider that helps project-based organizations (PBOs) [Editor's note: *sigh*] optimize the PBO phases of physical infrastructure assets, has also put together a dedicated initiative to help public sector agencies manage stimulus funds as part of ARRA. This “PBO squared” software provider has aptly named this initiative “PBObama” to capture mindshare within the public and AEC market sectors that the company is ready to help, in the sense of delivering transparency and accountability on shovel-ready, stimulus-funded construction (schools and other buildings), transportation, energy, and water/environment projects.

Meridian has deep construction experience after 17 years in existence, with 5,000 customers and 100,000 users. The company, owned by the global positioning system (GPS) giant Trimble, is an ILM pioneer as it was one of the first vendors to unite a software solution for the entire PBO lifecycle. As detailed in my 2008 blog series on Meridian, the vendor offers three product lines segmented by buyer size.

Consequently, the company has a bifurcated sales model: the direct one for the high end of the market and via the channel for the low end of the market. The offering leverages the Microsoft .NET Framework technology and can be deployed both on-premise and on-demand in a software as a service (SaaS) manner.

With solutions for “any size” infrastructure program, Meridian has accumulated more than 150 public sector accounts, from several state and local governments including Miami-Dade County, transportation agencies such as the Chicago O’Hare Modernization Program, to its largest customer of all, the General Services Administration (GSA) Public Buildings Service (PBS). This federal agency is bearing the brunt of managing stimulus dollars with more than US$5.5 billion in ARRA funds passing through its Electronic Project Management (ePM) system that leverages Meridian's Proliance.

PBS’s normal annual project expenditures include US$2 billion in small projects (renovating existing buildings) and $3 billion in capital projects (that are larger than $20 million in value). The economic stimulus will require GSA to spend several additional US$ billions with multi-dimensional congressional reporting requirements (by district, energy type, green compliance, etc.).

PBS has a large supply chain of users (30 percent internal users and 70 percent external supply chain partners), and it had to “commit” the funds to the projects in the 90 days after the ARRA bill’s signing. Thus, as an early adopter of building information modeling (BIM) that can leverage Meridian’s ILM/BIM integration and capabilities, PBS had to accelerate its Proliance system's implementation and configuration schedule. To that end, the agency reportedly allocated about $3 million for the system’s deployment and fast-track training of its employees (i.e., to provide boots on the ground).

With the demanding levels of project transparency that ARRA requires, Meridian is well positioned to help out these stimulus recipients by providing strong funds management capabilities, cost control and change management (to prevent project overruns and abuse), and comprehensive reporting so that government project owners can provide much-needed transparency to the public. In fact, Meridian has seen a steep increase from its engineering and construction community wanting to know more about how its project portfolio management (PPM) and ILM solutions can ease this reporting burden.

In response, Meridian has been providing regular downloads via webinars to its customer base on the latest reporting guidance detailed in the ARRA legislation and issued by the US Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Additionally, Meridian has leveraged its public sector expertise to create pre-packaged offerings designed for public agencies that must act swiftly to commit stimulus funds to actionable projects. As a GSA Federal Supply Schedule Contract holder, Meridian has combined its best available GSA pricing recommendations on Prolog and Proliance software along with additional, no cost, pre-configured tools to create the following two government oversight packs:

  • Prolog Oversight Pack - pre-configured reports to help agencies deliver status updates on projects and programs on several levels. For example, users can report on project and program status, program funding and obligations, track project location and status information for public transparency, and use collaboration tools to track change orders and integrate vendor data. The pack provides four configured reports and a dozen mini-applications/tools to give organizations a head start on meeting the oversight requirements the Obama administration is demanding, based on Section 1526 of ARRA and Section 1.5 of the implementation guidance issued by the OMB (as detailed in Part I)

  • Proliance Government Starter Pack - prepackaged software configurations and solution accelerators designed to conform with the GSA’s Project Management Guide. Key components include Proliance collaboration tools and pre-configured dashboards, metrics, alerts, and best practices that support the ARRA requirements.

More details on these tools are available here.

Any Other Construction Players Out There?

Meridian often competes with Skire Inc., a privately held solution provider for capital project and program management, PPM, and integrated workplace management systems (IWMS).  The company was founded in 1998 and is headquartered in Menlo Park, California. Skire customers are many leading public agencies and Fortune 1000 corporations, with a strong install base amongst building owners and operators.

In contrast to Meridian’s tiered offering, Skire offers a one-size-fits-all product that is somewhat suggestively called Unifier. Java-based Unifier is a business process automation (BPA) platform for managing construction programs, projects, resources, and assets.

The suite features a multi-module architecture as well as strong cost management (i.e., handling encumbrances, expenditures, forecasts, actual costs, etc.) and project control capabilities (i.e., in terms of schedule management, tracking critical milestones, earned value management [EVM]), and interfaces to Oracle Primavera and Microsoft Project.

Comprehensive reporting capabilities come via reports in multiple formats and dashboards. Summary dashboards can present key performance indicators (KPIs) per individual project, entire program, or company rollup. Also available are interfaces to update external systems (e.g., the site or a government agency’s Web site) via the Atom 1.0 syndication protocolreally simple syndication (RSS) subscription, or Web services.

Unifier also offers a number of predefined workflows for reviews and approvals, including conditional workflows respecting the signature authority. Moreover, its document management system capabilities are as follows: a document repository with file sharing, check-in/check-out control, revision control, and view/markup.

Been There, Done That

In accordance with ARRA's requirements, Skire points to its history of transparency and accountability, since ARRA is in fact now requiring what Unifier customers have self-mandated for years. For example, process-based compliance practices long been accommodated by Unifier, and should come in handy for ARRA funds recipients.

In addition to workflows and document management, Unifier offers process control via forms, such as for funding allocations, contracts, change orders, payment applications, collaboration (submittals, etc.). The product has long offered fund/grant management capabilities in addition to budget and cost control, but now it will also be able to segregate ARRA and non-ARRA grants (as one of the major OMB requirements mentioned in Part II).

Like its foe Meridian, Skire also has an aptly named ARRA initiative “STARR,” which stands for “Skire Transparency, Accountability, Recovery and Reinvestment.” Again, the goal is to capture mindshare within the public and AEC market sectors by being ready to help deliver transparency and accountability. Skire’s RapidStart STARR offering is a prepackaged solution to manage funding and projects/programs, and deliver transparency. Predefined ARRA business processes are immediately available to meet the aggressive reporting timeline with a 10-day rollout.

Meridian was quick to point out that the company is offering the abovementioned Prolog Oversight Pack at no cost to its customers. The vendor is also not wasting time on reinventing the wheel by offering its own resource portal, because McGraw Hill’s ENR: Engineering News Record is the expert site on tracking ARRA relevant data. Meridian is instead occasionally sponsoring McGraw-Hill Construction’s dedicated new Construction Stimulus Special Section site, located here.

Some Competitive Jabs Are Inevitable

While Meridian and Skire express respect for each other’s offerings, there is no love lost between them. But when it comes to a comparison between Meridian and Skire, what's the major difference? I am sure Skire can cover all the construction project lifecycle phases and can partner for BIM, like Meridian does.

Is it perhaps that Meridian has been a bit longer in the market, has a stronger financial backer, has a larger install base, and that it offers different strokes for different folks (vs. Skire Unifier’s one-size-fits-all approach)? Meridian will often mention the .NET technology stack and Office Business Applications (OBA) as differentiators, but Skire is on the latest Java Platform Enterprise Edition stack. This debate comes down to the matter of technology preference, which is similar to debating whose Beatles songs are better, John Lennon's or Paul McCartney's.

Meridian maintains that its strategic investment in OBA’s and .NET-based Web services was critical for its major recent deals at the Walt Disney Company and GSA, but I am sure that Skire can cite counter-cases.  Meridian also does not pursue the route of an Industry Advisory Council (that Skire touts) because it already has many prominent public sector customers, and of course, the “bat phone” directly to the GSA (whom Meridian is enabling to manage more than $7 billion in stimulus funds through the Proliance system). As said earlier, GSA PBS is also relying on Meridian to get its stakeholders trained fast on Proliance, which the vendor has been enabling through its rapid deployment teams and implementation plan.

Large ERP Vendors Jumping on the ARRA Bandwagon

In mid 2009, SAP released a software package to support the management and reporting of economic stimulus funds. Based on solutions from the SAP BusinessObjects portfolio, the new package gives government organizations the visibility required to track and optimize ARRA funds. This seems to be similar to what Microsoft is doing with its Stimulus360 solution, where the giant has taken its SharePoint toolset and combined it with other technologies to create an ARRA tracking enterprise portal.

Oracle has followed suit with its own ARRA reporting offering and the comprehensive white paper entitled “Oracle Solutions for Implementing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act." In fact, Oracle was born just over 30 years ago from a project with a federal intelligence agency. Since that time Oracle’s relationship with federal, state, and local government agencies and authorities has quite grown. Over 100 US Federal agencies, all 50 states, and 24 of the 25 largest US cities get better results with Oracle’s products .

Oracle’s progression from database technology to back-office enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications, middleware, business intelligence (BI) business performance management (BPM), project portfolio management (PPM), and constituent-facing customer relationship management (CRM) systems positions the vendor strongly to help Public Sector organizations face today’s unprecedented challenges. On February 6, 2009, President Obama unveiled a new Economic Recovery Advisory Board, and named Oracle’s President Charles Phillips as a member of this council.

For its part, Agresso claims to have been instantly and inherently able to meet the new transparency regulations that are required by the stimulus funds. As described in my previous blog post, Agresso’s VITA architecture allows for rapid change of the current enterprise system in place, especially in terms of new reporting requirements. This is in sharp contrast to traditionally going through a lengthy ERP system acquisition and initial implementation, and later through a lengthy implementation process of a new module.

The question is: how suitable are these portal and dashboard tools to organizations managing stimulus funded projects, when the reporting guidance is still not quite clear and ever evolving? The only clarity is that funds recipients will need to report on multiple data points, at multiple levels, and to multiple people.

Meridian and Skire have at least put together some specific reports, tailored to infrastructure building programs, with examples on their websites. This was relatively easy for these vendors to do, and reporting should be easy for their customers (even as the oversight requirements become more defined over time) because their project management systems already set users up to track all relevant data.

To deliver the high levels of oversight and transparency that the US federal government is requiring, project-based organizations in the public sector will need technology that will enable the following:

  1. Allow for project team collaboration

  2. Provide a single source of truth for project data

  3. Allow organizations to implement industry best practices

In fact, SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft’s ARRA messages might not necessarily apply to the construction companieswith stringent ILM/BIM needs. Namely, the Stimulus Package in total is worth approximately US$800 billion, whereby only about $150 to $200 billion are for infrastructure projects. The remaining dollars are to be spent in other areas of government, such as teacher salaries, food stamps, tax breaks, etc. (as explained in Part I), and I am sure that the Tier 1 ERP players are angling for the total dollars from multiple perspectives.

To be fair, these large vendors’ ARRA reporting solutions are more than adequate. For instance, the Oracle solution for ARRA is the same one many governments have used to track and report on highway and infrastructure projects. Oracle ERP, PPM, and BI applications are part of the core suites that project centric organizations use to manage, track and report on infrastructure projects. Many departments of transportation have also implemented Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition (OBIEE) to report on statewide construction activities.

For its part, since data quality is an endemic problem for the public sector, SAP points out to its data quality capabilities: SAP BusinessObjects Data Insight and SAP BusinessObjects Data Quality Management. Namely, after implementing SAP’s solution, the US administration has detected a vast issue of data quality, i.e., inaccurate reporting, projects with no job impact, projects with moving costs, etc.
These occurrences are clearly indicating potential fraud and misuses of the stimulus funds. This issue was largely covered in the press (although SAP was not explicitly mentioned). In other words, when government agencies embark on transparency to the constituents, data quality issues are being brought up to the surface and must be addressed.

SAP invites everyone interested to download the exclusive e-book entitled “The Stimulus Package: What It Means for Growing Businesses.” Written by leading small business and tax experts, the e-book examines the following three key areas where the economic stimulus could affect small businesses:

  1. Which industry sectors will receive the largest amount of stimulus funding

  2. How tax code changes will provide tax relief to small businesses

  3. New financing options from the US Small Business Administration (SBA)

Dear readers, what are your views, comments and opinions, etc. in this regard? Which of the abovementioned vendors has a credible and appealing offering to your mind? If you are a recipient of ARRA funds, I would appreciate you sharing your experiences with dealing with federal or local agencies.
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