Facilitating a Culture of Global Collaboration with Technology
Business runs on providing solutions. Understanding a client’s business objectives and ensuring they are met should be a company’s key goal. A high level of collaboration is imperative, especially for a company providing project management, architecture, engineering, and construction management services that are critical to the construction of a new facility or process.
Fortunately, companies like SSOE Group exist to consider a client’s priorities for a project and ensure the process is focused to drive value from concept to completion. SSOE’s mission statement of “Making Clients Successful, by Saving Them Time, Trouble, and Money” isn’t just a slogan, it’s a promise that they document, track, and measure themselves against.
The company has more than 20 locations worldwide and projects spanning an excess of 30 countries. With a long history and an even longer list of specialties and project types, SSOE has collaborated with some of the biggest global companies in more than 20 industries.
But those are just numbers. The heart of SSOE is a culture driven by collaboration—among employees, the company, their partners, and their clients. This is especially impressive considering the number of different cultures and regions with which the company works.
“We were founded in the Midwest U.S. and have been operating successfully for over 67 years, so we have a very good understanding of the American culture,” said Vince DiPofi Jr., CSO. “We’re a bit more direct than other cultures. It’s taken a lot of time to learn how to communicate effectively across numerous countries and nationalities, but we’ve been willing to put in the time, and have been able to grow our organization because of it.”
This is just one way SSOE has demonstrated its commitment to promoting a collaborative culture. When working on incredibly large, complex projects across a wide geographic stretch, each piece of the puzzle needs to fit together perfectly in the end to deliver the client’s project—which SSOE has consistently done.
Technology as an Enabler of Collaboration
While there are several big and small ways SSOE is able to complete each puzzle, the company’s technology strategy has been key.
As you can imagine, the design of a large-scale facility or process is incredibly complex, requiring the expertise and input of professionals from myriad disciplines. Though these groups do their best to communicate with each other, as each concurrently designs a different aspect of a single space, the likelihood of locating multiple elements in the same place always exists—known in the design world as a “clash.” The worst place to discover this has happened is in the construction field where fixes are expensive and create delays.
To alleviate this issue, the industry responded with a process called “clash detection.” This process checks the elements of each discipline’s individual design to identify areas where elements are literally running into one another so that it can be reworked during the design process rather than in the construction field. SSOE was an early adopter of this tool, but noticed it was not being used to its full potential or on every project.
For challenges exactly like this one, SSOE has established a design technology group that is dedicated to both discovering the best new technologies as well as customizing them when necessary.
This team identified that while the output of the clash detection software was very valuable, the process of getting the information from the model into the clash detection software was cumbersome and time consuming. Sometimes this meant that the clash detection process was not feasible to use given a particular project’s tight budget or timeline.
To address this issue, the design technology team developed a customized application that automates the process of moving data from one software to the other. It then performs the clash detection analysis in the background and delivers actionable results directly to the appropriate team members.
“This tool is incredibly helpful for project management,” Mary Stepnick, Sr. Director of Corporate Services, shared. “It has removed the time consuming, non-value added part of the process, saving us and the client a tremendous amount of time, trouble, and money. Perhaps more importantly, it has increased the utilization of the clash detection software by making it feasible for projects on tight budgets and timelines. It’s a perfect example of how SSOE has customized technology to enhance coordination between design disciplines.”
This application has helped save SSOE and its clients an astounding 160 weeks of man-hours in 2015.
While technology can go a long way toward making existing processes more efficient, SSOE is now at the forefront of a much more fundamental shift in how companies in the design and construction world deliver projects. This shift will evolve the process itself—and it too is being enabled by technology.
Virtual Design and Construction
One of the highest priorities for the leadership team at SSOE right now is the implementation of Virtual Design & Construction (VDC). VDC doesn’t refer to any specific technology, but rather the leveraging of numerous technologies to change the way design and construction projects are delivered. It focuses on earlier and more frequent collaboration between the client, designer, and constructor of a project.
Interactive Planning (IAP) sessions bring all of these stakeholders together to develop a shared vision of success, a common strategy for achieving success, and commitments from team members on the role they will play in meeting those goals.
“It’s collaboration versus cooperation,” said SSOE’s CEO and President, Bob Howell. “In the traditional planning process the focus is on determining steps to arrive at a pre-determined destination. In an IAP, assumptions are challenged, and the collective knowledge of the group is leveraged. Contractors speak up when they see something that won’t be constructible. Owners get a chance to explore various paths to meeting their objective they may not have otherwise considered. In the end, there is a shared vision of what success looks like.”
In the context of “VDC”, a technology’s true value is recognized when it is used to integrate the project team and carry out the strategy determined in the IAP. A technology such as laser scanning, used to capture the existing conditions of a facility, contributes greatly to the execution of most projects, but especially when it is augmented by cloud technology that makes the outputs of these scans available to the entire project team. Advanced 3D modeling can be a benefit to a majority of projects, but again, it is greatly enhanced when that same model is made available to all design disciplines, the fabricator, and the construction team to use in the field.
Mary Stepnick put this into perspective in a lesson that can be applied to any industry, “When the focus shifts from ‘what can we do that’s cutting edge?’ to identifying ‘This is the most effective way to deliver the project—now let’s find or develop the technology to support it’, the technology becomes a tool for project success rather than a means unto itself.”
The leadership at SSOE believes wholeheartedly that technology will be a key enabler to their future growth. However, they also acknowledged that all the technology in the world can’t stand on its own without the proper culture to support the potential it brings.
The Role of Culture
Bob Howell, who took over as CEO in December of 2014, believes the company has a great strategy for growth. Part of his goal with the leadership team is to align the company’s culture to successfully execute the corporate growth strategy.
“We’re starting to focus on collaboration as the foundation for this cultural shift,” said Howell. “We weren’t rewarding collaborative behaviors as a business; our rewards were based on individual behaviors/metrics, which I considered a shortcoming. Now, we’re going forward focusing on and rewarding behaviors of doing what’s best for the entire company, not necessarily the individual or the individual’s operation.”
“Emotionally connecting our employees with what they accomplish every single day to us obtaining our Corporate Vision and Mission is of utmost importance,” said Dave Sipes, COO.
SSOE’s Vision is “World-Class People, Delivering World-Class Projects, for World-Class Clients”.
The same week of our conversation with SSOE leadership yielded the company’s first ever ‘all hands on deck’ meeting between the leadership and all of SSOE’s employees across their North American operations. The ‘all hands on deck’ meeting detailed the corporate-wide rollout of the company’s global culture strategy and the behaviors required to become more collaborative both internally and externally. This session concluded with breakout sessions of functional groups and individual commitments from each employee on what behavior they could personally commit to in order to drive collaboration.
Howell has put his money where his mouth is, recognizing that collaboration requires a dialogue.
“Giving people a voice at every level not only engages them, it helps us tap into a collective knowledge much greater than those of us seated around the table right now.”
In this vein Howell has instituted Millennial and Gen X advisory committees, and asked them to present their recommendations to the leadership team. SSOE also holds an annual “hackathon” which invites employees at any level to come together in an entrepreneurial spirit to solve a problem or uncover a new opportunity. Ideas are presented in the form of business plans to top leadership at SSOE’s annual planning summit.
“We spend as much time with our work colleagues as we do with our families; therefore we need to create an environment where we enjoy coming to work every day, we have fun, we trust each other, and we hold each other accountable without hurting each other’s feelings,” said Jim Jaros, CFO.
And the team emphasized their consistent belief that collaboration is essential to driving engaged and happy staff.
“It’s cliché, but a business is always about the people; happy, engaged staff results in happy clients and the reverse is also true,” said Stepnick. “This is our stated quality philosophy and it has stood the test of time.”
SSOE talked a lot about technology, and it is easy to see they are on the leading edge in the industry. That said, Howell knows that the landscape and technology changes quickly.
“While our competition can eventually copy every advantage we have, they can’t copy the results our employees achieve when they are engaged and work together in a collaborative manner as a team. The sense of the workplace, the employee engagement, the collaboration—it all combines into an open, transparent culture that will stand the test of time.”
In 1948, structural engineer Al Samborn returned to his hometown of Toledo, Ohio after completing his military service to start his own engineering firm. Al desired to establish an organization that provided the highest value through what is still the firm’s core strength—excellent project delivery.
A year later, the firm expanded as Al was joined by fellow engineer Jack Steketee. The firm also added large clients such as Ford Motor Company and Libbey-Owens-Ford to its roster. Nearly a decade later, the company grew to a full-service A/E practice when architects Burrie Otis and John Evans came on board to form Samborn, Steketee, Otis, and Evans, later shortened to SSOE.
SSOE’s partners made strategic decisions that shaped the character of the firm. As early as the 1960s, the company gained recognition as a leader in technology. It was the first A/E firm in the Midwest to use in-house computers as part of its design process. Today, SSOE continues to put technology to use for its clients. The firm employs an in-house technology research and development team and is industry leaders in pushing the envelope in the integration of advanced technologies into the design and construction process.
In the decades that followed, SSOE diversified and continued to grow geographically. It added more services in response to the needs of its industrial base and broadened its markets to include healthcare, chemical, alternative energy, and others. In 2005, the firm opened its first international office in Shanghai, China, where it began offering full EPCM project delivery. This has since grown into one of SSOE’s largest offices.
The period between 2008 and 2014 has proven to be the company’s strongest periods of growth. In 2008, SSOE expanded construction management services to its U.S. locations, and began offering clients full program management, from site selection through design, construction, and start-up. This period also marked a number of multimillion dollar programs that pushed the development of more advanced technology, services, and processes. Organic expansion, as well as a series of five acquisitions, added to SSOE’s service offerings and expanded our presence in Brazil, Candada, the U.S., and India. In late 2012, SSOE merged with Evergreen EDC, expanding its U.S. presence and strengthening our capabilities in designing hi-tech facilities for the semiconductor, solar / photovoltaic, life sciences and telecommunications industries. Today, SSOE has offices in eight countries and has completed projects in more than 30 countries.
In late 2013, Tony Damon announced his decision to retire after 13 years as CEO and 37 years with the firm. In June of 2014 the Board of Directors announced their decision to name Bob Howell the next CEO of SSOE. He officially assumed his duties on December 3, 2014.
Consistent through the years has been SSOE’s commitment to employees. The firm has been recognized as a “Best Firm to Work For” (BD+C), a Crain’s “Cool Place to Work”, a “Parent-Friendly Workplace” (United Way), and a “Healthiest Employer” (Nashville Chamber of Commerce).
SSOE remains a nimble company that embraces change and builds on its strengths in order to create new opportunities. Its ability to transform itself throughout its history is evidenced by the firm’s consistent growth. Through the years, the SSOE Experience has remained consistent as one centered on our Value Promise and our Great Client Service resulting in the trusted relationships that have allowed SSOE and our clients to make history together.
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