Changing the culture for an 82-year-old architectural firm that has traditionally treated technology as a support function is no easy feat. But it’s one Perkins+Will CIO Murali Selvaraj has embraced, implementing single sign-on and collaboration software to help the firm win more business.
“People don’t talk too much about technology in the architectural and engineering [industry],” says Selvaraj, a trained architect, who manages IT for architects spread across 30 offices worldwide. “And when they do, it’s about how to get the client to visualize the building model, or go from pre-fabrication to construction faster.”
But Selvaraj has a mandate from CEO Phil Harrison to transform Perkins+Will using technology to create a more “compelling user experience” for clients, mostly CEOs of corporations and other large organizations. “He is tech-savvy and knows what he wants to do,” says Selvaraj of Harrison. “He wants to use technology as a catalyst for change, rather than as a support function.”
Client collaboration in the cloud
Selvaraj is in an increasingly common position, as 84 percent of CIOs are expanding beyond traditional IT delivery to innovation management, according to a recent Gartner survey. The digital transformation is afoot at Perkins+Will, whose multi-year projects include the Haramain High Speed Rail in Saudi Arabia, the Shanghai Natural History Museum in China and a Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in the U.S.
Perkins+Will has traditionally shared design plans with clients, consultants and other stakeholders via a Microsoft SharePoint application hosted on-premises. But people have become accustomed to using cloud software they can access from any computer or smartphone, so Perkins & Will must change with the times — without sacrificing the security of its proprietary designs.
After evaluating several platforms, including Salesforce.com, Selvaraj turned to software vendors Box, whose collaboration software is used by large enterprises such as General Electric and AstraZeneca, and Okta, a single sign-on identity management tool used by Experian, NASDAQ and others.
The tandem solution, integrated via application programming interfaces (APIs), allow Perkins+Will architects to share design blueprints and other documents with clients, who may check on their project, view images of it and leave comments on the files. Security and provisioning capabilities enable Perkins+Will to manage who can access specific files. Version controls reveal who accessed and changed files — and when. If a stakeholder leaves the project, Perkins+Will can shut off their access to the files. “Okta can deal with security better than we can,” Selvaraj says.
Innovating with augmented reality
A year in, the technology is working well, drawing compliments from architects and other stakeholders. Selaraj says the toughest challenge was managing the change that often accompanies the adoption of new technology. Some stakeholders are accustomed to owning their files and emailing documents when they’re ready to share them. The Perkins+Will solution enables users to instantly revise and track changes in documents.
“The industry is not set up for that; it’s set up for an on-premises mindset that says, ‘We have our own files and when we’re ready to share we will send you an email,'” Selvaraj says.
Selvaraj is exploring other SaaS (software-as-a-service) applications, including real-time messaging tool Slack and computer-assisted design technology from AutoDesk, which will allow architects to design in the cloud and share with clients and other stakeholders via Box. Perkins+Will in October launched an augmented reality (AR) app that affords designers and developers a new way to work with project models, including seeing the impacts of design decisions.
Today, users can explore 3D scaled models of the Shanghai Natural History Museum or the River Beech Tower from their living room or office and share those scenarios on social media. Eventually, users will be able to experiment with tools that alter those buildings’ design characteristics, such as massing, glazing and fenestration. The content generated within the AR app will also be shared in the Box-Okta platform, Selvaraj says.
“This industry is tradition-bound, but ripe for disruption,” Selvaraj says. “If we put the client at the center of the ecosystem it should lead to good stuff.”
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