How Technology Is Transforming the Role of the Owner’s Representative
Hiring an owner’s representative was a great innovation when the role first gained prominence in the construction industry decades ago. Projects were getting bigger, costs were skyrocketing, schedules were increasingly delayed, and productivity was low. With so many projects going awry, something had to change to help owners maintain control of their projects. Enter the Owner’s Representative (OR). Generally defined as an individual or company hired to act on behalf of the owner’s staff, an OR’s role traditionally included protection of the client’s interests, recruitment of all consultants and vendors, plus coordination and communication throughout a project’s lifecycle. Essentially, ORs came into being to ensure the owner’s best interests were always taken into consideration for every decision throughout a construction project. It was a role, in short, explicitly designed to fight for the owner—to ensure the owner came out on top.
While this explains the role in theory, in practice the OR role gradually began to expand. Over decades, the role grew to include expertise in construction economics, contract management, and even risk management. Indeed, the traditional OR role has now morphed into a full blown “fiduciary professional,” who is expected to have mastered an increasingly broad set of skills under facilities, construction, and real estate management. The expansion makes sense actually; the complexity of the OR role has kept pace with the complexity of today’s projects.
But as construction firms try to find more ways to cut costs to survive in the competitive construction market, the role of ORs has taken on even greater prominence. Given the complexity of today’s projects, accelerated schedules, and shrinking margins, some industry experts are now making the case that the OR is the one role owners shouldn’t eliminate when cutting costs. According to this line of thought, ORs’ unique insight, experience, guidance, and complete loyalty are essential for owners looking to wrest their projects out of the hands of chaos. While I don’t disagree that ORs can be immensely valuable, I’d like to suggest rather that as projects become almost too complex to manage, construction technology can and and will have a substantial impact on their utility. In fact, construction technology is triggering a significant and lasting transformation of the OR role that has the potential to maximize its impact on project delivery.
And here’s why. The construction industry is currently experiencing a sea change in the way projects are built, largely due to an increase in construction mobility and widespread adoption of technology that gives owners a new level of visibility, insight, and control over their projects. Owners would do well to consider how they might benefit by investing in mobile construction software to increase the effectiveness of their OR.
How Much Control Does an Owner Have Over Their Project?
Maintaining operational control over a construction project is crucial for an owner. But many owners feel they lack a critical level of control they need to ensure their projects are successful. Several factors conspire to create anxiety for an owner over their projects, but the most significant one is that unsophisticated owners with little experience often feel they don’t know enough to manage their project effectively. In other words, they worry they’re out of their depth, i.e., won’t be taken seriously, provide good suggestions, or ask the right questions. So they remain silent and hire someone else to “represent” their interests. They disengage and essentially put control in the OR’s hands.
But owners can experience a whole new level of control when ORs leverage technology to facilitate communication with the jobsite because it allows them to gain (1) visibility into their projects and (2) critical field intelligence to make better decisions. In fact, when representatives are armed with the right tools, they can help an owner become more involved with their own projects, which benefits everyone.
What Risks Do Owners Face When They Aren’t Involved?
An owner’s “silence” due to the presence of an intermediary can present significant risks to a project that can outweigh the benefits of using a representative and are directly tied to lack of owner involvement:
- Confusion from indirect communication
- Communication delays
- Schedule delays
- Increased work and rework
- Exorbitant fees
- Budget overruns
- Role confusion and redundancies
- Inefficient decision-making
- Lack of experience
Of all the issues on this list, lack of direct communication — not only between owners and builders, but also between ORs and builders — poses the greatest threat to project success. For example, beyond the costs of an OR, owners also run the risk of not knowing how construction is being managed or what the project’s status really is. How can they know if their project is on track if they’re not involved and remain shrouded in silence? In short, owners are spending a great deal of money to have someone else be “them” and manage their projects. While this may free up some of their time, it frees up less of their money and in some cases it can result in substantial schedule delays and cost overruns. In one particular instance, a project was delayed by over a year and had a cost overrun of 40 million due to poor communication between the OR and the team, which could have been prevented if the owner had been more involved.
In some instances, owners don’t actually benefit from the time savings promised by ORs because they often end up wasting more time managing an ineffective OR and/or managing communication disputes between ORs and disgruntled workers. The bottom line is this — trying to save money on the front end by hiring an OR can cost much more in the long run if owners don’t choose their representative carefully and ensure that representative has the right tools to represent their needs and interests adequately.
Fortunately, there are ways to reduce risks associated with representatives. The easiest way to lower risk is to have an owner who has greater visibility into the project because they have access to real-time information captured in the field and a comprehensive record set. When owners’ visibility is increased, they’re able to adjust quickly to changing conditions and make better decisions. It’s therefore critical not only to hire the right OR, but also to give them the tools they need to improve communication and collaborate effectively with the construction team.
How Can Technology Improve Communication between the Owner and the Representative?
Getting owners more involved is important and technology will play a critical role. Mobile construction software can help owners who want to overcome communication barriers on their projects stay in the loop and become more involved. Mobile construction software takes communication to the next level, enhancing communication between owner, representatives and those actually performing the work. By providing one central location for the project to live and making it easy for those in the field or working onsite to instantly access and edit the details, everyone can have the latest, most up-to-date information about any given project.
Issues can arise and changes can occur quickly. The ever-changing nature of projects can lead an inexperienced owner to worry about whether things are being completed on schedule and on budget, or whether issues are developing. But technology allows owners to track a number of different areas of the project, so they’re always ready for changes and adjustments as and when they are needed.
How Can Technology Help the Owner Become More Involved?
By hiring a representative as an intermediary, the owner places a barrier between themselves and those on the jobsite, automatically complicating the communication process. When the representative and owner communicate, especially when the OR is inexperienced or unknowledgable, they experience delays, which translate into information often arriving too late for owners to prevent errors, attempt course correction, or mitigate significant risk. An owner may not know about problems right away or when something needs to be changed. They also may not know when things are going right, or when they advance to a particular stage of the project. These milestones are important to owners, and when they are involved, then they get to meet and mark these milestones. This helps make it truly their project, instead of having a more “hands off” mentality about how the project will be handled and addressed.
How Does Construction Mobility Make the Owner’s Representatives more Effective?
Owners and ORs who use mobile construction software, especially construction productivity software, are able to stay out of the fray while also gaining critical visibility and insight into their projects. Due to features like real-time data capture, owners can track where their project is at any moment. What’s more they can leverage the intelligence from the field to for better decision making that will improve their bottom line. They always know what stage that project is in and more importantly are immediately made aware of any issue or problem that’s occurring on the jobsite that will negatively impact the project’s quality, schedule, or budget. To be sure, when using mobile construction software, owners now have jobsite intelligence that keeps them involved, instead of being “out of the loop” and missing out on important information and updates. This improves communication not only with their OR but also with those in the field. All of this works together to improve overall productivity on the jobsite and increases the likelihood of project success.
Taking Back Control
Ultimately, managing projects and keeping everyone on task and happy with the work that’s being done can be stressful, but facilitating communication between owners, representatives, and the construction team will help ORs be more effective, allow owners to become more involved, and ensure overall project success.
While there are a number of ways to improve communication, mobile construction software is the easiest and most cost effective method to improve it. With the right software for managing construction projects, it’s now easy for owners to get more done and feel better about any project they undertake. They also reduce the risks of spending more money on the project than they need to, and they improve communication with a middleman charged with advocating for their interests. More importantly, ORs become more effective by enhancing communication with both owners and the team.
Technology is currently helping to evolve the traditional role of the OR. With the right tools, owner’s representatives can become catalysts for change in the industry and owners can finally take back control.