N.S. construction association puts project data online

The Construction Association of Nova Scotia has rolled out an online system to make its members more competitive, provide instant access to project information and the ability to make bids online.

By streamlining its operations, it

also eliminated a weekly two-day faxing ritual and is saving $1,000 a month on long-distance charges, executives said.

CANS, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1862, represents 640 contractors, suppliers and service providers from the province’s construction industry. In the past, members had to travel to the association’s headquarters in Halifax to bid on construction projects in person.

“We’re a pre-Confederation not-for-profit, so as technology changes, we have had to evolve,” said Carol MacCulloch, president of CANS. The online system was part of a strategy to ensure the survival of the association, she added, which now plays a much larger role in providing commercial intelligence to its members.

Information is time-sensitive and several new projects are posted each day; CANS handles hundreds of projects at any given time. Now, instead of dealing with mundane administrative tasks, the staff of six can focus their efforts on posting new content. The online system allows members to keep track of a specific project, and even receive e-mail alerts when something new has been added.

“(During) the software development process we also reengineered our services and created more of a lifecycle for the information itself,” said MacCulloch.

The association was struggling to maintain accurate membership information with its mix of Microsoft Access and Excel spreadsheets and a legacy PeopleSoft database. In order to update member profiles, CANS staff would manually modify seven disparate databases, and two days each week were spent faxing updates to members.

“They had a lot of systems in place but very few of them were actually online,” said Michael-Andreas Kuttner, project lead with Collideascope, the partner that worked with CANS to design the system. “The challenge was trying to find out which of these databases was most up-to-date, and they were all up-to-date in some aspects. (It was) quite a logistical ordeal to go through.”

If a new member were to come on board, for example, CANS staff would have to make changes in all seven databases, ticking items off a checklist. “They’d have to spend a fair amount of time with this checklist,” he said. “The ability for human error to creep into the process was quite high.”

Collideascope replaced the PeopleServer database with Microsoft SQL Server 2000 and used ASP.NET and Visual Studio development tools to create the site. Members can now get instant access to project information, submit bid proposals online and tailor their communications to specific subject matter. One central administrator in each member company can securely log onto the site to make any changes to its profile, and that update immediately cascades through the entire system – no faxes required.

Next, CANS is planning to launch a continuing education program. “We’ve decided to add on a more sophisticated event registration system so when people sign up for a continuing education course, they can register online, pay online and be able to communicate online,” said MacCulloch.

In CANS’ annual survey, 45 per cent of members rated the new system as excellent, while another 45 per cent rated it as good. CANS has 640 member companies, some with multiple members. Of those, 1,000 have their own user IDs and 800 receive regular communications.

“We have consistently between 500-600 users a month and their average use is 13 sessions a month,” she said. “Those who use it, use it a lot.”

A large chunk of the membership comes in on a daily basis to check for new information, said Kuttner. “More people are buying into the idea of getting this information online.”

But making the site more functional, he adds, has made a difference in people’s willingness to use it on a daily basis. “The relevance of the information is very high compared to many different sites because it’s the lifeblood of a lot of these companies,” he said. “They need this information.”

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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