Fresh from its win at the Building Innovation Awards, SymTerra’s John Ryan talks to Build in Digital about its intuitive project management tool that’s liberating site communication from the ground up
Frustrated by the way legacy reporting systems fragment so much vital project information on construction projects, John Ryan and Sarah Crawley decided they were going to do something about it.
They began to devise a solution and assembled a team to make it happen, developing a flexible, yet concise platform to “democratise” information and make it readily accessible for every party across the supply chain. The result is SymTerra.
“The whole essence of SymTerra is that it is a communication platform that allows easy, instant and intuitive communication between all of your contractors on the same project,” John said.
In a sense, you might say the platform is the dream tool both he and Sarah wish they’d had in their years as construction professionals out there in the field.
Between them, they have over 25 years of experience in site management and engineering, working on projects from major infrastructure to high-spec medical facilities, so they were well acquainted with the issues.
Part of the problem is huge volume and flexibility of information technology as it has evolved over the past two decades or so. This has only accelerated all the more in the era of the smartphone and mobile apps.
Powerful – and malleable – tools that capture and communicate information have never been so readily available, but the means to track and collate that information – and generate meaningful intelligence from the data – has lagged way behind.
Whether it’s the old workhorses like email and Excel spreadsheets, or newer tools such as WhatsApp, their very nature leads to fragmentation of data. Important business tools they remain, but not entirely suited to the great collaborative symposium that is construction.
“You can use them for everything from your shopping list through to managing a mega-project,” John explains. “That caused a lot of problems, because everyone had their own spreadsheet, they had their own WhatsApp group, so you ended up with a lot of really critical information in the business being spread across multiple teams and platforms. People just weren’t benefiting from the information they were capturing, and worryingly, companies were being exposed to critical gaps of data leading to significant commercial disputes.”
Things become even worse once you begin to consider the tools that capture information and submit it up the chain to project management teams in the form of PDFs.
Even a relatively modest-scale project can generate hundreds of pages of such documents, stored on a server – or multiple servers – each readable only once it’s opened and scanned by eye.
As John points out, the sheer volume of such documents generated quickly becomes humanly impossible to read, let alone to analyse.
In a sense, then, you might say such systems have become a graveyard of lost information; to the detriment of the business and the project.
Little wonder, then, that back in 2020, John and Sarah – co-founders and directors of the company – decided to find a way to capture the information in a way that liberates the data.
The company itself is a newcomer, having been formally launched just over a year ago, but the belief – and the hard work – the SymTerra team have invested in the platform has clearly paid off.
As readers of Build in Digital will know, SymTerra impressed the judges at this year’s Building Innovation Awards, where it won the trophy for Most Innovative On-Site Monitoring Tool. It’s an added endorsement of a product that has a steadily growing client base, large and small companies in construction and infrastructure, for opening up essential channels of information sharing.
Information wants to be free
“SymTerra – the whole essence of it – is a communication platform that allows easy, instant and intuitive communication across all of your contractors on the same project,” John says.
And not just the main contractors, either but across the subcontractors and supply chain, too; it keeps everyone on the same page.
“You can document progress,” John adds. “You can update issues via images and video; you can bring in your digital tool model, your programme, your schedule of works, all in the same place – and cross-reference that information.”
That’s not all, as John further explains: SymTerra enables its users to cross-link with other critical components, such as geographic information systems, and digital twin models.
“We’re democratising access to the data,” John says. “The data doesn’t die in existing documents.”
In effect, SymTerra makes construction projects more visible, more accessible – and more assessable. It provides a one-stop-shop for communication, collating it in a searchable form.
De-fragmenting the information in this way is a powerful enough offer, of course, but SymTerra doesn’t just leave it there. There’s another critical role it plays in liberating the data.
First off, it automates the reporting function. This means less time spent on admin in the office, and more time with ‘boots on ground’ doing what construction professionals originally signed up to do – build things.
“Typically, you’d do a day-end report, a week-end report, and month-end reporting; SymTerra does all of that automatically,” says Ryan. “That’s reducing the workload of everybody from the supervisors, through the construction managers, to the project managers. That allows them to focus on their actual job, and not be sat in an office doing Excel spreadsheets and drawing graphs to put in a PowerPoint presentation.”
Second, SymTerra allows for the information to be analysed; where once all that information was ‘digital dead weight’ clogging up a hard-drive, now it’s data that can be sifted for meaningful business intelligence.
“You start identifying trends, patterns, and insights into your business,” says John.
This might be aspects of the business, or particular projects, that are under-performing compared to others. Project managers can identify where problems are occurring, leading to the formulation of solutions. Likewise, strong performance in other projects, can be interrogated to understand how this might be applied elsewhere – to the overall benefit of the business.
“SymTerra allows you to focus on the ‘hotspot’ problem areas so that you can make sure they are successfully delivered,” John adds. “That will obviously improve the overall profitability of the business.”
Boosting productivity, and therefore profitability, is obviously a crucial purpose for SymTerra to deliver, but John is keen to point out it doesn’t end with the reduction in admin costs. The platform is built to go on paying for itself – its powerful analytical tools allow users to get beneath the skin of their business, and understand where to generate greater efficiencies.
“The more you use SymTerra, the more projects you have on it, the more insight you have,” John says. “The next time you do a certain type of project, you look at the SymTerra history, and see all the problem areas.
“That means the next time you do a similar project, you’re making better decisions, making it more efficient, and improving your profit margins.”
We’ve all heard the old adage that information is power; if so, then SymTerra is about letting it flow, so that project teams can work together more seamlessly; smarter, not harder.
“We see ourselves as being a data pipeline focusing on engineering assurance and commercial defensibility” John says. “A lot of contech out there is top-down. There’s little out there that’s actually focused on site and doing a bottom-up approach to data management.
“We provide a full feedback loop for a project to ensure it has full visibility. We’re one of the few companies that are actually built by construction people. We have that very unique insight.”
Indeed, insight gained from first-hand experience. As the company greets visitors to its website, SymTerra is: “Quicker than emails. Better than WhatsApp. Less soul destroying than paper.”
Build in Digital Stakeholder SymTerra is a construction site management software firm that provides a simple, instant and integrated method for the entire supply chain of any project to communicate, collaborate and capture vital information at the point of work.
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