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ArchiAdmin in the Press

CAD at the business end

Copy of article in Multi-cad May 1999 Volume 7 Number 4

By technical editor Geoff Harrod

Bullet Managing the business side of design office work can be a lot easier. Here's how Thomson Adsett Architects use ArchiAdmin Financial Management Software to good advantage.


o you've got the latest and greatest CAD system - now what about using your computers to help keep the business running smoothly and to ensure you steer that sometimes rather fine line between making a good profit or a loss on each job?
There is a wide choice of software systems for business management, but a system designed specially for businesses that revolve around groups of professional designers such as architects is rather rare, and the needs of those typical CAD-using businesses are rather different from retail and manufacturing businesses. So I was very interested to be shown a system designed for such practices, and to speak with management staff of a large architectural firm that has adopted it.
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It is increasingly a fact of business life that the margin between profit and loss making is narrowing, and at the same time, the complexities of business methods, costs and interrelationships are making it more difficult for managers to clearly see at any one time which side of the line they are tending toward.

Cost Problem

Too often a trend goes unobserved until a cost problem has already grown excessively. Software that can track the work and costs, and show the status at all times, is much needed.

Greg Dewar is managing director of ArchiAdmin. Greg is himself an architect and very conversant with the factors involved in running an architectural practice, which is what led him into developing this software system.

He describes his product as "Time and finance management for construction professionals". It was developed directly for Thomson Adsett and designed to suit any organisation of a similar type, and is now ready to be offered to the wider market. Although developed for an architectural practice, its focus is on the type of work that architects do (eg, building developments) and the way that professionals work in a practice, and so it is also well suited to consulting engineering practices.
ArchiAdmin is designed to closely link with an accounting system and any contacts management software that may already be in use. It is in many ways the design office equivalent to the software systems that retail businesses use to manage inventory levels and ordering, or the software systems that manage materials ordering, staff time costing and sub-contracting for a manufacturing business. Some accounting products provide job cost management features, but those are often found to be not adequate. In particular, accounting systems need to 'close off' at the end of the financial year, and, although most allow the option of retaining the previous year's data on-line, the sheer mass of financial detail in any fairly large firm often dictates that closed-off data be moved off-line. But the time-line of financial tracking for job management must relate to each job's life span and not be broken by arbitrary accounting year periods.

Hence the two functions need to be handled separately.

As may be expected, ArchiAdmin is essentially a specialised database system, and it can be set up to work with a wide range of database products. This enables it to be installed to use an existing company data system and to use a data system of a size and type appropriate to the size of the organisation. In the case of Thomson Adsett, it runs with the Paradox database product. For a larger company, or one with operations control spread over several locations, a client/server SQL system would be more appropriate.

Thomson Adsett Architects is a firm of architects with offices around Australia and overseas. Its Australian offices - in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Rockhampton, Queensland's Sunshine Coast, Toowoomba and the NSW Northern Rivers - are all centralised in the Brisbane office so far as the financial aspects of job management are concerned. They operate various profit centres, or workgroups, in each of the larger offices, and staff from various workgroups and remote offices are sometimes 'contracted' to others to suit the patterns of workload and the inevitable upsets to planned schedules. It was always a rather laborious task for the financial controllers to keep track of the costing of the various staff's time to the various jobs and to adjust the allocation of overheads appropriately between the jobs.

Software systems sometimes tend to model an idealised business world. In practice, things do not always work out as planned, and the system needs to be able to handle the variations that arise and appropriately model them into the overall scheme. For example, if a job is needed in a rather short time by the client, then higher staff levels and overtime work rates may be costed into the quotation. However, if events force a job to fall behind schedule and overtime work is needed to catch up, but the delay was not caused by any client actions, then the system needs to track the overtime costs incurred but not to charge them out to the client. ArchiAdmin can handle those sort of situations.

The ArchiAdmin system focuses primarily on the projects in hand. It also maintains a database of personnel contacts and automatically maintains links between that and the projects the people are engaged upon to relate to. The project data subsystem embodies many of the elements of a project management system so far as that relates to financial management. It can also link with fully-fledged project management software when those facilities are also needed.

The main tool for day-to-day input into the ArchiAdmin is its timesheets system. This can be kept running as a background task and popped up to enter data as work proceeds. Time can be recorded by starting and stopping its counter. It was found that it was not altogether practical to automate this by linking directly to the 'time in editor' type of feature that many CAD products have, as that can produce rather misrepresentative figures quite often. If desired, however, it could be done. The timesheet entry forms are quite simple and self-evident. Actual overtime worked is entered as such at the time, regardless of whether it is to be charged to the job. That aspect is handled separately.

A large part of the system's power and value comes from its wealth of report facilities. These are programmed to give up-to-date analyses by being calculated at the time of the request directly from the current raw data. The available reports are grouped into three categories. For 'Project', there are reports for Listing of projects, Details, Progress, Cashflow and Ledger. For 'Dept' (which includes any cost centres or profit centres the firm may use): Project progress, Cashflow, Office earnings, Inter-departmental costings. For the 'Time' category: Time analysis detail, Timesheets.

Timesheet Details
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Entering Data

Of course, full access to all reports may not be desired for all staff who have access for entering data, and access to reports is subject to the network user access control system.

The Project's reports show, among other things, the current state of the work relative to the project budget and schedule. Cashflow reports can show both average and by-month figures, either in relation to projects or departments. The Office earnings reports show actual and billed figures, and work done in relation to budget stages. The Inter-departmental costing report system also handles the allocating of costs between departments or profit centres when resources or personnel are shared between centres for some projects.

Linkages to accounting systems are currently available for MYOB, Attache, Sterling and CDF. Others can be added. Most firms run their accounts monthly and would generate the output to ArchiAdmin at that time.

Another aspect of ArchiAdmin that Thomson Adsett finds valuable, and others are sure to also, is its automated correspondence and documentation support. This compromises a large library of template files for Word, Excel and Project, most of which use macros heavily. The macros link with the ArchiAdmin database tables, and menus, and are sensitive to the content of the report or form being used.

When these are invoked, they bring up a new document, spreadsheet etc with a lot of relevant detail already entered by means of the macros, depending on the context of the ArchiAdmin user at the time.
This system greatly reduces the need to write memos and letters. For routine covering letters and transmittal advices it will usually do all that is needed by itself. In other cases it will at least fill in the basic outline, such as addressee and topic header.

Configuring a new ArchiAdmin installation to match the user firm's situation and practices does not require any programming techniques, only on-screen form-filling. It could usually be done by the firm's staff, unless any custom programmed extras are needed. But in most cases it makes more cost-benefit sense to have the ArchiAdmin suppliers do the setup, as they will invariably get it done faster and with less change of error because of their experience.

ArchiAdmin is a valuable aid to running a design office profitably and is, I think, at present unique in addressing the needs of design offices so thoroughly.
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