Data Integration Caveat

November 12th, 2010 by admin

OK, I’m convinced! I definitely want to buy an “integrated” construction software system.

Well, not so fast.

Unfortunately, there is a fair amount of latitude taken among some construction software makers in how they define the term “integrated data”. Some software companies market their software as being “integrated”, when in fact it is only able to copy data from one part of the system to another. So the data still exists in separate instances for each functional part of the program. This is better than having to enter it into each program module from scratch, but not much better.

The problem with that approach is that, once you copy data from one module to another, you must make any updates to the data in all places where that same data exists. You can’t update the data in one module and then re-copy it to another module, because that will over-write the changes that you made to the data in the second module. So in systems like that, you are forever required to make updates to the same data in as many places as it exists.

That’s not data integration in our book.

The only truly integrated construction software systems are systems in which the data exists in a single central database, where all data is entered only once, where all information only exists in a single instance of itself (information is not duplicated anywhere in the system), and where changes to data entered in one part of the program are instantaneously reflected in all other parts of the program. That’s data integration.

So how do you tell if a software system is truly integrated or not?

One easy way to tell whether the data in a system is truly integrated is if the system is based on Microsoft Office (Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, Project schedules). If a software system is based on Microsoft Office, then the data is not integrated.

Software systems that are based on Microsoft Office (UDA ConstructionSuite, for example) are not integrated because the data can only exist in separate files (Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, Project files, etc.) You can copy data from one source to another, but, as described above, when you do, you are creating multiple instances of the same data. So when information about the job changes (as it does every day), you must update that information in every place that information exists in the system (and make sure you remember where it all is!). Also, when you make changes to information in one part of the program, since that data is separate from data in the rest of the system, those changes are not reflected in other parts of the system.

What about construction software that integrates with software made by other software companies, like QuickBooks? Is that really integrated?

Good question. There are many construction software companies who advertise that their system integrates with QuickBooks. But look out. QuickBooks integration is another issue that has multiple definitions. Many construction software systems advertise that they are integrated with QuickBooks when really they are only able to export data that can be imported into QuickBooks. Again, this is another example of duplicating data resulting in the problems that come from that: when information in your construction system changes, you will need to re-export it and re-import it into QuickBooks. Or you will need to manually make the same changes in QuickBooks that you did in your construction software system. That’s not real data integration.

But QuickBooks has it’s own database, so data has to exist in both systems, right?

Right. But QuickBooks provides other software developers with an “application programming interface” (API) which allows other software companies to write programs to automate the synchronization of data between two systems. So even though the data does physically exists in both systems, a program can be written to automatically and transparently maintain the synchronization of data between the two systems – in real time. That’s data integration.

So, if you are considering a construction software system that is advertised to integrate with QuickBooks, make sure you find out whether the synchronization of data between the two systems is managed automatically, in real time, or whether that has to be done manually, or in batch update mode.

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