What are the software solutions for running Landscape architecture firms?

Landscape architecture firms, both big and small, are using technology in a myriad of ways to operate their businesses. These firms are at various stages of growth, adoption and development. Although this discussion may be dull, how you approach developing the software ecosystem for operating a design firm can impact its success and culture. The following is a guide for all firms, no matter what stage of development and seeks to provide some insights.

Communications, Collaboration

There are numerous technology platforms available for communications (email, chat) and collaboration (video conferencing). There are three common platforms or ecosystems that firms adopt: Microsoft, Google or multi-platform(Outlook, Webex, Miro, etc.). In recent years many of these platforms have either launched or moved to the cloud. With Microsoft, you can use Office 365, which includes email, file sharing, skype, word, etc. and with Google Workspace and its Gmail, Meet, Drive, Docs, Calendar, etc. The alternative to committing to one provider is to use different software providers, some of which are free software such as Thunderbird, Yahoo Mail, ProtonMail, FreeOffice, LibreOffice, and many more.

There are pros and cons of using Google and Microsoft compared to using a multi-provider approach(select different software for each use). With Google and Microsoft they have an ecosystem with many connected apps on different platforms (PC, Mac, iOS, Android, etc.), allowing interconnectivity between the various software and apps. This does away with emailing links or files between different software apps (e.g. emailing a meeting link compared to Office where the link is in the calendar invite). Mult-provider approach has the benefit that you can build your own eco-system of software within your firm that suits your workflow, and you can adopt new software at any time. However, using a multi-provider ecosystem with a mix of free and fee software has its problems as some software does work together, and over time, the costs start to build-up to the point where it may be more expensive to run and maintain.

File Storage and Workflows

Looking back 10 years, you really had only a few choices for storing files and developing workflows. After the initial period of running files on multiple desktops, most firms would have to invest heavily in servers, networks, backup drives, and more. Whereas today you have the opportunity to either install network-attached storage unit (NAS) or use put everything in the cloud (Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive, etc.) where you hire the server space, and someone else maintains it. Installing your own server hardware and software is still an option but can be more expensive.

There are pros and cons to owning your own network compared to going to the cloud. Owning your own network allows you to be comfortable that the software’s security, access, and speed are up to your firm’s resources. The cost difference between cloud-based (internet servers) and location-based (your own servers) is significant. Cloud-based storage initial costs are minimal, whereas the initial cost to install servers can be quite expensive. However, there is a point when the cost of providing employees with a cloud account mat be far greater than owning and maintaining your own hardware (servers) and software. Although in recent times, the cost of data storage has dropped; thus, cloud services have lowered their fees or increased the storage allowances for accounts.

Project Management

There are varying levels of sophistication for managing projects with software; it can start with a simple excel spreadsheet, then moving to Microsoft project or planner and then into services such as monday.com, Asana, Wrike, etc. and then into Aconex, ProjectWise and then into BQ Core, BST and Deltek. With greater sophistication comes greater cost as you move from each type of project management workflow to the next; it allows you to manage more projects, more people, and processes. You have to select which workflow is right for you and the size of your firm. Small firms may be happy with a centralised spreadsheet on the cloud, and others want to transition to the new platforms such as Monday and Trello that provide a platform with templates, workflows and notifications. It is best to work through your current workflow/s and determine the best solution and seek other firms’ advice (not just landscape architects) or professional IT consultants.

CRM (Customer Relations Management)

CRM’s are either loved or hated by landscape architects and business managers. Depending on the size of the company they can really assist with tracking incoming and outgoing phone calls, emails, proposals/quotations. It As stated previously it comes down to your level of comfort and sophistication to whether you use a simple spreadsheet, or opt to use a software package such as Hubspot, Freshworks, Zoho. Tracking your clients, opportunities and proposals is key to determining your current and future work, so investing in a CRM software may be worth the investment.

Accounting, Finance and Payroll/Salary processing software

When selecting accounting and finance software for your firm you need to take into account the following factors:

Does the software work in your country and with your suppliers?
The biggest factor in selecting your accounting software will be whether it can produce the files or information that you are required to provide to your accountant and tax authorities. Some software is very tailored to one or two regions such as the USA or Europe, or Asia due to where it was developed and the size of their customer base. This can cause issues such as incorrect tax rates, accounts recording and employee payments.

Can it connect with your bank or payment or payroll provider?
In an increasingly digital world where the money is transferred electronically between clients to consultants and consultants to employees and suppliers, it is best to determine whether the software can connect and communicate with your bank. Of course, this may not be the case in your country as the banking system may still issue paper statements or a single file format that has to be downloaded and uploaded.

The best approach is to speak with your accountant and find out the best accounting software from their experience and client’s experiences.

Costs

The costs of software and maintaining the software and associated hardware need to consider the size, growth expectations and style of business management. The initial costs may be low (free or minimal amounts), but the ongoing costs may be high either due to cost per account(per month) or increased maintenance requirements. The best approach is to decide where your company is now, what you aspire it to be (people and culture) and then predict the cost (in monetary and culture terms) and budget for future expansion and costs.

When calculating the long-term costs of software (and associated hardware), it is worth considering how the software may increase efficiency, which may offset the initial and ongoing costs through less time (billable or not) spent completing tasks and processes.

Recommendations, Trials, Evaluation, Decision

To select the right software for your company, it is key to seek recommendations from IT consultants, other firms, and allied professionals (architects, engineers). It is also key to trial the software with a few employees to see if it suits the way you work and whether it meets the company’s expectations and needs. It will also help if you can evaluate whether it meets the company’s future needs as constantly changing software leads to less user engagement and disgruntled teams.

Deciding on which software to go with is hard and depends on your company’s size. It is best to weigh up the benefits, costs and time to implement and train employees. Sometimes these costs can outweigh the software costs and benefits.

Adoption and Training

Getting adoption can sometimes be hard and, other times, be very easy, but there are few ways you can make the transition smoother. After having a few people trial the software and have decided to use it across the business, you need to communicate that the change is coming to your employees, so they are comfortable and have an opportunity to ask questions. The next step is to get some people trained as experts either through the software company (inhouse or online tutorials) or have an external supplier/trainer come and provide training.

Improving over time

Choosing and implementing software to help employees work efficiently can be a long hard road. Always seek advice from other consultants, consultants and your suppliers (accountants, lawyers, etc). After a period of time, you will see your company learn, adapt and grow which can be rewarding for the managers and teams.

This article sort to answer the questions around selecting software for running a landscape architecture firm. Of course, you can use the same approach when selecting production software but there are other factors to consider.

What are the software solutions for running Landscape architecture firms? article was written by Damian Holmes – Editor of World Landscape Architecture. Neither World Landscape Architecture or Damian received any payment for mentioning the software or services named in this article.

To discuss this topic with the author to provide feedback via email [email protected].

Image Credit: Flickr Andy Rogers

DISCLAIMER: This article is for educational purposes only. The content is intended only to provide a summary and general overview on matters of interest. It’s not intended to be comprehensive, nor to constitute advice. You should always obtain legal or other professional advice, appropriate to your own circumstances, before acting or relying on any of that content. This advice is general in nature.