Building on Success
Hill International takes project management systems to new heights.
by Carol Hildebrand, May 2010
At first glance, you might be tempted to classify Hill International as a construction company. After all, the Marlton, New Jersey-based firm was recently rated by Engineering News-Record magazine as the eighth-largest construction management firm in the U.S., and the company has managed such marquee projects as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s Comcast Center and the Qatar Silhouette Tower Intercontinental Hotel and Conference Centre in Qatar’s capital city, Doha. But Hill executives have a slightly different take.
“We’re really in the business of risk management,” says Shawn Pressley, vice president of project management systems and development at the company. “In the last couple of decades, construction has become a risk-shifting game, as owners try to shed the risk to contractors, who then shed it downwards. One of the things we’ve based our success on is being able to eat that risk on behalf of the owner.”
This evolution of Hill International’s approach to large-scale engineering and construction project (and risk) management has been driven, in part, by management’s embrace of technology. This is no small effort in an industry that Gartner ranked among the last in technology spending in 2009. Gartner found that the agriculture, mining, and construction industries spent US$29.7 billion on IT in 2009—more than US$500 billion less than financial services, the biggest-spending industry sector.
But leaders at Hill have made technology a core part of how they deliver value to their clients, and that shows in their results. Hill is the fastest-growing firm in the U.S. and Canada among the top 200 architecture, engineering, and construction firms, according to the Zweig Letter, an influential newsletter that covers the construction industry.
“The reason Hill has been so successful growing globally is because they have the right people and very smart processes in place, and they use technology to underpin those processes. It allows them to take what may traditionally be a high-risk project and make the risk more manageable,” says Richard Sappé, engineering and construction industry strategist at the Oracle Primavera Global Business Unit in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. “They are taking on risk and have the confidence and ability to do that very well.”
The result: a global résumé studded with multi-million-dollar projects completed on time and on budget—allowing Hill to successfully tackle ever-larger and more-challenging projects.
Historically, Hill International’s IT strategy has focused on giving project managers the flexibility to use the tools they need to do their jobs. That meant employees used their own processes—and technology tools they selected themselves—regardless of their efficacy. This resulted in the siloed, heterogeneous IT environment—with critical enterprise data trapped on user desktops—that is so prevalent in fast-growing companies.
Despite the common problems that arise from such an IT environment, there was a surprising outcome. As they had with other technologies, Hill project managers chose Oracle’s Primavera solutions on their own, using them for new projects all over the globe.
Primavera software was first used for the reclamation of Palm Jumeirah, a US$2.8 billion project involving one of three artificial islands planned in the Arabian Gulf off the coast of Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Hill also managed the construction of 1,300 villas on the island. Right from the start, Hill project managers lauded the software’s abilities. “The trick with Primavera was its ease of use, usability, and how cost effective the licensing was,” says Pressley. “It scaled and deployed easily.” In fact, the project went so well that Palm Jumeirah was recognized in 2005 as the International Project of the Year by the Construction Management Association of America.
As the use of the Primavera solution reached critical mass, management realized it needed a strategy designed to extract full business value from the software. It wasn’t enough to implement separate modules, such as contract management or risk management. “Hill recognized that everything is interconnected, from design to subcontractors to owners,” says Sappé.
Now the leadership at Hill has built a reputation for successful technology adoption and standardization, launching an integrated project management strategy based on Oracle’s Primavera applications that manages risk and enhances productivity, efficiency, and collaboration across the entire project management cycle.