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Customise smart software to transform your working life

23 January 2020

Architects that consider themselves technophobes might be surprised at just how accessible smart software has become. Task management software is growing more ingenious by the day and, crucially, becoming far easier to customise by non-techies.

It is these customisable aspects that really mark a change. Small businesses can now organise their data and tailor software to their own highly specific projects and unique ways of working. Making the most of these facilities can transform the way architects run their businesses.

Tomas Millar, director of Millar+Howard Workshop, is an architect with self-confessed techie leanings. What he sees is that customisable data management software has become rapidly accessible to everyone.

Hybrid software that blends spreadsheet and database functionalities can be particularly useful. It can be used for both project management and business management: speeding up processes, ensuring that nothing slips and providing an extra level of supervision over practice activity.

Millar uses Airtable, but it is by no means the only task or data management software out there: alternatives include Asana and Trello, among others. All are designed to allow businesses to structure their own data and create bespoke functions.

“Architects juggle hundreds of different tasks,” Millar states. “This kind of software can be set up for different very specific tasks quickly and easily with no specialist knowledge. It can empower someone with zero experience to create something useful for a practice.”

At his own practice, Millar has about ten “bases” in use - a base being a standalone tool, just as a single spreadsheet is in Excel - for tasks such as Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and sophisticated project management.

“We use it to oversee progress of potential clients and work. ‘Prospects’ are tracked in categories such as: ‘initial response’; ‘waiting to hear back’; ‘arranged to see’; or ‘prepare the fee’. We are hoping to develop this into an architect’s toolkit that others could make use of.”

Bases can be internal resources, or they can be shared by invitation: a CRM base could be shared with a client for inputting and recording their decision making and actions. This can make monitoring a project much more orderly, removing ambiguity and reducing the risk of disputes.

Millar+Howard Workshop have used the software to produce a project management guide for self-builders, which has been downloaded more than 150 times. Another area of practice life that can benefit is CPD scheduling for staff: Millar put together a base to track the practice’s CPD in around ten minutes.

Perhaps the most appealing factor of such software is that it tends to be free, or offered in tiered packages with a powerful free entry-level version.

Smart software is growing ever smarter, and can be employed to take some of the strain and imprecision from project and business management

Automation of repetitive or even quite complex office tasks is now within easy reach of the non-coding practitioner. Millar is a fan of software that can link and optimise functions carried out by multiple pieces of standard software. Integromat is one example, which Millar has used in conjunction with Slack, a corporate chat app similar to WhatsApp.

A staff member could access a client base and automatically generate and send out tenders, to give one example. Equally, staff could make use of information stored within linked systems and receive a software-generated answer.

Millar has explored this functionality to ask software for a recommended construction contract for a particular project. The software has asked its own questions to narrow down the search and subsequently given a recommendation, with a link to an explanation of how it made its decision.

He has directed an artificial intelligence algorithm at the Building Regulations and can now ask it questions rather than manually search through reams of text. For a busy practice, having a digitally enabled extra pair of eyes can be a useful tool, especially during frenetic periods when mistakes can easily be made.

Small practices are ideally placed to benefit from this imminent DIY revolution in business software systems, Millar suggests. He has probably queried his systems already to have this confirmed.

Thanks to Tomas Millar, Director, Millar+Howard Workshop.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas

RIBA Core Curriculum Topic: Business, clients and services.

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