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Peer-to-peer evaluation, collaboration shows success

Professional peer advisory groups can serve as an outlet for the sharing of best practices, resolution of common challenges and development of key growth strategies.

While much attention has been focused on the benefits of peer collaboration by small businesses, larger established corporations are realizing the advantages of structured interaction with businesses similar to their own.

Peer Collaboration“Peer collaboration assists companies by allowing them to learn from each other; and it drives innovation,” says Brian Swenty, Ph.D. P.E., professor and chair for the mechanical and civil engineering program at the University of Evansville.

Dr. Swenty serves as a practicing engineer, professor and adviser to tomorrow’s construction and engineering leaders. He understands the importance of a collaborative spirit in today’s business environment.

“Peers understand the short- and long-term challenges a company faces, especially economic, environmental, and societal factors. Peer-to-peer collaboration benefits all parties,” says Dr. Swenty.

Phil Kenney, F.A. Wilhelm Construction Company president, experienced the success of peer groups when he served as president of Freitag-Weinhardt, Wilhelm’s mechanical contracting affiliate. Kenney knew applying the concept to F.A. Wilhelm Construction would only strengthen the company.

“I found my involvement with the Mechanical Contractors Association to be of great value and really experienced the benefits of peer collaboration,” says Kenney.

F.A. Wilhelm Construction Company made the decision to harness the power of peer-to-peer partnership in 2002 when it joined a national peer group with six similar construction firms from California, Colorado, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin.

When the leaders of the member companies first met, their initial goal was to provide in-depth reviews of each company’s operations, share best practices and seek avenues of continuous improvement.

Kenney recalls the satisfaction that came with initial successes of the peer group. “The early years of this effort achieved outstanding results. The sharing of information among the firms provided real opportunities for measurable process improvements. These opportunities have multiplied as our companies increase the commitment to the process.”

A key part of the peer group process is the trust among its members, both personally and companywide. As financial information, people and processes are freely exchanged between peer group members, confidentiality is essential to the success of the group.

“There is always a fear that sharing “best practices” with potential competitors will result in a loss of market share, but exposure to best-practices fuels innovation,” says Dr. Swenty.

Wilhelm has seen this innovation in action at all levels of the company. From risk management and trends in insurance plans to contract language and surety rates changes, the peer companies on the east and west coasts have provided “lessons learned” before affects seen in the Midwest.

New software and improved information technology procedures have been implemented based on feedback from peer group members. Reviews of payment software and revisions to financial report language have been discussed in accounting following receipt of information from peer companies.

Operations has rolled out the use of Bluebeam software, technology to create, edit and markup PDF files. Wilhelm Project Engineer Justin Lawhorn networked with a project engineer from a peer group company in California on the advantages of Bluebeam.

Safety processes and procedures have improved. The free exchange of people, equipment and best practices have been part of the continuous improvement managed by Doug Taylor, Wilhelm’s corporate safety director, and our safety managers.

Estimators have collaborated on databases and building information modeling, implemented a benchmarking process where unit and material costs for typical buildings are included, and even shared bid schedules.

“Peer reviews of estimates allow us to be more competitive and increases cost-certainty,” says Andy Lock, Wilhelm’s chief estimator.

The business development groups have found benefits in leveraging each other’s industry experience. Instead of viewing each other competitors, the companies have come together to collaborate on project opportunities.

The evolution of Wilhelm’s peer group experience resulted in the formation of National Construction Solutions Group™ (NCSG™).

The NCSG™ member firms participate in all construction market segments. As an active member of NCSG™, each firm has access to similar state-of-the-art project historical cost data, delivery systems, means and methods, preconstruction value and systems analysis, as well as project personnel with specific expertise. When coupled with each firm’s experience and assigned project staff, the group offers a value added, unique perspective to the planning and execution of projects across the United States.

Wilhelm has been introduced to healthcare and warehousing opportunities through the peer-to-peer alliance. And conversely, Wilhelm has supported peer partners with parking, pharmaceutical, and museum experience.

“Doug May, Wilhelm project superintendent, was instrumental in assisting our peer company in Wisconsin land a contract with the Milwaukee Art Museum based on his success at the Indianapolis Museum of Art,” says Kenney.

Dr. Swenty sees a greater emphasis on peer collaboration among companies compared to 20 years ago. “Company mergers and buy-outs occur daily, but companies that are leaders focus not simply on survival but on opportunities for growth…and often this is driven by collaboration with peers. Failure to engage in peer collaboration limits a construction company’s ability to expand professional contacts, engage in joint ventures, and collaborate on other business. Change can be daunting, but peer collaboration removes some of the fear and equips companies to grow and thrive.”

“If we do not stay involved with the peer-to-peer process, we will be left behind the rest of the industry, becoming old, tired and stagnate. I will not allow Wilhelm to become just another construction company. We will remain leaders in our industry,” says Kenney.

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