Students will eventually use these programs in their professional careers and technology helps students maintain their enthusiasm and interest

Using real-world tools to prepare students for the workforce

SmartPM helps students at Minnesota State Mankato learn a valuable lesson in construction scheduling

Key points:

The ramifications of a poorly-developed construction schedule can be catastrophic. Whether it’s delays, overruns, or litigation, an unrealistic or inaccurate project schedule can not only spell the death of a project, but the demise of the company that produced it.

It goes without saying that if young people who are considering a career in construction can master the scheduling process early, there’s a far greater chance they will become adept at creating schedules that are truly useful in successfully guiding a project from start to finish.

That’s one of the goals of the Construction Management Department at Minnesota State University – Mankato, a part of the school’s College of Science, Engineering & Technology. This department has a long history of “providing students with the knowledge and experiences needed to be successful as a manager in construction and construction-related businesses.” As one of the largest programs of its kind in the Midwest, its reputation for excellence has been well-established.

Dr. Mohamed Diab, MBA, PhD, PMP, a professor in the Construction Management Department, is well aware that the schedule is the lifeblood of any major construction project. Consequently, Diab, who has earned accolades in both the professional and academic arenas, incorporates various technology platforms intended to help students learn the scheduling process from the bottom up – as well as learning how to get a wayward schedule back on track.

It’s not just that these are some of the programs these students will eventually use in their professional careers; according to Dr. Diab, technology helps students maintain their enthusiasm and interest.

“Sometimes students get bored,” he observed. “I think technology in general is the way to go for this new generation of students, because this is how they communicate with each other. The more technology you introduce, the more the students are engaged. They would prefer not to have to spend time reading things.”

When they become juniors, Diab’s students are introduced to both Microsoft Project and Primavera, arguably the two most widely-used scheduling platforms in the construction industry. And the students waste no time in putting these programs to the test.

“I bring in all the documentation for projects that have already been built,” Diab said of how the projects are assigned. “These are generally small residential or commercial projects, and only one project is assigned per semester.

“I have access to the actual schedule that was used for the project, but my students do not. I ask them to review all the documents I’ve provided and, using Microsoft Project or P6, create a schedule as if the finished product does not yet exist.”

After they finish scheduling their projects, their work is analyzed, but not by Diab. The students upload their projects to a cloud-based program called SmartPM, a platform for actionable analysis of construction project schedules.

Diab – who is also CEO of Global Evolution and Management Group, which helps small and midsize companies improve their project management and their scheduling techniques – became intrigued with SmartPM through a professional colleague who was already using the platform.

“My friend was telling me about how his company was using a new tool called SmartPM to visualize the project schedule and analyze multiple projects simultaneously, especially in the field,” said Diab. “He said it was actually fun to train people on the program because it was so intuitive. The field operations folks grasped it quickly and are now connected with the office and the scheduling staff.

“So I asked him if we could have access to the program. He talked to [SmartPM CEO] Michael Pink, who immediately said yes. We set up our account in September 2022, and we gave the students access.”

The main feature the students use is the Quality Checker, a tool that analyzes the overall “health” of the students’ schedules. Analyze their projects right in the classroom, the Quality Checker quickly reviews the schedule and highlights any potential problem areas: missing logic, excessive use of float, delays, and trade stacking, all based on the set of critical and common industry practices laid out by the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA). It then assigns a letter grade to the schedule and compiles all the information into a comprehensive report.

The Quality Checker is not only used to check the initial schedule, but also is deployed on a regular basis to keep updating the schedule as needed, all the way to the completion of the project.  

Diab emphasized the visual nature of the Quality Checker, making it much easier for students to comprehend exactly where their schedules are coming up short.

“Sometimes students make little mistakes that will mess up the whole schedule, but they can’t visualize the impact of these mistakes on the whole project,” Diab noted. “I’d point out a mistake that they felt was relatively minor. They couldn’t understand how all the pieces fit together.

“SmartPM provides students with a way to visualize their mistakes and capture the critical risks that could impact the project, and then immediately revise the problem areas.”

The platform also ties back to Diab’s approach of using as much technology as possible to keep students focused.

“Like all our technology, the SmartPM platform holds their interest more than any other method we could use,” he said. “What’s more, it conveys the message that the construction industry isn’t just this dry boring industry. It actually energizes them.

“It also gives them the interest and excitement to plan the schedule to avoid these mistakes in the first place, which is the ultimate goal.”

While the instant analysis and feedback of the SmartPM platform is a major plus for the students, Diab also realizes benefits from the program.

“Before SmartPM, students would submit their assignments, and I would have to look at each schedule,” he said. “And especially if I have large number of students in the class, it might take up to two weeks until they got feedback from me. The immediate feedback from the Quality Checker really helps the students keep their assignments moving along.”

The intuitive nature of the program – how simple it is to learn – is a major plus.

“I didn’t have to spend much time explaining how the program works,” he said. “The students just took a day or so to read the documentation. They do need to work with it a few times to get comfortable, but in a very short time they picked up most of the functions.

“If you use a piece of technology that students can learn easily, that can provide them with interesting output like charts and graphs that they can understand right away, this is the way to go – not just for education but for our industry in general.”

Students do not yet have access to all of SmartPM’s features, but as their skill levels improve, access will be expanded. The integration between SmartPM and Procore, another popular scheduling program that Diab’s students use, is on Diab’s plate; he is hoping to have it completed before the end of the year.

In fact, according to Diab, it’s all part of the evolution of the curriculum to include a wider scope and focus on project controls.

“There is a skills gap in the construction sector,” Diab warned. “The best way to address it – and correct it – is to start with the young people who are seeking to enter our industry. If you wait until they’ve already joined the workforce, it’s too late.”

Tools like SmartPM, Diab believes, are going to help raise a generation of professionals who are far more adept at the scheduling process. And that will prove to be very attractive to the hiring managers seeking fresh, knowledgeable talent.

“Procore developed certificates for the students, indicating their proficiency in the program,” Diab said. “Subsequently, the students connected these certificates to their LinkedIn accounts so they can be seen by job recruiters and industry contacts.

“We want to promote all the tools we’re using as part of our curriculum, including SmartPM. It lets the right people know the tools in which our students are proficient, and it may encourage others to use these tools as well.”

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