Rod Schatz – McElhanney
On the surface, consulting and direct sales have little in common. Both, however, rely on a pitch—and staff expertise.
For the Vancouver based firm, McElhanney, that pitch (and expertise) is project support from the planning to the construction stage, in industries from civil engineering and geomatics to landscape architecture and environmental consulting.
In fact, many clients are drawn to the company because the employees live in small towns, so McElhanney offers—or sells—a personalized touch versus the larger engineering firms based in metropolitan cities. As Rod Schatz explains, however, with COVID-19 forcing remote operations instead of in-person visits with clients, the staff are only as good as their technology.
As its vice president of technology, Schatz and his staff are automating processes—human resources to project delivery and everything in between—that were being done manually at the 111-year-old company.
“We turned our focus inward,” Schatz recalled. “Even before the quarantine mandates were in place, we began collaborating and asking, ‘what happens if the world shuts down, and how do we protect our staff so we can continue business productivity and delivering client projects?’”
Peace of mind
The answer, according to Schatz, was The Wellness App to track employee’s health.
“We developed the app 100 percent in house in record time. We rolled out a dashboard for the app in three days,” Schatz recalls. “It helped that we were already considering what tools we’d need if quarantine mandates were put in place.”
Although the idea for the app was his, his team collaborated with the company’s executives, as well as its health and safety group and human resources, to develop it.
For use on devices including phones, the application asks employees daily about their physical health, including COVID-19 related symptoms. It then provides guidance on whether they should work or take a sick day. If the latter, the app provides details on next steps: who to contact and how to allow the company to perform contact tracing.
The app also gathers this data and presents it to the firm’s managers as well as the executives. Analyzing the data allowed them to provide employees with wide range of resources, Schatz says.
The app was controversial before its launch, as some employees felt it would be invasive. As the quarantine mandates fell in place, however, the app provided employees a tether to the company, their coworkers and resources, he says.
To help overcome the employee resistance, Schatz had motivational quotes appear on screen after the employees hit submit. He says these quotes—ranging from those spoken by Helen Keller and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Albus Dumbledore—tended to brighten their days.
“In fact, the wife of one of our employees wrote us a letter extolling the app, saying how it helped them feel connected to the company and that the company cared for them,” Schatz shares.
As the McElhanney offices open again in September, some employees will continue working remotely, so the app will evolve accordingly, Schatz says. For example, employees will use the app to book “hotel office” space in one of 33 offices, and the app will also track if the company office spaces are following provincial COVID-19 mandates, such as disinfecting, social distancing and providing sanitizer.
The complete picture
Alongside new programs like The Wellness App, Schatz and his staff are also updating traditional programs. For instance, his team and one of the business units are tackling a remote sensing method that uses pulsed lasers to measure ranges and distance.
Offered to clients of the company, and known as lidar, usually its deployed by airplanes, where it takes pictures of the Earth. Engineers can then use these pictures to build bridges and roads with high accuracy. Pipeline companies can ascertain if pipe right of ways are clear of vegetation, too, eliminating fire hazards and other potential issues.
Currently, lidar used by the business provides a massive amount of raw data, while many of McElhanney’s clients would prefer just the picture.
“We want to provide the client with the easy-to-decipher product, not give them more work,” Schatz says.
Artificial intelligence will eventually be used to achieve this, giving McElhanney a more user-friendly product. The result will not only improve services to current customers, Schatz hopes, but will also help McElhanney to attract new clients who can’t process raw lidar data.
“If we can analyze and convert raw data into refined data with speed and scale, we will begin to touch niche markets while improving service in our current markets,” Schatz says.
Adding a page to the digital world
Schatz says he has always been drawn to technological advancements. After he completed a diploma in architectural technology at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, he graduated from the University of Alberta with a master’s in science in earth and atmospheric sciences.
He didn’t stop reading after college, though. He currently owns over 500 books on topics from digital transformation to business models and company culture. He’s so passionate about these topics that, in 2017, he co-authored a book with Anshuman Khare and Brian Stewart: “Phantom Ex Machina: Digital Disruption’s Role in Business Model Transformation.”
“When I’m not working on McElhanney’s BHAG, our ‘big hairy audacious goal’ to be Canada’s ACE consultant, I’m constantly devouring books about digital innovation,” Schatz says. “When I take a break from going through my mountains of books, I’ll cycle in the trails in the Edmonton River valley ecosystem.”
Proof, perhaps, that consulting can happen in any environment.
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