In the 1990's, the British construction industry had not been performing as well as it potentially could for several years. The Latham and Egan reports identified the need for improvement in the industry in many aspects. One of these was the efficient and effective implementation of processes & management at both strategic and operational levels.
This report outlines the use of collaborative working technology and applications in multiple areas of construction projects. It will aim to high-light the means to find, explore, analyze, exchange and present information between several frameworks and aspects of the construction company and industry in a more effective and efficient method of communication.
Since the 1930's, the UK construction industry has maintained a strong ambition to improve the conventional design and construction process. This is well documented in literature and has lead to several Government and institutional reports examining this requirement. The practice of construction management has been highlighted as a key aspect requiring improvement and change. Generally, performance for these aspects is measured in terms of cost, time and quality.
In 1994, Sir Michael Latham produced a self-named report commissioned by the UK Government outlining the procurement and contractual arrangements in the construction industry. The report focused on the inefficient methods of communication in the fragmented industry and identified the need for greater partnering and collaboration to benefit themselves and the end-customers.
This influential report highlighted the following recommendations:
1) There has been a call to make changes in previous investigations, however they have not been implemented suggesting the industry might be slightly hesitant or resistant to change.
2) Clients are responsible for initiating major changes in the industry as well as the government.
3) Effective collaboration between clients and contractors is in dire need.
4) Management during the construction life cycle requires an effective overhaul across all processes.
5) Co-ordinated project information should be a contractual requirement.
6) The duties of project managers and indeed all roles in the construction should be more clearly defined.
These recommendations were reinforced by the introduction of Sir John Egan's Rethinking Construction report. While it acknowledged that some parts of the industry were excellent in its current form, it also mentioned that most of the industry was failing to perform satisfactorily and substantial improvements in quality and efficiency were possible.
The reports claimed the industry was too slow, too paper-based and a deep lack of integration between the processes with little focus on whole life assets. They aimed to improve the health and safety, manage time and resources more efficiently while trying to keep costs low, hence increasing profits as well as customer satisfaction.
The use of modern ICT methods can be employed to help achieve these goals. By giving the industry the means and tools to find, explore, analyze, exchange and present information with quick access to required documents, ideas & experiences from a wide range of people, the greater knowledge can achieve greater results.
The Application of Teleworking in Construction Management (ATELCOMA) was delegated by the European Commission in 1999 to:
a) Share experiences on using ICT in construction management
b) Find tools to decrease mobility costs of technical staff
c) Internationalise construction management practices in the European Union
d) Generate a set of training courses about the use of ICT
e) Increase the use of ICT in construction.
The project's results included surprising findings of the openness and eagerness of users to utilise more efficient and advanced computerised methods but requires extensive training and practise.
As the construction industry approaches 2010 and ICT has penetrated all aspects of our daily lives from recreation to work, it is time to heed the reports and call for improvement by aiming towards incorporating ICT collaboration into the industry's practises.
Collaborative working is defined as the interaction of groups or project teams where the communication for business process and project delivery is integrated within a virtual ‘real-time' environment.
In layman's terms, it is the practice or working together, or jointly co-operating, to achieve the required goals through effective mediums of communication and information exchange.
Collaboration as a concept involves:
* Awareness – To become part of a working entity with a shared purpose
* Motivation - To drive to agree in problem solving and/or development
* Self-synchronization - To decide as individuals when things need to happen
* Participation - To participate in collaboration and to expect others to participate
* Mediation - To negotiate and collaborate together and find a middle point
* Reciprocity - To share and to expect sharing in return through reciprocity
* Reflection – To think and consider alternatives
* Engagement - To proactively engage rather than wait and see
In a traditional construction project, the exchange of information would be chaotic as per the diagram below. Information is sent from various sources to others, which may be out of date, incorrect, unchecked. The information may end up unread, discarded and there is no confirmation of receipt in most cases.
However, through the use of collaborative working and collaboration software, such as extranets, we can achieve a much more organised method of communication whereby all parties respond to a single centralised server and are able to extract the latest updated information required from said source.
Current issues with normal ICT usage such as e-mails, texts, phone calls:
§ IT system incompatibilities, electronic data is not readable by all software versions, types, brands etc
§ Continued reliance on costly paper, printing, copying, mailing, distributing, storing, managing, retrieving etc
§ Excessive e-mails and junk spam cause mistaken deletions, filters, unread correspondences, server time-outs etc
§ Very low security, accessible by anyone with basic access.
§ No complete project record or audit trail or overall view
§ Lots of outdated information all over the place
§ Lack of standards, policies, regulations in one location
An extranet is a private network that uses IT to securely share the company's information with staff, partners, shareholders, customers, vendors, suppliers, contractors, managers etc. It is built on the sense of an intranet however shared with users outside the company via the internet.
An extranet service:
§ Allows the exchange of large volumes of data
§ Share construction information with multiple parties
§ Collaborate with other projects or companies
§ Reduce interoperability problems
§ Reduce paper drastically and is not email-based
§ Limits access to authorised users only
§ Latest and updated information available to all required
§ Provides complete record of project
§ Creates full audit trail for administrative reasons
§ Encourages re-use of information (e.g. for H&S File, tendering etc)
Extranets do come with their own disadvantages, namely they can be quite expensive to implement and maintain. Costs are derived from required hardware, software, employee training, server and database technicians and clean management. Security can also be a concern. However, to avoid these issues, there are many third-party collaboration providers who offer their software and services at a fixed or pre-determined rate and will handle all the information & technical work.
Essentially, like many of the project extranets available commercially, they provide users from several teams the ability to log in to the extranet, navigate to a particular project and be able to view, share & edit drawings and documents, submit comments, discussions, issue memos or tasks, request further information or queries, pull contact details on required personnel, tag, label and organise data for easy access and produce daily reports for approval and viewing, all within the same network and without the need for e-mails or paper-based waste.
Collaboration solutions are used by many many users on thousands of projects totalling billions in value. The benefits to be had are invaluable.
The use of these solutions aim to help the team deliver projects on time and within budget through increased efficiency and effectiveness in organising the project and it's contents. All required information is available on demand with the guaranteed latest version included.
The software provider will generally guarantee a 100% uptime with several backup servers of the entire data load should a mishap occur. The software package is deemed secure and only those with logins and access to certain elements may view them.
Powerful search tools coupled with unlimited storage space ensure documents can be stored forever yet never lost. Any required file can be easily retrieved when required or stored for future use, be it on the same project or another a decade down the line.
The system is accessible from virtually anywhere with an internet connection and browser. No installed software is required or special access requirements. This means data uploaded from a main head office can be retrieved by a site engineer in his cabin or a contractor on his mobile PDA.
The lack of paper printing, posting, faxing, e-mailing and courier costs ensures that the system can save money as well as time. Uploaded documents are available instantly to all users given permission to view and responses can be immediate.
The software packages are generally quite easy to use, fully tagged from page to page with help icons and guidance information. It is no difficult to using your regular e-mail or forum portal and time-saving is quickly apparent.
The provider takes care of all software updates, issues, crashes, overloads and statuses of the servers ensuring piece of mind for the project's users to collaborate online without any knowledge of the backend. The software is fully customizable to the users needs and requires no more than a web browser with an internet connection.
The following are some features offered by collaborative extranet software packages that may relate to the construction project.
Project Inbox: The project inbox provides the users with a summary of all activity within the project. It lists the total numbers of drawings, documents, discussions, tasks etc as an overview. A modifiable calendar feature with added activities ensures organisation and allows storing of plans and meeting minutes.
Document management: All documents are electronically stored, catalogued and indexed with appended version numbers or revisions. This enables easier searching for particular documents and ensures the latest updated version is always available for viewing.
Drawings management: Similar to documents, a crucial aspect of all construction work involves drawings, which are allocated to issue sheets and also easy to search and retrieve. Mark-up applet is available to allow a user to ‘write' notes, references or append discussions to any aspect of a drawing they require.
Tasks: This tool allows users to request information, ask questions and issue instructions directly to the respective other user. Tasks can be embedded into the calendar and have follow up comments and tracking for easy review.
Contacts: Full details of all users and staff within companies is available in a handy tool for when the need arises. This includes telephone numbers, e-mail addresses and other contact information.
Discussions: This tool enables full discussions to be had on very specific elements on the project with documents or drawings attached. Concerned users are tagged to the discussion and may submit their entries at any time. This helps keep track of particular issues among various personnel.
Uploading: Users are able to upload their documents to the extranet and are guided by fields to enter for naming conventions for the project to ensure searching is easy and seamless. The information can be instantly shared with all concerned users and this saves a large amount of time.
Binders: A handy tool for compiling various, even thousands, of documents, drawings, notes, tasks, discussions and even photos into one folder which can be easily then submitted for tendering or approval or evaluation etc. The binder can either manually or automatically updated with the latest data.
The following is a quick look at some collaboration packages:
One of the self-acclaimed pioneers of these hosted project extranets are 4Projects, also a founder of the NCCTP, the Network for Construction Collaboration Technology Providers.
4Projects started from the shadows of a web design subsidiary that produced a small project for Taylor Woodrow. It was nurtured over 2 years of losses to produce a collaboration solution rich in features and designed to help the project management process to run more efficiently and effectively.
Currently one of the largest providers, they are happy to provide training courses and can set up an extranet in as little as 60 seconds. The interface is fluid and kept as simple as possible while retaining all crucial information.
BIW Tech are developers of SaaS software, they are a global leader in online business applications. They provide more integrated software for entire corporations through the use of SAP systems ranging from project management to accountancy. They are considerably more expensive than other offerings due their broad array of services.
Based in London, Cadweb also claim they are pioneers in the field of SaaS based document management for the construction industry. Over 5000 companies use their software which has been in development for nearly 15 years. Their Return on Investment calculator for a £30m project quantifies savings of just under £200,000 for print costs alone based on 126,000 drawings and copies estimate.
ASITE offer online public training sessions from £150 per person and charge £60 per user for unlimited use of their software including Building Information Models as opposed to a flat company fee and unlimited users like the others. This pay prove to be a better cost-effective solution for smaller projects.
Business Collaborator are always members of the NCCTP with constant updates of their software for greater security and more user friendly experiences. They provide more specialised workflow management tools for the purpose of stakeholder control.
Sarcophagus share the vision that the construction industry needs to embrace new technology to maximize productivity. They offer several packages with emphasis on health & safety and with key clients such as Carillion and ASDA.
Aconex is an online document management system designed to manage information through all stages of the construction project.
4PROJECTS CASE STUDY 
In March 1998 Microsoft received planning approval to undertake further development at their Thames Valley Park headquarters in Reading, UK. Three buildings comprise Phase I of the proposed Campus scheme. Phase II development will consist initially of a 4 storey building fitted out to suit Microsoft's business needs. The building occupies a site of just over three acres from the total 33 acres of the combined Phase I and II developments and will provide approx 65,000 square feet of open-plan, flexible office space.
Having experienced problems with speed and accessibility using their original project extranet provider, Microsoft selected the 4Projects™ web-based project collaboration tool. The 4Projects™ solution is being used to increase communication on this project including drawing issue and document management.
Converting from a competitor solution meant that support was a key issue for project managers AYH. All project information needed to be seamlessly and quickly transferred across to the 4Projects™ solution so as not to cause any delays.
Speed of connection had been one of the main problems that users had experienced when using the original provider. To ensure that all users gain maximum benefit from using a project extranet it was important that they were not put off by the time taken to upload drawings and documents. Using 4Projects™ users found they no longer had problems with connection or speed and were able to use their project site to maximum effect.
Team: Microsoft, AYH Plc, TP Bennett and supply chain
Costs will vary between the software packages & level of customization, support and training required. However, for a £30 million project wishing to implement 4Projects, an estimate of £5,000 setup cost to include the initial installation, importing current documents and 2-3 days of staff training course is required. A further monthly rate of £1,000-1,500 for maintenance and on-call support is also required. This fare is considerably cheaper than their biggest rival BIW Tech claiming almost 3 times the cost.
This ensures the entire project's information is available in a centralised server location accessible by all those who require it on demand and will save a lot more money in the long run on paper costs, courier mail, errors and delays, lost documents or non-updated revisions and tedious e-mailing & unnecessary filing and storage.
One of the most crucial aspects in adopting ICT into the workplace is definitely human mentality. There is still a, possibly, vast majority who are unwilling to adapt to change or advanced methods and prefer to remain traditional with paper. However, as the concept of ICT and collaboration starts to become even more mainstream such as our social networking and personal online ventures, the introduction of collaboration into the workplace will ever-increase as it is accepted.
A key identifier in the differentiation between the software packages is neither their size nor clients, but to a degree, their user-friendliness, reliability and efficiency. 4projects appears to excel in these aspects, requiring no more than a 30 minute induction to get to grips, having full project control and simply searching with guaranteed uptime and multiple backups every 15 minutes. An unlimited number of users may register for access to the project and it is quite simple to collaborate with suppliers, consultants, contractors & auditors.
Implementing their collaboration software would be ideal for the company, ensuring higher productivity through organisational efficiency. The effective communication between all parties of the project will definitely lead to quicker time taken to accomplish tasks while maintaining lower costs and high quality.
 Simon, 1944; Phillips, 1950; Emmerson, 1962; Banwell, 1964; British Property Federation, 1983
 Latham report
 Egan report