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Expert Insight

Talking collaboration: Dr Asif Sharif

To define what we mean by ‘collaboration solutions’ is a good place to start.  Terms such as project collaboration, document management and project controls are often interchangeable, having different meanings to different parties. The KPMG Global Construction Survey 2015 states that the use of Project Management Information Systems (PMIS) are not yet ubiquitous (with only 50% of global projects currently being supported by software), and goes on to define PMIS as: “Software to improve project planning, scheduling, monitoring and controlling, in order to raise the quality of decision-making in each phase of the project life cycle. It enables engineers and project managers to communicate project status swiftly and accurately with functional departments, while also keeping senior management up to speed on all the projects in the organization’s portfolio.”

Dr Asif SharifDocument Management is a core component and very much a constant feature with all the various flavours of collaboration systems that are on the market today, and would typically support projects by enabling easy storage and retrieval of the following types of documentation and data:-

  • Pre-contract documents; specifications, tenders, bills of quantities etc.
  • Change processes (Technical Queries, Request for Information, Change Requests etc)
  • The contract itself
  • Schedule of works – detailing the project timeline and current progress
  • Drawings with integrated viewing tools to support all common file formats
  • Communications – Submittals, Transmittals, Project Emails, meeting minutes
  • With the use of BIM gaining in popularity, solutions should also provide a Common Data Environment (CDE) to enable effective collaboration between design and construction delivery teams.
  • Financial information – budgets, purchase orders, invoices
  • Instructions, amendments to contracts and written approvals
  • Management and contract performance reports

The other key characteristic of collaboration solutions is how it is delivered and accessed by the user base.  Solutions which are hosted internally are designed to help internal teams and departments collaborate amongst each another and provide a central repository of information within a company structure.  In contrast, many collaborations solutions are hosted via the “cloud” and the software (is delivered) as a service to support external project teams during the lifecycle of construction projects.   This latter category of collaboration solutions are particularly well suited to foster, support and encourage inter-working between project participants form various companies in the supply chain.

During a recent seminar on claims and disputes run by leading Middle Law firm Al Tamimi and Co., the importance of  externally hosted, web based, ‘electronic document management systems’ was highlighted as being key to mitigating risks on projects. Whether the organisation is a contractor or client, recording, organising and having the ability to re-produce information has strategic importance in supporting or refuting claims.

You could even go as far as to say that organisations should think about setting out how they manage information at the start of a project, almost as if they are already in litigation. This would ensure effective dispute resolution measures are ready and in place.

What are the different ‘types’ of software systems used to support projects?

First tier; are systems which provide a basic way of enabling simple storage and sharing of documents and information, but offer very little in the way of supporting collaborative working. Often adopted to replace email as a way of managing and disseminating  large files, these systems tend not to have inbuilt messaging and process management features, and are often used by single entities needing a ‘quick fix’ in making content accessible to internal stakeholders.

Second tier; those which offer more ‘State of the Art’ functionality in enabling logical organisation and structuring of information, version control, multi-organisation access, and crucially provide advance search features such as OCR capability. These systems are developed to allow multiple stakeholders to have access to important data, (depending on roles and rights), as and when required and support varying degrees of collaborative working.

From Document Management to Business Management…

Third tier; providing an even greater level of sophistication, moving document management functionality into the area of project controls. Project controls systems are designed to provide a complete framework that ‘holistically’ brings together and manages documents, communication, processes, cost and time.  The real differentiator here is better risk management, which comes through having a better understanding of the project commercials, namely, money spent and work done compared to budget and work forecast.

Collaborating with BIM

With many governments now mandating the use of BIM on projects, the term Common Data Environment (CDE) has gained prominence.  In essence this emphasises the requirement for projects to ensure that robust collaboration solutions (some second and particularly third tier) are being implemented on projects to ensure that model data can be accurately stored within the CDE, version controlled, easily retrieved and viewed by multiple parties, whilst still ensuring that there is strict control on the authoring and amending of the models themselves.

Typically, second tier collaboration solutions would enable the model files to be structures, stored, version controlled and viewed.  Third tier solutions go a step further by enabling commenting, reviewing and approvals of such files to be undertaken in a fully audited collaborative environment between defined parties involved in the design, construction and maintenance process.

To what extent should information be recorded and stored?

This is a very pertinent question. Take a single area such as email for example, in large teams a question could be asked as to whether ALL formal, project email communications should be recorded.

Within the realms of a project, it’s very much an ‘all or nothing’ approach to the management of information. All parties will generate information (whether it’s simple communication, RFIs, design changes/variation). Authorised parties (typically client, engineer, PMs) will review and approve information.

Emailing outside of the ‘project space’ is to be discouraged, as getting access to email accounts – in the event that a key member of project team has moved on – is extremely challenging.

The short answer of course is – YES. 

The very mechanics of these systems, which allow legal teams to easily sift through all the information to get to that important 5% of relevant information. A local case where a contractor’s document management system was in fact far too basic in its architecture and ability to support forensic analysis of data (no OCR capability). The effect of this meant that is was virtually impossible to re-produce important information, as and when it was needed.

How about access rights to information? 

Within the UK forms of contract such as NEC3 and JCT promote open and collaborative working between projects teams. By virtue of this, the systems used in supporting these projects provide an environment where project-wide collaborative working encourages transparency, auditability and accountability   benefitting both clients and delivery teams.

The converse of this is a tendency for teams to revert to more traditional approached to client and supplier relationships which are based on clients defining requirements with the aid of consultants and then tendering projects to usually the most experienced lowest bidder to construct the project.  Typically there are no previous relationships between the teams or real understanding of the clients and projects requirements.  As a result there is little proactive anticipation and management of changes and any deviation from the defined scope of works will result typically in cost and time escalations.

Therefore the question that should be asked is our industry ready for change and can we support collaborative working going forward and most if not all projects rather than the few high profile ones.

If the system is very ‘closed’ in its design, then perhaps it’s more of case that the system is no better than a repository of information and the traditional paper process, rather than a solution that enhances collaborative practices. This is a journey for project teams to take, but it’s one which they will have to take sooner or later in order to stay in the market and retain or grow their market share.

Investing in Collaboration Solutions

A pragmatic approach is needed prior to evaluating and investing in any form of software, and one where a cost-v-benefit analysis is evident. So in other-words, ensuring that organisations don’t over-shoot on the fundamental needs of the project, but at the same time, making sure that you do get value for money.

Suppliers also need to be flexible in their licencing and commercial models, and due to the nature of projects, allow for ramping up and scaling down in line the profile of the project.

Aside from the functionality of the software, three very important questions around the physical characteristics inherent with software-as-a-service should be carefully considered:

  • Can vendors demonstrate a first class hosting environment, with mirrored backups to an alternative data-centre, ensuring your service continues in the event of total system failure?
  • Does the system lend itself to be able to provide a full, detailed and transparent audit trail of all transactions performed by the project teams?
  • What happens to your data at the end of the project? Will your supplier provide you (or your client) with an archive of all the project data as part of their service?

On those final three points – my next article will specifically address data management, asking

1] How safe is your data? And as and when projects come to an end…

2] Who owns the data?

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