Collaborating In the Cloud

    Construction-phase collaboration across the entire, extended project team is most effectively supported by a cloud-based solution, which provides equal access to all project team members based on their role in the project.

    A common construction project contract obligates parties to respond to requests for information within 10 days. But what happens when a contractor sends the engineer a question at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, and the engineer doesn’t read it until 8:00 a.m. Monday? When does the clock start ticking on the 10-day review period?

    Contracts can specify details such as whether turnaround periods include weekends, and when to log submittals and RFIs. But even the best contracts won’t overcome a larger problem in construction administration: Every party maintains its own logs.

    What’s wrong with separate logs?

    • Different logs inevitably show different dates for sending and receiving RFIs and submittals.
    • Time spent reconciling logs takes away from more important work of coordination meetings.
    • The redundant work of maintaining multiple logs — each containing essentially the same information — increases costs without benefiting the owner.
    • Doubts linger as to whether referenced information is current.

    Whenever a project team has more than one tracking system, it will always encounter conflicting interpretations, lack of accountability, and high frustration levels.

    Battle of the logs

    Fortunately, the problem with battling logs can be resolved by changing the way the industry shares information — a change that takes advantage of new technology.

    Historically, design and construction was built on sending information to people. Delivery services, faxes, and email have all served as media whereby Party No. 1 transferred information to Party No. 2. Each partner in the project team managed and maintained the information most important to them.

    Sending information to people works fine in earlier stages of a project, when the flow generally goes in one direction, from the design team outward. It works fine, for example, to issue drawings every few weeks as the design evolves. Periodic review meetings keep everyone on the same page.

    But communication problems arise when the design team shifts into construction mode.

    In comparison with the design phase, information exchange during construction — the contract administration (CA) phase — occurs at a wild, rapid-fire pace:

    The number of companies and people involved easily increases tenfold.

    The number of copies distributed multiplies, too, as Party No. 1 sends a submittal not just to Party No. 2, but also to Parties Nos. 3, 4, 5, 6, or more.

    Information is flowing to and from all major team members all day long.

    Responses are expected to be accurate and near-instantaneous.

    The send-information-to-people method falls apart under such pressure. Engineers will need to use it throughout the project lifecycle, but after a certain point, controlled transmittals are not adequate on their own, and firms need additional, more robust collaborative tools.

    Avoiding delays, preserving the schedule

    Steven True is a senior project manager for BergerABAM. His team is redeveloping a large industrial site to make room for a client’s future expansion. They’ve broken the overall site into smaller projects and are using Newforma Project Cloud collaboration software to manage the multiple project teams assigned to each one.

    “During typical construction administration, we have dedicated people maintaining the submittal and RFI spreadsheets,” True said. “This cloud-based method has been great because it tracks RFIs and submittals automatically. We make sure they get directed to the right people, notifications are sent automatically to the assigned reviewer, the status of the review can be easily checked, and the whole process speeds up response time.

    “As an example, the plans called for installing a new fire hydrant,” True said. “The contractor ran into utility obstructions that were unknown at the time. The contractor sent an RFI and we received instant notification of it. This then allowed us to tackle the problem right away. There’s no delay in knowing about an issue and then working on getting a solution. That’s important, because in construction, schedule is paramount. Our priority is supporting the construction because we don’t want a delay that can potentially increase project costs.”

    True said the cloud-based system “has been very useful. Instead of doing bookkeeping, I can focus my energy on supporting the project.”

    Send people to the information

    If sending information to team members causes problems, perhaps the solution is to send team members to the information. That’s what is being found in a relatively new class of CA technology products for cloud-based project management and collaboration.

    Web-based project sites maintain project information in a neutral location called the cloud — internet-accessed servers maintained by third parties such as Amazon Web Services, which provide backup and security. These cloud-based project management sites notify team members when new files await them there. They automatically log uploads and downloads. These central repositories maintain revision histories, showing who worked on what and when. They provide the transparency and accountability that owners want to get from their vendors.

    When the project’s collaborative information is managed in one place, available to everyone, the problems of sending information to people go away. It’s a central touchstone in neutral ground that no one owns, but everyone shares.

    Authoritative project record

    Using a cloud-based collaboration site, when team members ask for a copy of the current set of drawings, designers no longer scramble to gather and transmit the correct files for the umpteenth time. Instead, they send the people to the information online. The system holds the authoritative project record. Not only does the central system safeguard the official project documents, but it also has the final word on team interactions.

    So, returning to the dilemma of warring RFI logs: The moment Party 1 presses “send” to transmit an RFI question, the unbiased project information system records that Party 2 is responsible for the issue — until Party 2 presses the “send” button to reply with the answer. Disputes about different logs evaporate when all can rely on a joint log.

    As an added bonus, a cloud-based solution is also the most effective point from which to support mobile apps, providing smartphone and tablet access to project information. Apps are important because many project team members are constantly on the go, depending on their phones and tablets to stay productive while away from their desks. Purpose-built mobile apps are increasingly the tool of choice to support the capture and management of field information, to check and update status on project items, consult plans, and other field tasks.

    However, if a mobile app is separate from project- and enterprise-based systems used in the office and job trailer, it just creates another information silo, with all the risks and inconveniences such silos bring. To avoid the problems of isolated information, well-thought-out products include apps that integrate directly with the appropriate back-end systems to ensure that information captured in the field is immediately accessible to the broader project team.

    Integrated apps also make plans, email, punch lists, and other project information available to mobile devices. The combination of cloud-based collaboration integrated with mobile apps promises to raise project delivery to new levels. Everyone, from the engineer to the owner, stands to benefit.

    Dan Conery is the vice president of Construction & Owner Solutions for Newforma, a project information management software company based in Manchester, N.H.