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When I was a bridge designer in North Carolina, the state department of transportation (DOT) published numerous thick volumes of data to guide transportation design. The manuals covered road specifications, signage, drainage, environmental regulations, bridges, and more.

We took pride in mastering those manuals because the DOT expected us to have the answers rather than disturb our client for them. That’s why they developed big, fat books: to cut down the time spent answering the same question time and time again, which would have stolen hours from more important work.

We wanted to build our good reputation with an important client, and having a firm grasp of project information was one way to achieve that goal.

Project information is a source of risk

Engineering involves massive amounts of information. And it is dynamic information, from multiple sources, evolving over time. It requires ongoing verifications that updates have made their way into the most current documents.

Such a process generates numerous information risks:

  • Information must be complete.
  • Information must be current.
  • Actions must be documented for later reference when there are questions or disputes.

Managing each of these information risks contributes to managing the ultimate risk of an engineering project — the risk to life and limb presented by improperly designed infrastructure. Engineering firms are managing these information risks in four ways:

  • capturing information consistently;
  • sharing information securely;
  • checking information thoroughly; and
  • finding information quickly.

Capture information — Engineering firms maintain strict rules about documenting actions. For example, although most information arrives and leaves the firm in digital form, far too many companies require employees to print and file emails and other documents. Some engineers still come into the office on Saturdays for the express purpose of printing and filing a week’s worth of email!

More and more, organizations accept electronic files, asking people to save PST files of email and follow strict naming conventions on email and other files. RFIs get compiled in spreadsheets.

It would be a lot easier if emails and file transfers automatically logged themselves, or it took just a few clicks to enter data into the project record. Project information management systems, such as Bentley ProjectWise, maintain a log of changes to plans and specs, but don’t log many other documents you depend upon!

As for quickly retrieving those files, that’s a challenge addressed below.

Share information — Engineering projects require massive collaboration — meetings, teleconferences, phone conversations, emails, file transfers, and more. And with different players on most projects, scattered across different regions, each project takes on a different character, further complicating your ability to be consistent.

For example, on a large bridge project, you may be the prime, contracted to build the main span of the bridge, but you may have a sub-consultant doing the smaller approach spans. Such an arrangement involves lots of collaboration as you coordinate information and check their work. Fabricators and other sub-consultants add to the communication and coordination challenge.

Electronic file transfers of digital data are quickest and most economical, but some companies resist for reasons of security and accountability. They like to have that signed evidence that the other party received the documents. What’s needed are ways to transfer large digital files securely, in a way that automatically logs who downloaded what, when.

Check information — At contracted intervals, you submit your work to the DOT for comments, then take pains to make sure their input makes its way into the next iteration of drawings and specifications. Software can help with the engineer-markup-backcheck process, maintaining revisions and the revision histories that show what changes were requested and when.

Software can also support the process to make sure issued drawings reflect requested changes. And all those milestone submittals can be managed better with software built specifically for that purpose.

Find information — The capturing in Step 1 above is done for the purpose of referring to that information later. And you need to refer to it often in order to answer daily questions and check past instructions, whether they’re instructions given or received.

And of course, quick retrieval of information is one key to resolving disputes before they escalate. If there’s a change in the field that results in the contractor using Type II prestressed beams when the design requires Type III, you want that information in a hurry.

Speed is of the essence to protect your reputation and demonstrate good service. Most people, when asked to describe what constitutes good service, define “good” as “fast.”

In the age of the internet, when we expect to find information stored anywhere in the world, it’s not unreasonable to expect to find information wherever it exists on your network, whether on servers, in a cloud file service, or in ProjectWise.

Reputation is paramount

Fortunately for each of the four cases above, software exists to streamline capturing, sharing, checking, and finding information. If you’re not using applications developed specifically for the engineering and construction industry, you may be missing opportunities to reduce risk and improve service.

Engineering firms flourish with referrals and repeat business. Great service, accurate work, and informed designs win referrals and repeat business. In this regard, it doesn’t just protect your business to improve collaboration and project information management, it boosts your business.

BRIAN JOHNSON is a product manager for Newforma (http://www.newforma.com), a developer of software for building and infrastructure project information management. Before entering the software industry, he was a bridge designer in North Carolina.

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