Oct 07 2015

Leveraging the Internet for documents and drawings

Project Extranet

The internet profoundly changed collaboration

As the previous post in our series on the history of collaboration outlined, late 20th century UK construction remained heavily reliant on paper-based communication methods. Only in the 1990s did the industry begin adopting new electronic tools that might support a new, more collaborative way of working. In this article, we look at the emergence of the construction extranet, and the impact of online document and drawing collaboration

The Latham concept of partnering encouraged progressive industry clients to build long-lasting, strategic relationships that capitalised upon information, experience and best practice by working repeatedly with their consultants, contractors and supply chains. PFI and PPP projects also encouraged long-term vision: knowledge created during project delivery was a valuable ‘whole life’ commodity that could be used to enable better planning, continuous performance improvement and risk reduction across current and future asset portfolios. And the Egan Report underlined the importance of integrated processes and teams, including better information management (Egan’s follow-up report, Accelerating Change, in 2002 echoed the need for greater integration of teams and of IT, with ‘IT and the internet’ seen as a cross-cutting issue that could enable change).


Online collaboration via project extranet

Until the advent of the worldwide web, online collaboration tended to be limited to those with access to computer networks where information might be shared via technologies such as FTP, groupware or LAN/WAN-based electronic document management systems. The web opened up new opportunities in the late 1990s/early 2000s, and amid the dot.com boom internet-based construction-specific collaboration platforms – so-called ‘project extranets’ – provided a strong basis for several new start-up businesses, with BIW (today CONJECT) one of the most prominent UK vendors.

An online construction collaboration platform did not require users to login to particular corporate networks, nor did it require a client or project team member to commit IT resources to a system’s acquisition, implementation and support. It also did not require any major investment in new hardware or software by end-users to access the system (important when partnering with SME project participants). Information was held on a secure, project-specific website hosted at the vendor’s facility (a method of software delivery then known as “application service provision” – the term Software-as-a-Service, SaaS, was not coined until 2001) and was only accessible by authorised team members.

Broadly, all such systems are accessed via the internet using a standard computer browser. Regardless of location, authorised users get 24/7 access to a secure central repository of project data that grows as information about the asset is developed and shared by the team. Instead of sequentially developing information and restricting its access only to core team members, “a single version of the truth” is created. This provides an up-to-date, accurate and transparent store of CAD drawings, schedules, budgets, minutes, correspondence, photographs, specifications, standards, procedures etc, to which team members can add comments, issue notices, instructions and requests for information.

In the event of any dispute, all interactions and versions are tracked and documented in a secure audit trail. And at the end of a project, all the collated information is potentially available to the client for operation and maintenance purposes – knowledge is no longer dispersed along with the project team after handover.


Early Collaboration

Complete with state of the art Windows 95

Proven technology

Online collaboration, though, was slow to achieve widespread adoption. This was hardly surprising: in 2000, use of IT in construction had yet to be recommended by any official report; there was ‘fear, uncertainty and doubt’ about new dot.com businesses, about the wisdom of hosting project data ‘in the cloud’, about ownership and legal admissibility of electronically stored information, and about issues such as security and reliability.

Internet connectivity was variable; and many businesses persisted with traditional paper-based communication and email rather than provide greater transparency. But key clients – among them Sainsbury’s and BAA – piloted use of the CONJECT platform, and as other clients learned of their features, proven advantages and benefits, they began to mandate them for their own projects.

There was other forms of organic growth of project extranets: as consultants and contractors gained experience of the systems, they realised the time and cost savings and efficiency improvements might also be achieved on other projects and so began to recommend their adoption to other clients.

During the 2000s, adoption was also encouraged by the vendors’ continued efforts to make their collaboration platforms ever more useful and relevant to construction teams:

  • CONJECT, for example, was the first vendor to assimilate as-built information, inspection reports and compliance certificates into a structured Health and Safety File to meet CDM requirements for post-completion operation and maintenance purposes.
  • As the industry began to adopt Latham’s recommendations regarding new forms of contract (eg: NEC3), CONJECT pioneered the use of online workflow tools to track contractually significant changes, providing increased visibility of the impacts on schedules and budgets of weather events and other unpredictable factors to the client and other project participants.
  • CONJECT were also amongst the first to support BS1192 document naming and numbering conventions (a building block towards later BIM adoption).
  • Even before the advent of the smartphone, CONJECT also enabled access to project data via mobile devices, allowing users to capture data on-site – for example, during health and safety, construction quality control, or commissioning inspections – so that information could be shared instantly with project team colleagues.

The increased availability of broadband was also a factor in adoption of collaboration platforms, and this has accelerated in recent years, particularly since the advent of smartphones and tablets, and wider user of WiFi, 3G and 4G. These have helped make cloud-based storage and SaaS more acceptable, even vital, to increasingly mobile professionals demanding detailed real-time data literally at their finger-tips.


Next week part 3:  Beyond document collaboration: BIM and data

About the author

Michelle Mason

Michelle Mason leads the UK and MEAP Marketing team, with far too many years in B2B marketing to mention. A CONJECT newbie, Michelle is eagerly climbing a steep learning curve.

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