It’s been a fascinating day here in Boston. The Harvard Graduate School of Design hosted a conference which brought together well over 100 people from all over north America (plus a handful from the UK) to discuss its research and the implications for the US construction industry.
Burcin Becerik summarised some of the key findings from her research, looking at tangible, quasi-tangible and intangible benefits. Among the first category, the average time taken to conclude requests for information (RFIs) could be reduced from 14 days to 5.4 days, with RFI issue time savings worth around $21k in employee costs; FedEx savings on document transfer could amount to over $50,000 per annum; and annual e-bidding (e-tendering) cost savings of £52,000 were also possible. In relation to overall project budgets, use of online collaboration and project management (OCPM) tools cost between 0.02% and 0.15% (a figure on the high side due to customisation expenses).
There was an interesting discussion (in a session held in the atmospheric surroundings of the neighbouring Swedenborg Chapel) about how to handle email. Kitchell Contractors (users of Meridian’s ProjectTalk) imported emails and saved them as PDFs; Meridian’s Sue Watkins recommended changing individuals’ behaviour by adopting a policy of not accepting messages that aren’t on the system – we heard a similar policy was also successfully adopted when architects tried faxing responses to RFIs.
From my UK experience, a familiar theme was raised again and again during the day: the importance of implementation to address people and culture issues. I was particularly interested in comments from Harvard’s Dr Karen Stephenson on how teams could be encouraged to adapt more collaborative approaches (talk of ‘trust indexes’ and risk vulnerabilities – must find out more about this), while a fellow panel member, a lawyer, said the US industry was still too adversarial, describing the use of OCPM by companies controlling the software as "claim-building". Concerns about costs and security need to be balanced by a realistic appreciation of the status quo – GSA‘s Stephen Hagan wondered why firms were happy to watch their drawings disappear down the street on the back of a bicycle courier yet questioned use of a secure web-based OCPM tool!
UK provider Business Collaborator’s Tim Blower participated in a panel discussion on ‘new frontiers’ looking at use of BC by Nationwide Building Society, represented by Stephen Head, and Royal Bank of Scotland, represented by Atkins’ Marek Suchowski. All the projects in this session seemed highly rated by the ultimate customer, perhaps because the technology was exploited to move beyond simple document management to the support of key project processes.
The final session reviewed the research from the sponsors’ perspective and looked at future research needs. The importance of training and implementation, ‘top-down’ OCPM ‘champions’, and contracts to mandate use of the systems were all raised. In one of my contributions from the floor, I repeated the often-heard UK mantra about successful collaboration being 80% people and processes and 20% technology (even 90/10); I urged teams to consider measures to support ‘bottom-up’ adoption, the need to address culture issues at industry, inter-company, intra-company and individual levels, how tools could be used to enrich the working life of end-users such as document controllers, but needed populating with useful data to make initial experiences rewarding; I also supported a point made by Tim Blower about the US learning from the UK experience, not least the vendors getting together to market the technologies, and the resulting NCCTP’s effort to create an XML standard for data exchange between the vendors’ solutions, and – of course – I used the opportunity to plug the book!
I also met lots more interesting people including: Constructware users from contractor P J Dick; Gary de Plessis from Autodesk’s collaboration group; Richard Jackson from Fiatech (in spirited exchange with Julie Meeker of Arizona-based Hunt Construction Group – interested in the PIX Protocol); Scott Arfsten of 3D/i; and Tarek Baghat of PMA Consultants.
I hope this isn’t the last time I come over to such an event – there is much the UK sector can learn from the US (and vice-versa), and it will take more than a single conference to create that understanding. Having written a book about construction collaboration technologies in the context of the UK AEC market, perhaps there is scope for a similar book on the US market? Better still, maybe there is mileage in writing a book that draws together and contrasts and compares experiences on both sides of the Atlantic? I would be prepared to collaborate on such a project if someone was ready to grasp the US nettle.