Construction disputes: are extranets the answer?

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by a journalist for a UK construction trade magazine about Multiplex’s problems at London’s Wembley Stadium. The key issue she wanted to explore was whether having an ‘extranet’ would have prevented the disputes between Multiplex, the client, Cleveland Bridge, etc. The short answer was, I’m afraid, no.

Like many construction industry people, I followed reports of court proceedings with interest and there was lots of talk about strategies being hatched via internal emails.

Some construction collaboration vendors provide email-like communication functionality within their platforms so that all such messages are captured, time- and date-stamped, and form part of the audit trail. However, using conventional email allows users to easily bypass the system (though there is a thriving market for solutions to manage and interrogate email archives).

Some construction collaboration systems do provide for a level of integration with email, but I believe users have to consciously link each email to the project (and the collaboration system used) in question. Internal email conversations relating to potential legal disputes would, I suspect, be highly unlikely to be "opted-in".

More fundamentally, the key issue is not about the technology. As I have said on numerous occasions, successful use of construction collaboration applications is only 20% about technology, it’s 80% people and processes. If the people involved are not committed to working in a collaborative way, then they will clearly only use the technology when it suits them (for exchanging files and managing routine processes); anything that might threaten their bargaining position will not be shared with other participants.

However, the Wembley project was/is perhaps an extreme example. There are certainly benefits to be gained from using a collaboration system.

First, simply knowing that a system is in place capable of delivering an audit trail of communications and system interactions can be a tremendous incentive to project team members to comply with their contractual obligations, meet their deadlines, etc – thus preventing disputes arising in the first place.

Second, should a potential dispute arise, the audit trail presents a clear view of what information was produced, for whom and when. This means team members can move beyond arguments about who did what and focus on resolving the dispute.

Third, the process of producing that audit trail is much faster and less expensive (no need to search through filing cabinets full of paper documents or to investigate the contents of different email systems); potential disputes can be resolved more quickly, before the costs involved lead the parties involved to adopt entrenched positions.

This final factor is often overlooked until a major dispute looms. For example, in the US recently there was a tragic incident in Boston where a section of tunnel lining fell down, crushing a car and killing one of its occupants. Apparently, there are 62 boxes of paper documents relating just to tests carried out on the fixings – using digital documentation would not prevent the tragedy, but it would dramatically simplify investigations into its causes (see Big Dig Tragedy Compounded by Lack of Digital Documentation).

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  1. […] on its own website its press release regarding its dispute research (see my 25 July post: Construction disputes: are extranets the answer?), and a couple of articles – from Utility Week and Constrution Today – preaching the […]

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