Croser v. Baxter (‘Building Design’ collaboration debate)

An IT feature in the 16 March 2007 issue of UK trade weekly Building Design is something of a debate between Joe Croser of Bentley and Autodesk’s Pete Baxter on the future of collaboration. You can read the articles yourselves (available online here), but I have picked out what I think were the key exchanges – I wish I had discovered it earlier because Joe makes some disparaging remarks about web-based construction collaboration technologies (aka ‘extranets’).

Croser criticises

Understandably, Joe talks up the virtues of Bentley’s ProjectWise (“desktop applications and servers which, when used in concert, provide distributed teams with a single solution to manage, find and share all manner of documents”) before attacking online browser-based tools, saying they:

“lack the capabilities necessary for integrating or maintaining consistent relationships. Instead, they provide teams with a transaction-based workflow — a post-and-host approach to issuing project information. … The problem? When a user transacts and downloads a file for use offline, insight into the file’s history and future access control is lost. Work then continues in isolation — disconnectedly — placing quality and co-ordination at risk.”

Joe then completely dismisses the need to centralise information, saying: “centralising information places it beyond easy reach of those who need it the most”, before suggesting:

“Some offerings provide the cavalry with faster horses, but do nothing to improve quality, manage access or protect content after a posted-and-hosted file has been duplicated, downloaded and disconnected from the ftp site.” [An old technology extensively superseded by modern extranet systems – but admitting this would, of course, undermine Joe’s argument.]

Baxter battles back

Pete Baxter does a great job of defending on-demand systems using, naturally, the Autodesk Buzzsaw system as an example of collaboration technology (“a hosted, online site, where all project-related documents — drawings, communications, contracts, schedules, budgets, forecasts, reports and so on — can be kept centrally and securely, while always being accessible to authorised personnel”). He argues:

“… increasingly complex projects, the growing importance of managing risk, decreasing time lines, plus the significantly wider distribution of work, are making traditional workflows seem more cumbersome, inefficient and unreliable. … Successive research reports show that poor communication between organisations is the root cause of many of the problems that afflict a building during its lifecycle, and that miscommunication has the greatest impact on cost, schedule, scope and quality.

“To rise to these challenges, a solution must centralise information, be simple and quick to use, and be fast to deploy. It must also be web-based to enable round-the-clock access from anywhere in the world.”

He also highlights one major downside of Bentley-type approaches:

“… something more flexible and agile is required than an expensive, enterprise-wide project management solution, which has to be passed by the board before investment in it is made, and which then takes months to learn and install.” [Ouch!]

Pete could also have responded to Joe’s dismissive ‘post-and-host’ slur. Buzzsaw, BIW, 4Projects and other leading on-demand systems have substantial in-built security, version control and audit trail features. Information cannot be lost or overwritten, and who did what and when is clear to every authorised team member. I would agree with Joe that there are serious drawbacks with FTP-based systems, but today’s modern construction collaboration platforms have been using totally different technologies for years; it is just plain wrong to suggest web-based tools are no better than FTP.

Buzzsaw and Constructware

Aside from the debate, I was interested in Pete’s comments about Buzzsaw and Constructware. He says:

“Buzzsaw began as a tool for document and design management, but its wider potential is now being recognised at both the construction phase and further into a building’s life cycle. Autodesk’s acquisition of Constructware last year signalled the seriousness of our intent in this direction. Although we have no plans to launch Autodesk Constructware in Europe yet, it seems likely that it will be used to strengthen and consolidate Buzzsaw.”

At the time Autodesk acquired Constructware, I guessed we might see technology from the latter incorporated into Buzzsaw (see post) rather than a launch of another product. However, software development of both products seems to continuing – though I notice that the latest versions of Buzzsaw (2007:3) and Constructware (May 2007 release) were both released almost simultaneously last month, so perhaps there is some convergence.

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