Relevance – not sheep!

Ever since I first got interested in what we now understand loosely as Web 2.0, I have been looking for ways to make it relevant to my day-to-day job. For example, I started blogging three years ago to create an online presence to expand on the content of my book (flyer); at BIW, I have promoted the use of wikis and blogs to share knowledge and develop ideas within the company; I routinely use RSS feeds and news aggregators to gather information from around the web; I subscribe to a few networking communities and discussion forums; and I have been Tweeting since the Spring.

However, when I talk about some of this to friends within the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry, I often get quizzical looks and dismissive suggestions that this is all “kids’ stuff” and not “real business” (and this is despite Web 2.0 now being embraced by some mainstream construction publications – see post). Even attempts to get some very collaboration-oriented individuals to start using online networking tools have, so far, met with a fairly cool response. While some individuals are enthusiastic, others have remained immune from exhortations even to just try them out (fellow blogger Martin Brown and I have experimented with Facebook and LinkedIn for two parallel communities of collaborative working enthusiasts – the latter, perhaps because it is seen as more professional, has been only slightly more successful).

So, reading yesterday, the article Throwing Sheep’s Great, But… struck a chord. The piece reports remarks by internet media tycoon Tim O’Reilly that, while the world was beset by problems like global warming, financial meltdown, poverty and disease, some of its best software developers were creating applications that urge their users to “Throw Sheep at Your Friends”! No, he protested. Instead, he urged, work on Web 2.0 applications that can make a difference while making a profit in the process. “One of the most robust strategies” for entrepreneurs and developers, O’Reilly said, is to “work on stuff that matters…. Do stuff that needs to be done.”

This, I think, is a key message for me and my fellow Web 2.0 fans to convey to the rest of the construction sector (and to those vying to offer applications in that space) – not least at the forthcoming Be2camp event. We need to show that Web 2.0 has a valid role in helping the AEC sector improve how it works, especially when the industry is facing major challenges from climate change and economic downturns.

Fortunately, I don’t think this is difficult – at least at the technology level – when we are regularly being told that we need to work more collaboratively. As I described in March (see Web 2.0 and construction collaboration), Web 2.0 tools can make information-sharing easier and more transparent, can accelerate and enrich information flows, and can enable new levels of collaboration. But, once again, it is the non-technology aspects – people and processes – that can hamper AEC collaboration. Adherence to hierarchical structures, perceived irrelevance and security concerns can all be used as excuses not to embrace what some in the AEC sector currently understand as Web 2.0.

But when you see the productivity improvements that arise from using Wikis to manage knowledge within architectural practices (see post) or collaborative platforms across multi-company project teams, when you avoid information overload by using iGoogle and RSS feeds to pull relevant information onto your desktop, when you can visualise information in different ways (perhaps mapped onto Google Maps, organised into timelines, or prototyped in Second Life), when you can swiftly share design concepts and get community feedback, and when you can quickly locate and network with other professionals in your chosen discipline, then the virtues of Web 2.0 become clearer.

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