The end of the construction collaboration era?


[This is a slightly expanded version of an article from my pwcom blog.]

I am due to speak next Tuesday, 30 March at the Collaboration Cafe symposium at the Building Centre in London. The event is one of the final contributions to an ongoing research project being undertaken by Slider Studio and funded by the Technology Strategy Board. This has involved the development of a prototype web-based design and creative review application, StickyWorld (which is now available in private beta, and I am testing in relation to a client’s website project – I will be blogging about StickyWorld on ExtranetEvolution soon).

The symposium promises to be an interesting event, not least because I think we are at something of a transition in what we have tended to call “construction collaboration” (as in the trade association, the Network for Construction Collaboration Technology providers, NCCTP).

Having worked for a construction collaboration technology vendor for ten years, I spent a lot of time preaching the virtues of online tools (‘extranets’) that allowed project team members to share documents and drawings. But it is apparent that many users still tend to use these web-based platforms mainly for file-sharing. In effect, they are little more than electronic filing cabinets. Little genuine collaboration is taking place through use of these systems, partly because the applications don’t really promote the requisite changes in people and processes within the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector.

But over the past decade, we have seen the emergence of alternative types of technologies that do foster collaboration and information sharing, and which aren’t document-centric. Wikis, blogs, RSS and social networking platforms, for example, have helped personalise individual communications to an unprecedented extent – helping people collaborate online – and the overlap into business-to-business use is accelerating. This process is also being fostered by growing use of mobile devices which potentially allow individuals to access key information and manage interactions anywhere – with perhaps the data tailored to their precise location and to the people to whom they are communicating.

The abstraction away from document-focused communications could also increase, I think, because – in the built environment sector we will be starting to move towards model-based design practices. Instead of being reliant upon 2D drawings and documents, increasingly design will rely upon BIM, building information modelling (not just 3D, but also allowing time, cost and other dimensions to be assessed – so called nD). And as building owners and operators begin to look more closely at how their built asset data will be used to manage and maintain the facility in a society increasingly challenged by climate change, there will also be a growing focus on the interface between people and the built environment.

Maybe we should no longer be talking about “construction collaboration” or even “building information”? Maybe it’s time to start talking about ‘built environment collaboration’ or something similar?

These are some of the themes I will be touching upon when I speak next week, and I hope some readers of this blog might be stimulated to come along and participate in the discussions.

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  1. I think the death of traditional collaboration tools is still some time off.
    One reason why these tools are still in use as “simple” file sharing apps is because that’s what the customers need. I also think that explains why things like BIM haven’t taken off despite the hype – people on the jobs, doing the work just don’t need it. Simple is effective.
    There are some technology and governance barriers as well. You mention things like wikis, RSS and social networks as possible replacements for collaboration tools. RSS 2.0 can’t be a transmittal mechanism – it only allows for a single enclosure (attached file). Now that is a bit pedantic to highlight, but projects need transmittals and the standard doesn’t support it. Wikis are by their nature “open” – project managers like to know there is security around their documentation. Once we start talking about models and 3d then we need to start having big bandwidth discussion and there are storage ramifications. You can’t have a 5gb model flying down the wire every time someone wants to look at a drawing and we’ve embraced the cloud and got servers and storage off project sites.
    I think what we now see is the current crop of tools have evolved to fill the niche very nicely. That’s not exciting like a revolution in new technology, but for a fairly conservative industry it is certainly practical.
    I think what’s happened is the current crop of collaboration tools have successfully filled the niche.

  2. Sorry for the repeat of the last line – my iPhone didn’t let me scroll and so I didn’t see that line was there.

  3. Hi, Sean
    I agree “The death of traditional collaboration is still someway off” – that is why I talked about reaching a transition.
    The point I was making about Web 2.0 was not one about replacement, it was more about how users’ expectations about collaboration are changing. The stark exchange of documents and drawings is no longer the only way of sharing information or eliciting feedback and opinion. We have begun to see other ways to start work-related conversations and this must surely change how users regard the technologies they use. Interestingly, Incite’s Toolbox was one of the examples I had in mind when I was writing this: that looks to be building a social stream around simple AEC collaboration (see post –
    BIM may not penetrate right to the man on the site (at least not in the short-medium term), and it may well not be used for many simple, small(ish) scale projects, but it will begin to change the market for collaboration solutions on larger projects (ie: £10m or £20m-plus scale schemes – latest UK statistics suggest around 200 projects worth £20m or more in contract value are awarded each year, comprising more than a quarter by value of all new work awarded). Traditional collaboration platforms will no longer hold central sway on these schemes, but could conceivably end up as conduits for 2D information generated out of the BIM process.

  4. Paul, it is an issue that gets discuss alot down here in Australia. You have a generation of staff who are in senior management and getting older. You also have a generation of younger staff who are used to things like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc… Some systems we have have been in place for twenty years with the same UI and design principles and younger staff look at it and laugh.
    I agree with you in that regard that “design” will play a much bigger element in future applications for the industry as is skews younger and more tech savvy.

  1. […] comments. As a result, and in the spirit of online conversation, I quoted both Incite‘s Sean Kaye and Gleeds‘ Jasper Singh in the presentation. (I’ve since uploaded my presentation to […]

  2. […] simple file-sharing and/or messaging platforms, eg: Woobius, or SliderStudio’s prototype (posts here and here) […]

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