Some people love email, others hate it; most us, I suspect, are somewhere in the middle, perhaps wearily accepting its necessity, but wishing they got less of it. And yet we often work with applications that add to our email burden, showering us with numerous notifications and demanding rapid responses. I have blogged several times about the issues of using email to manage a construction project (starting with The email argument, February 2006). In my opinion, a better option is an online platform through which messages can be routed and captured, and where there are no attachments, just associated documents, drawings and other files viewable via the central repository. This was the philosophy behind BIW’s platform when I worked for them, and it is also the philosophy behind Australian construction collaboration technology business ProjectCentre.net.
It’s about collaboration, not email
I first wrote about ProjectCentre about three years ago, and felt in need of an update, so last week I talked to ProjectCentre’s IT director Paul Hemmings (right) and sales director Tim Clare (below right). Paul started with his view of the shortcomings of email:
“With email we could make paperwork move a hell of a lot faster. Instead of snail-mailing a paper form, we could send an email. That was much faster! But the downside was that we now had multiple copies of emails floating around, especially if the item ever got CC’d. When the replies came back, we had multiple emails all regarding the same issue.
“You can have dozens of items all about the same topic, all commenting on the part of the conversation that was known at the time that version of the email was replied to. None have the whole story; it is up to you to compile all the replies together into a single statement of the ‘truth’.
“That’s when collaboration stepped in. Obviously we needed a better email management system – right? We called it ‘collaboration’ (although I don’t know why; it’s still just email management isn’t it?). This is where ProjectCentre is fundamentally different to most other collaboration systems. It’s more like a secure blog than an email system. Instead of sending something through email, we invite people to look at the only-single-source-of-truth on ProjectCentre. You don’t need to read through multiple emails, because all the comments are on the same document (blog). You can’t possibly be looking at an out of date copy – this is the only copy. It’s a lot like Facebook where we can all see each other’s comments on our ‘wall’. That is ‘Collaboration’.”
Incidentally, mention of the ‘wall’ immediately reminded me of Australian start-up Ennova and its Envision product (post) and of another Australian development: the innovative but soon discontinued Incite Toolbox product (post) which incorporated the social media concept of ‘the stream’ or ‘feed’. US-based start-up Kalexo also developed a similar approach (post).
Forms, issue registers and checklists
ProjectCentre’s ‘form-based system’ is markedly different from its main Australian competitor, Aconex, which in Tim’s view still has a very email-type approach, with its use of Project Mails, plus separate email notifications that users have Project Mails awaiting their attention; “Aconex helps you manage your mails – ProjectCentre helps you manage the project,” he declared. ProjectCentre’s platform also issues email notifications of course, but once users have logged into ProjectCentre, their activities are focused on managing time, cost and quality performance issues through use of forms, issue registers and checklists. Paul explained:
“Having a register of ‘Requests For Information’ or the like is much easier to manage. You can also easily track who the item is ‘for the action of’ (and for how long) to monitor who is holding up the process. You can even add a Due Date to track overdue items. Centralised checklists are also easy to monitor.
“And now that we have all these forms and checklists, another possibility is to ‘associate’ them. This is hard to do with email, but easy with a blog. We can simply add a hyperlink from one blog to another, such as from a Variation to a Site Instruction to an RFI. The ability to ‘drill down’ into an issue with these links is a huge benefit.
“We have now moved well away from email, and into the world of linked Forms (blogs) that each record the process of dealing with a particular issue.”
Contract and financial management
There are clear similarities here with online construction contract management modules, such as the NEC3 platforms delivered by 4Projects, BIW, and Sypro, among others (post). Interactions about a particular issue are recorded and tracked in ProjectCentre, and their financial and programme impacts can also be easily monitored. Paul described how ProjectCentre was deployed during a $4.5bn schools programme in New South Wales, part of the Australian government’s fiscal stimulus programme. Here, the government client initially expected the system to be used solely for design and construction management, but once they realised ProjectCentre could also be used to track financial changes, they began to use it to monitor the performance of their seven managing contractors. The client could drill down to analyse data by firm, by project, by variation, etc.
ProjectCentre continues to work with developers and contractors such as Westfield, McConnel Dowell and Baulderstone, plus government clients such as the Department of Defence. It has also been deployed to support the rebuilding of earthquake ravaged Christchurch in New Zealand, and has also been adopted by clients delivering infrastructure projects and on mining and natural resource projects (dams, pipelines, mines, etc). The service is currently managing about 5000 logins a day.
This has occasionally called for a some ingenuity in maintaining ProjectCentre’s usual Software-as-a-Service approach. “When you have a mining project in a remote location 2000km from the nearest big town, internet access isn’t easy,” Paul explained. “For low bandwidth situations, we provide the ability to generate a local cache for project documents replicating the online structure. Users will access documents from the local cache rather than the online servers while using the normal browser interface.”
I have made no secret of my preference for construction collaboration systems that try to reduce the volume of email and which centralise the resolution of project issues. While ProjectCentre plainly have Aconex in mind when they seek to differentiate their platform, the potential drawbacks of over-reliance on email could easily be applied to other systems (I know some providers discourage new users from reliance on email, but too many people have become a slave to their inboxes and almost don’t want to work any other way). The ‘blog’, ‘wall’, ‘stream’ or ‘feed’ approach to capturing project “conversations” may also become more accepted – many project participants will be familiar with similar discussion formats applied in social networks such as Facebook. And, as Web 2.0 approaches become more pervasive, old Web 1.0 concepts such as email might be superseded.
ProjectCentre also has a surprising level of financial management capability within its platform. Like some UK and US counterparts, it has seen how document collaboration has become an easily replicated, commoditised product, and has therefore focused on delivering detailed business-critical functionality to its customers – to the point that it was apparently seen by one client as a more cost-effective alternative to implementing a high-end enterprise resource planning (ERP) system from SAP. Accelerating and improving the accuracy of reporting from live projects will be attractive to many organisations, particularly when budgets are tighter and project directors are under ever greater pressure to manage increasingly limited contingency allowances.