SaaS platform Business Collaborator is a key component in Unit4’s strategy to integrate its business software with BIM, using linked data to manage asset-related processes.
I attended the Unit4 user 2013 user conference at the ICC in Birmingham last week, ostensibly to join the sessions devoted to its SaaS collaboration solution Business Collaborator, but – like last year – I also got a wider sense of how BC fitted into the bigger Unit4 picture.
The opening plenary session helped set the scene, with customer videos featuring Thames Water’s Paul Meredith talking about the utility company’s use of BC Assure (post), while Anwen Robinson, UK MD of Unit4 Business Software, underlined the growing importance of Software-as-a-Service and subscription models to the group, and suggested that other Unit4 system (Aggresso, Coda, etc) users might also benefit from adopting BC to manage documents and quality assurance projects. She also, again, mentioned building information modelling – an area where BC people are leading Unit4’s development plans.
The conference was also the formal launch of BC v6.1 (post). Product manager Paul Houghton led a workshop showcasing the new features added to the platform in late 2012, and now available to BC customers:
- Improved user interface – The interface has been refined in BC 6.1 to optimise use of vertical space so that users can see more documents at once, and can quickly find items they recently accessed.
- Integration with Google Search Appliance – allows BC users whose organisations have deployed this Google device for document indexing to do familiar Google searches of content within their businesses
- Web services – Back-office systems can be integrated with Business Collaborator via an OAuth and REST API. Paul highlighted that users could, for instance create a collaboration area that would be accessible from their ERP system (not just Agresso, but any system) – an interesting echo of my conversation the previous day with 4Projects and Viewpoint (post).
- Document renditions – Given that some documents and drawings can be saved in different file formats (Word and PDF; DWG, DWG and PDF, etc), Business Collaborator now allows users to create bundles which link the primary document to all its derivatives.
- QR codes – Machine-readable quick response codes can be generated and embedded into documents and drawings, and also printed as labels for attachment to physical assets for FM purposes. Paul showed how an asset’s scanned QR code could link to the relevant document; users are initially presented with a window showing the associated document(s), their type and file size (useful if the end-user needs to download over limited bandwidth), and a visual indication of their status. The notification would show a thick green border if the document was the latest version, a red border if it was an old version, and BC technical director Steve Crompton explained there was also an amber border for items that might be subject to changes associated with ongoing workflows.
- Taxonomies – BC users can tag documents with hierarchical, ‘tree-based’ metadata (the tree structures can also be easily edited, eg in Excel, and then imported into BC), simplifying categorisation and improving document search and retrieval efficiency.
The BC 2013 Roadmap
Paul also presented the roadmap for the next two versions of Business Collaborator:
- v6.2 will include advanced forms and improved workflow (including multi-step branching workflows); improved integration with Sypro‘s contract management solution (Sypro CEO Simon Hunt later did a 15-minute workshop on contract change management); and further interface improvements including multiple language support. This version is likely to be released in the second quarter of 2013.
- v6.3 (if it’s called that) will include Dropbox-style sharing including offline synchronisation of folders; improvements to metadata editing and workflow reporting tools; and enabling scanned documents to be turned into searchable text. This version is likely to appear towards the end of 2013.
The Business Collaborator product management team is also echoing other Unit4 solutions (eg: Agresso) in establishing an ‘Ideas’ page. Users were invited to submit ideas for improving BC, which could then be discussed and voted upon by other users, helping guide the company’s product development (similar to Asite‘s crowd-sourcing of ideas from its community in 2009). This is “coming soon”, apparently.
The future: BIM and linked data
The conference gave me chance to talk to some BC users, including a retail customer (post to follow) and also to Sanjeev Shah, formerly MD of the Business Collaborator business and now innovation director for Unit4 Business Software. He is taking some of the Software-as-a-Service expertise from BC and extending its reach within Unit4, so that the BC platform becomes the main document management/control system. In addition, the BC Assure system is already being deployed for quality assurance purposes to manage implementation of Unit4 Agresso systems, and BC’s Rick Cooper and Steve Crompton are driving development of Unit4’s building information modelling (BIM) capabilities.
Sanj said there was a “massive focus on BIM” within Unit4, particularly as the business looks beyond the UK government’s 2016 target of ‘level 2’ BIM adoption. ‘Level 3’ adoption would potentially enable a significant tie-in with Unit4 ERP and financial applications, he said, with Unit4 Business Analytics also being used to report on data, FieldForce enabling mobile management of BIM data out in the field, and potential to manage procurement processes driven by BIM data. In fact, “data” was perhaps the most over-used word in our conversation; Unit4 is developing its capabilities in respect of linked data, considering how it can use the RDF format to connect different data (including a proposed national asset database) and power new transaction processes (this concept also featured in the future-gazing section of a later presentation by HM Govt BIM Working Group chair Mark Bew).
BC BIM roadmap
In parallel with the core BC platform roadmap, there is also a BC BIM module roadmap, again with two phases to its 2013 programme aimed at helping customers achieve ‘level 2’ with BC as the common data environment. Rick Cooper said the first phase would focus on data collation and validation, including import, validation and export of COBie files, with desktop visualisation using a WebGL-based interface. The second phase extends to data coordination and collaboration, looking at how BC can be used to securely manage and version-control ‘federated’ models, at managing workflow including using model snapshots and markup, then mobile visualisation, and also reporting tools. Steve Crompton also highlighted the use of linked data, talking about the platform adopting semantic web principles to deliver information.
Since my first Unit4/Business Collaborator user conference a year ago, the BC team has developed a more detailed picture of how BIM fits into its product roadmap, both at the level of the core BC product and for integration with other Unit4 software platforms, and there is a strong corporate will to deliver this through the cloud. Unit4 has been an active participant in the UK BIM Task Group’s BIM Technologies Alliance (I understand from a conversation with CIRIA’s Bill Healey that collaboration competitors Conject, 4Projects and Causeway are also involved as are software authoring tool providers such as Autodesk and Bentley, who also provide collaboration tools), but – with the exception of 4Projects – it appears more ready to embrace open standards and to look at the wider integration opportunities, including ERP.
I was struck by the similarity of conversations I had with 4Projects and with Unit4, though the former are more focused on the opportunity within the AEC vertical, while the latter sees a wider picture embracing its numerous public sector customers. Both are well-advanced with their plans, have clear roadmaps to describe to their customers and prospects (while some of their rivals’ BIM strategies are less well defined), and appear keen to help set technology standards to support BIM-related collaboration up to ‘level 2’ and, importantly, beyond.
[Disclosure: my expenses to attend the Unit4 conference were paid by the organisers.]