Union Square is now embracing the AEC ‘extranet’ world it once avoided, and is going mobile with its workflow.
Today’s 12th Union Square user group conference at the Royal College of General Practitioners in London saw the launch of the Nottingham, UK-based software vendor’s contract administration module, plus announcements about forthcoming mobile and ‘extranet’ functionality.
In its early days around 2000, Union Square rode the wave of construction interest in online project or document collaboration, but – in the face of stiff competition from pure Software-as-a-Service ‘extranet’ providers – it reverted to its core intranet business. As a result, it has grown a thriving business, now turning over £6.1m, up from £5m in 2013) based on delivering mainly on-premise document sharing software, predominantly to UK SME architectural firms, other AEC professionals and contracting businesses, plus project accounting functionality (expanding since its introduction in 2010).
Architect firm delegates comprised just over a third of the event’s attendee list (57 out of 147), with the balance equally shared between other professional services and contractors (45 each).
MD Richard Vincent welcomed delegates to the conference, highlighting the company’s continued growth and new customers. Union Square has got its first customers in north America (Integral) and Scandinavia (Tengbom), and now has 12 customers in its strategically important Australian market, he said, before starting to introduce the day’s main announcements where “workflow is everywhere“. These included a new contract administration module, plus announcements about mobile and extranet tools.
Changes to Union Square’s document management capabilities were reviewed, then document (drawing) lifecycle management – the interface all very Microsoft-ish in appearance, reflecting its software architecture and its integration with Outlook in many organisations. The system’s commenting/mark-up tool is no longer a plugin – a toolbar appears in the drawing view and the tools (cloud, arrows, etc) work straight from the browser (questioning revealed some users still use alternative and more highly featured viewing solutions).
Union Square Android mobile app
Union Square’s mobile application is not a cut-down version of the workflow toolset for the tablet, Richard said, before outlining their high level considerations:
- apps need to work without data connections
- apps must leverage the device capabilities (cameras, GPS, etc)
- need to be rapidly configurable (few inspection processes, for example, are ever identical)
- need to seamless fit into the larger process.
The first app is available for Android devices from Google’s Playstore, but Union Square is also going down the Apple iOS route (perhaps surprisingly, there was no mention of Windows, despite their systems’ Microsoft foundation; other AEC vendors have different OS preferences – Asite, for example, said on Monday its mobile tools were iOS first, then Microsoft, then Android). Richard demonstrated a site inspection process, showing how data could be synchronised before a user went out on site, how data could be entered into the interface, adding photographs, then signing off the process (signatures were time-and date-stamped, with GPS coordinates included to add further evidence of the site-specific, contemporaneous reporting). Upon return to the office, that data is synchronised, and all information and any associated photographs are immediately available to other users on the main Union Square platform.
Contract administration and extranet
Phil Shaw presented the contract administration and extranet overviews. He demonstrated configuration of typical request for information, RFI-type processes and how these could be routed for approval, reply and completion (all pretty much standard on the SaaS platforms I know), but there was no discussion of specific sets of workflows to support particular contract types (eg NEC3, JCT, etc; this field is also contested by several SaaS ‘extranet’ vendors plus contract change management specialists such as Sypro).
The extranet functionality, Phil said, was “A departure from the traditional Union Square model, allowing outside people to enter the secure, shared online environment and view and interact with information”. The extranet is typically created as a separate space from the document management system (so there may be some potential duplication of data held in internal systems); it can be internally hosted, or held in an external data centre (Stuart Bell told me that around 30 customers have taken this option, and that demand for the extranet module had been driven almost solely by the company’s contractor customers). It will typically be licensed on a per-project basis.
As with most other AEC extranet solutions, external users are issued with logins for access, and viewing, upload and other rights can be controlled at the individual level. When users access the system, they can view all the projects they are authorised to see, and – depending on their access rights – interact with other users, including via the contract administration workflows.
Union Square’s software development is plainly driven by the priorities of its users who are, for the most part, dealing with the ongoing challenges of managing day-to-day construction operations within which email remains the predominant communication channel. Opening up mobile and extranet channels to reduce some email traffic will clearly help, as will a planned public API to aid integration with third-party, mainly back-office applications.
However, it appeared that most of the company’s customers are collaborating mainly on documents and 2D drawing outputs. BIM was only discussed very briefly during the morning (I was not allowed to attend an afternoon break-out session where users were to discuss BIM experiences and needs); Union Square is setting up a customer BIM group, looking at IFC issues, and exploring how it might share model data via its extranet. I talked briefly with Union Square directors Richard Vincent and Will Yandell (over from Australia), and commercial lead Stuart Bell at lunchtime afterwards and they said few customers were actively discussing BIM – perhaps a reflection of current levels of BIM interest among their largely SME customer base.