Trusting the internet

One objection some people have to use of web-based technologies concerns security, and their lack of trust in the technologies to manage confidential or sensitive information. Yet, this uncertainty is slowly declining – the latest evidence comes from a survey of attitudes to online banking. The survey (reported by here) suggests more than a third of people in the UK (38 per cent) will be banking online in five years’ time (based on a sample of 2,115 people surveyed by the Future Foundation). This compares to only three per cent of respondents who were using internet banking in 1999, and 18 per cent this year.

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Charging crisis (2)

In my initial Charging crisis post I wondered about the ‘elephant hunter’ sales person analogy.

BIW CEO Colin Smith has filled in a gap in my knowledge. In IT businesses, apparently, sales personnel were advised to nurture three different types of account: ‘rabbits’ that could be converted into frequent, small sales; ‘deer’ that would yield medium-sized sales but less frequently; and ‘elephants’ – infrequent and difficult to finish off but yielding big money.

This doesn’t leave me any closer to an analogy for ASP salespeople. After all, the ASP will be receiving regular, small payments from its customer, not getting a single up-front licence payment; maybe we could liken them to honey-bees, returning regularly to particular flowers to collect nectar? Anyone get a better suggestion?

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No, it’s not a misprint. IPCRES is the strange name given to a group of UK businesses, describing themselves as "the industry-leading Project Management & Property IT Solution Providers". One of the group is extranet provider Cadweb; the others are ICON (design standards software), EPC Integration (project management) and The FM Company (facilities management).

I tried finding a rationale for the IPCRES name, but the website isn’t forthcoming on that issue. It can’t be an abbreviation or acronym formed from the initials of the four companies. It doesn’t appear to have any links with the Insurers Property Crime RESearch working group or the Indiana Pervasive Computing RESearch Initiative. And there is no obvious link to "The Ipcress File", the Len Deighton novel and film (starring Michael Caine): an espionage and brainwashing thriller where IPCRESS means ‘Induction of Psychoneuroses by Conditioned Reflex Under Stress’ (as Michael might add: "And not a lot of people know that").

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Social aspects of collaboration

As a sociologist (OK, my doctorate was in criminology, but I had to do all the sociological stuff first) now working in the construction industry, I have long been interested in team dynamics – an interest stimulated still further by the challenge of incorporating technology into the mix. Thanks to the guys at Cutting Through on two counts.

First, they link to an interesting recent paper by Dr Niki Panteli from Bath University School of Management, looking at how to develop trust within virtual teams.

Second, they expanded on some of the issues, highlighting three ways in which technology can play a part in the communication process. Their focus does not appear to be project extranets, but the ideas can certainly be applied to implementation of construction collaboration technologies:

  1. ensure that there’s at least one physical face-to-face meeting between team members during the course of the project. On most construction projects, this should not be a problem – face-to-face meetings have long been a regular feature of project teamwork, and most extranet implementation processes tend to include initial face-to-face workshops and training sessions with team members; on some projects, teams also hold periodic user group meetings too.
  2. put together a ‘biography page’ somewhere on the project intranet. They suggest each team member should contribute a mugshot, a potted biography and some social detail (eg: ‘three things no-one knows about me’). For intranet, read extranet also, I think – too many user profiles contain little more than name, company and contact details.
  3. build on the background by using a project blog as a means of communicating between team members so that an individual’s personal style comes through instead of being throttled by dry and impersonal project documentation. I like this idea too, but some traditional construction professionals might be nervous about how ‘chatty’ exchanges might be accommodated alongside the formal interactions – particularly when one output of the extranet will be a complete archive and audit trail of all individual project-related interactions. Running a separate project blog, however, runs the risk of creating a parallel route for communications, undermining the completeness of the project extranet.

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Differentiation by extranet

I have written so much over the past year or so that I sometimes forget what’s been published. While browsing the legal sector blog, Knowledgeline, I found a post about how extranets can help legal firms differentiate themselves from their competitors.

This reminded that I wrote an article (September 2004) on a similar topic for the Construction Marketing Community (a great resource for construction industry marketeers). Entitled What Construction Marketing Professionals Need to Know about Collaboration Technology, my article outlined several potential opportunities for AEC firms to differentiate themselves. For example:

  • Meet customers’ demands that their supply chain partners are ‘internet-literate’
  • Build new service offers by, for example, combining their traditional strengths with expertise in implementing and supporting collaboration technology (eg: IT audits, consultancy, training)
  • Achieve market positioning as innovators – championing the Latham and Egan principles of partnering, lean construction and integration
  • Build better processes – collaboration technology can help improve the business’s internal processes, and improve their control and management of projects and supply chains
  • Make pricing more competitive – by knowing the cost savings that can arise from using the technology, consultants or contractors can also price their services more competitively.

I also argued that increased use of collaboration technology may also lead supply chain SMEs to rethink how they respond to customer opportunities. They might, for example, form temporary consortia – Egan described them as ‘virtual companies’ in Rethinking Construction – pooling resources so that they can collectively respond more effectively to their customers’ demands.

On their own, many small contractors, subcontractors and consultants may be unable to provide required levels of service. But by combining with other enterprises with complementary skills and resources, and using collaboration technology to share data, they could become valuable members of the client’s team.

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Charging crisis

A few years ago, printed magazines used to take precedence over my online reading, now it’s the other way round – which is one reason why I only just picked up on the lead article ‘Charging Crisis’ in Information Age magazine.

The crisis relates to traditional software licensing, which, the article suggests, is being challenged by the world of on-demand, agile computing, paid for according to demand. It quotes an AMR survey of IT executives suggesting on-demand licensing will move from its current 9% to 23%, which will have repercussions for traditional software vendors:

"… software sales must be accounted for differently, with repercussions for supplier cash flow and reported profits. It also means that the whole way in which software is sold will have to change – with big-account ‘elephant hunter’ sales staff most under threat."

I like the ‘elephant hunter’ analogy. It makes me wonder, though, how you would describe the sales staff in an ASP or ‘Software as a Service’ business? Any ideas?

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ProjectNet: old technology?

A bit late in the day, I know, but I just came across an article by Susan Smith in US online publication AECweekly dated 25 July 2005. Entitled "Where Integration and Customization are Key", the piece is built around an interview with Chris French, senior product manager at Citadon. If I were a customer or end-user of the old ProjectNet solution, this would make slightly worrying reading.

It describes briefly the US origins of ProjectNet and the emergence of Citadon CW. Following a string of mergers between the various US players, it became clear that a completely new product needed to be developed, based on more advanced technology. Built on a web services architecture, Citadon CW therefore superceded ProjectNet from 2001 onwards (in other words, it infers ProjectNet is ‘old’ technology). Then, talk about faint praise….

"ProjectNet is still alive and well and has several customers worldwide. In contrast, CW has open architecture and the best functionality which lends itself to integration and customization.

So, just “several customers worldwide”, and an architecture that is neither open nor open to integration or customisation! Just in case you missed the point, Mr French underlines the differences.

"The biggest differences are in the integration and customization capabilities. …, ProjectNet has a set of standard processes …, like RFIs, meeting minutes, punch lists, change orders, etc. which are primarily targeted toward AEC, and there are some administrative capabilities to set up who has the rights to set up all those actions and processes. In ProjectNet, you use the forms that are built in there, whereas in CW you have the ability to modify the forms any way you want."

"Upgrade releases for Project Net are still available as mostly maintenance releases."

In October 2004, Citadon released a new, lower-cost version of ProjectNet for small teams (ProjectNet STE) which is positioned as an introduction to online collaboration and allows users to migrate eventually to Citadon CW – but not, it appears (though I may be wrong), to ProjectNet.

With the apparent demise of Bidcom UK, ProjectNet is now mainly resold in the UK through E-box, being focused on the PFI market for health and education projects (among others) as PFINet.

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As a long-time contributor to the Wikipedia, I have been interested in Wikis for a while. I read in today about a new real-time collaboration tool from JotSpot.

JotSpot Live is a web-based Wiki application designed for live group note taking, allowing users to write text and edit what others write – ideal (they say) for group brainstorming sessions, virtual meetings and building agendas. Such a tool hopefully offers much more chance of getting a set of meeting notes that everyone agrees with, while each individual’s key learning points could be highlighted and shared with other participants. Sounds cool.

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Moaning architects? (2)

Further to yesterday’s post, I received a more detailed response from Erik Winterkorn at the CICA. He writes:

"First, it seems that contractors and clients still request paper copies of documents for distribution purposes. Arrangements can be made for all project printing to be done through a bureau and perhaps paid for directly by the client, but this doesn’t seem to be the norm. Also, consultants still print drawings for checking and sign-off purposes. The general view of CICA’s Major Architects, Major Consulting Engineers and even Major Contractors is that on-screen checking, where the individual must flip between and compare different documents doesn’t usually work. Sometimes the possibility of using magnetic ink or simply AI screens is raised, but screen-based checking and red-lining seems to be confined to rare enthusiasts and applications such as the checking of piping and instrumentation drawings on petrochem work.

"Second, firms complain about the need to train people to use different systems on different projects and lack of fit with office QA and archiving policies.

"Finally, CICA still hear people say most extranets are designed to meet contractors’ needs, they are typically introduced too late in projects, do not always integrate adequately with CAD and other applications, and do not support an industry standard set of transactions involving industry standard metadata, eg: Doclink.  Perhaps, all these criticisms are now no longer true, but we still hear them along with comments like "the bloody thing doesn’t handle batch uploads properly."

Is Erik correct? Are extranet users really reluctant to use red-lining? Do architects and others need to update their QA and/or archiving policies to reflect the growing use of construction collaboration technologies?

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Moaning architects?

I received the latest Construction Industry Computing Association newsletter today. Apart from its publicity for my book, I was struck by a comment from its Major Architects IT Group, which apparently discussed:

"The false impression that extranets reduce the amount of architects’ printing and the growing awareness of the true costs associated with using different extranets on different projects."

I immediately emailed Erik Winterkorn at the CICA and subsequently had a long telephone conversation with him. It seems that the ‘printing’ comment related to some CAD managers’ experience of contractors who still insisted on receiving copies of drawings in paper form (ie: they hadn’t adapted their processes to accommodate an online system – for example, their QA system might still require a signature on an physical A3 copy of the drawing – and/or didn’t want to burdened with the cost/hassle of printing drawings out themselves). In short, this wasn’t so much a complaint about the technology as about the people and processes employed around that technology.

The ‘true costs’ comment seems to reflect some practices’ experience of staff having to familiarise themselves with two or more systems, given that architects’ clients often dictate which system they should use. It seems this issue is made worse by the high staff turnover experienced within many architects’ practices: when extranet-proficient staff leave, suitable replacements have to be recruited and trained up.

The picture painted by Erik’s explanations is much less depressing than that summarised in the IT group meeting notes. But the damage may already have been done. Some readers of the CICA newsletter will be left with the (wrong) impression that there may be no substance to the technology vendors’ claims about drawing cost savings, etc.

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