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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Asite books more losses

Among the regular email bulletins I receive is one from UK industry weekly Construction News. Today’s includes the above Asite headline, alerting us to the publication of the extranet provider’s latest interim results, for the six months to 30 June 2005.

Predictably, CN highlighted the losses, reported by Asite as follows: "The Group’s operating loss of £0.959 million compares with a loss of £0.843 million in the six months ended 30 June 2004, and £3.931 million in the 12 months ended 31 December 2004."

Colin Goodall, Asite’s chairman talked about "challenging conditions and technical issues faced by the Group in the second half of 2004". During the first six months of 2005, Tom Dengenis resigned as group chief executive in March, and turnover was up just 1% at £0.793m, but at least Asite claimed to "have now addressed the technical issues which held the Group back".

Mr Goodall reports: "The Group has now completed building its software development team in India where 62 staff are currently employed. In addition to development, system operations, design, testing and support activities are all carried out from our operations there." He went on: "The Group is now focussing its available resources on sales and business development and our progress in the first half of 2005 has been promising."

At lunchtime today (12.17pm BST), Asite shares were 15% down on yesterday’s close, at 2.125p, perhaps heading back towards the 2p levels it bottomed out at in June.

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Statistics, statistics

If you’ve Googled today, you may have noticed that the Google search page no longer says it indexes over eight billion web pages. An article, ‘Google: Our search is bigger than your search‘, in, says Google has stopped boasting about the size of its index "because people don’t necessarily agree on how to count it".

This strikes a familiar chord with me, as I have regularly had debates with other UK providers in the construction collaboration technology market about the size of their user base, number of projects, etc. From its earliest days, BIW, for example, made no secret of how many users, from how many companies, working on how many projects, it had using its application. It publishes these details on its home page, and regularly updates its other metrics via news releases. Most other providers, however, are more reticent. Some publish no figures at all. Others, notably Cadweb, publish numbers that are clearly based on a different way of counting.

Today, Cadweb’s statistics show it hosts just under four million items associated with 175 projects – an average of 22,839 items per project. Of the total number of items, some 2.1 million are drawings – meaning that there were around 11,780 drawings per project. Of course, this sounds very impressive, but to anyone with a working knowledge of the construction process the numbers are way too large. Presumably, Cadweb’s drawing total relates mainly to the total number of drawing copies and/or revisions. For example, if a single drawing is issued to, say, ten people, Cadweb presumably records that as 11, one original plus 10 electronic ‘copies’.

BIW, by comparison, is more up-front about its statistical policies. It counts its drawings once only; and, in a November 2004 news release, it said drawings on its 2300-odd projects were issued, on average, to an eight-strong issue list. The one million drawings it had at that date, would therefore have been augmented by a further eight million electronic ‘copies’. The number of original drawings per BIW project is – to my mind – much more realistic (around 460); the ‘copies’ would increase the total circulated to around 4140, while any drawing revisions would increase the number still further. I suspect, though, the final figure will still be well under that suggested by Cadweb’s project statistics.

If we are to make meaningful comparisons in the capabilities and capacities of different providers’ systems (and their infrastructures), there is clearly a need for an agreed way of counting drawings and documents, plus the host of electronically generated items (ranging from transmittals to instructions, requests for information (RFIs), change orders, etc). In my view, it makes sense to count all the items once only, regardless of the number of individuals on an issue list; allowances might also have to be made for drawing revisions. But I dare say Cadweb wouldn’t agree as its numbers might appear less significant.

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Service level agreements

Look around for a conservative, risk-averse profession – other than construction – and you might think about the legal world. I spoke about the construction industry’s use of project extranets at last year’s Legal IT Directors Forum at Gleneagles, and heard how some UK law firms were already embracing such technologies. I will be keeping an eye on this legal technology blog after I found a link to an interesting CIO article on service level agreements (the same author, from Xerdict, also produces a potentially useful legal extranet blog).

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New ROI: Return on Interoperability

I try to keep abreast of developments in IT developments in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) world. One useful newsletter I receive weekly is This week’s includes a link to the latest issue of Bentley’s magazine BE (not to be confused with the UK-based AEC organisation of the same name – see last week’s note about Constructing Excellence), wherein there is an interesting article by Bentley COO Malcolm Walter, looking at interoperability issues.

Walter focuses on what he calls “NIST dollars” – referring to the $16 billion lost annually in the US due to poor IT interoperability (this waste was identified in 2004 study of US capital facilities by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) I mentioned this study in Ch.10 of my book: similar lack of integration in the UK, I suggest, may cost the industry between £0.8bn and £1.6bn). He proposes a new meaning of ROI. Instead of ‘return on investment’, he talks about achieving a ‘return on interoperability’.

Walter’s solutions to the problem include interoperating software products (with Bentley at the core, naturally, alongside XML developments, and Bentley alliances with Adobe and Microsoft, among others). He also proposes Bentley’s ProjectWise collaboration solution as a means to save NIST dollars; US consultancy HDR found that:

"… using ProjectWise eliminated up to 30 man-hours per month per project, by avoiding file losses and unintentional reconfiguration of the design environment. In NIST dollars, that’s about $2,000 saved per month on each project. … it greatly reduces errors and confusion in file management. The natural result is better design, because time is focused on essential work, instead of tedious tracking and backtracking."

In my view, such savings will not be unique to ProjectWise, but could be attributed to the use of most sophisticated construction collaboration systems. Walter, however, does move the scenario forward in time, arguing that Building Information Modelling (BIM) and, in due course, integration with e-procurement offers yet further ‘NIST dollar’ savings. It is an intriguing vision, and while Walter argues that it can all be achieved "by taking advantage of the interoperability afforded by Bentley’s solutions" there is certainly no reason to believe that his company will be the only one active in this area.

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Why not Sharepoint?

Earlier this week someone asked me about using Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services to create an extranet (apparently, his IT department had proposed this as an alternative to them using an external application service provider, ASP). I expressed some reservations, mainly focused around two areas: first, support for common architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) file formats and for AEC processes, and, second, getting the most appropriate licensing structure.

On the first issue, while I have no doubt that SharePoint could be used quite successfully to help a small workgroup share a body of documents largely created using Microsoft Office products, I wonder if a SharePoint-based extranet could easily manage the numerous CAD files commonly exchanged within construction project teams. Even if access and viewing issues can be overcome, would such an extranet be able to manage AEC-specific workflow-type processes such as requests for information (RFIs), change orders, architect’s instructions, etc.

Compared to the simple single license-per-project approach (no limit on number of users, number of documents, etc) commonly employed by UK providers of web-based construction collaboration technologies, I had concerns about how easy it would be to license a multi-user extranet using SharePoint. My concerns, its seems, were correct. I found a post in Aimless Ramblings from a Blithering Lunatic . . . which describes the license requirements – lots of talk about having enough licenses to cover the expected number of concurrent users, plus licenses for the underlying SQL database.

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The reputation effect of Wi-Fi is reporting that London’s Canary Wharf business district is now to be Wi-Fi enabled. I don’t expect to see legions of people heading for the Isle of Dogs for free internet access, since the same article also says the operator, The Cloud, will be offering the service through service providers such as BT Openzone and O2, who often charge fixed monthly fees per end user (international readers should be aware: open Wi-Fi networks are the exception not the rule in the UK).

Contrast this with the US situation where free Wi-Fi access is widely available – something that columnist Peter Cochrane has argued more than once (in one of his articles, he likens using someone’s open Wi-Fi connection to taking refuge under the awning of a shop until the rain stops, or using the light from a shop window to read a map more clearly).

If I have a business meeting and find that my host has an open Wi-Fi connection, I will – if I have the time – take the opportunity to catch up with my email, etc. Perhaps we should regard an open Wi-Fi network as part of the hospitality routinely extended to meeting attendees (after all, most visitors will be given coffee, access to cloakrooms, heating and light, so what is the big deal about a few bytes of bandwidth?). Pedants will argue about security, ‘getting something for nothing’ and so on, but an accommodating approach to visitors, neighbours, passers-by, etc might do wonders for the host’s reputation.

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Browser battles

Catching up with, I read that Symantec is suggesting that the Mozilla browser Firefox is less secure than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, though the latter is still more likely to targetted by hackers. Read the original article here.

Mozilla hit back by claiming that its "ability to react, find a solution and put it into the user’s hands is better than Microsoft". Moreover, Microsoft’s "vulnerabilities are more critical ….With Firefox – yeah, you have holes but they’re much less serious. … Which would you prefer, to have a broken finger, or your head ripped off?" Nice analogy.

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Avanti reality check for extranets

One of the sessions at yesterday’s Constructing Excellence conference was an update on the DTI-funded Avanti programme. I have watched this initiative with some interest, particularly as it has incorporated the PIX Protocol into its outputs. I contributed to the Protocol on BIW’s behalf, but I haven’t (yet) become directly involved with the Avanti project.

Simon Rawlinson of Davis Langdon gave some feedback from some of the initial demonstration projects. He highlighted the perennial problem of measuring the benefits of IT adoption to support collaborative working. Drawing on feedback from the initial projects – none of which involve BIW (Asite and 4projects seem to be the main participants) – he urged a reality check as it appeared the extranets they were employing did not support some key workflow processes. I spoke to Simon after his session; he gave me a contact to follow this up for further information, so I will hopefully be able to post more details in due course.

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