Last week, I had lunch with a long-time friend in the construction collaboration technology sector, and we talked about low and no-cost file-sharing. It is, we agreed, easy to take a generic file-sharing system and claim that it is invaluable for users in the architecture, engineering and construction industry, but a lot harder to actually show how such systems will specifically add value to AEC users. Too often, the systems include no CAD file viewers and storage capacity constraints can quickly erode their perceived value. I wrote about box.net (among others) earlier this month; another candidate identifying AEC as a potential market is US-based Filegenius.
I found Filegenius’s landing page for AEC by chance, and its talk of saving AEC firms “hundreds, even thousands of dollars per month in recovered reprographic and delivery costs” is depressingly familiar. These are the kinds of claims that technology vendors have been making to the AEC sector for a decade and more (conveniently overlooking that email is often used instead of physical delivery).
The real benefits come from integrating file-sharing into construction processes (workflows), from enabling context-sensitive collaboration, from avoiding time-wasting searches and rework, and from avoiding disputes and litigation. In my view, creating ‘electronic planrooms’ has some value when dealing with small projects and/or small teams, but for more ambitious projects employing bigger, more fragmented teams, you need something more sophisticated which supports industry-specific processes and protocols.
Great point, Paul. I think part of the problem is that companies want measurable improvements when they adopt a new system, and the purely financial cost-saving of not having to send CDs or print-outs of drawings (which some large projects still do even these days… just two years ago I recall walking into a room in a large refurbishment, and the floor was covered with neatly arranged cardboard boxes full of binders, full of drawings; that was their document control system) – this financial cost-saving is easy to measure.
On the other hand, “Your people will work better together and waste less time looking for drawings in their inbox, and there’ll be less likelihood of disagreements” is comparatively harder to measure. You’d need to be able to run the same project twice, with the same team – once with the system, and once without. And this is obviously not a practical option. Even if you were to run aggregate studies on large numbers of projects, you wouldn’t really be able to control for factors such as the fact that teams that demand electronic document control probably are more modern in their approaches than those who don’t.
Interestingly, IT has exactly the same problem, which is why it is still plagued with management issues – it’s really, really difficult to do comparative studies and measure whether a new management practice or development approach really does help… and until that’s possible, there can’t really be any solid progress.