Live from ICT4Construction conference, London

The ICT4Construction conference (post), being held today in London, has attracted representatives from several companies regularly covered in this blog. 4Projects is a sponsor (and Clare Watson is due to speak); Sword CTSpace is the opening speaker, followed by MPS, and Union Square will also be talking; and I am sitting behind Yuval Attias and Rob Phillpot from Aconex. I also saw someone from Unit4 Collaboration, and met a representative of ThinkProject!, over from Dubai.

Constructing Excellence‘s Jon de Souza has given a keynote advocating collaborative working, and use of common systems and processes in particular, and highlighting the growing potential impact of building information modelling (I am waiting to see if this will be reflected in the content from any of the collaboration vendors).

Sword CTSpace

10am: The Sword CTSpace presentation, delivered by Mike Smith (see post), was a quick canter through the corporate background (mentions of BuildOnline, Citadon and Cimage), Fusion Enterprise and FusionLive, and the new mobile application (post). Nothing surprising – mainly a sales pitch.


10.45am: John Broome, a consultant to MPS, gave some background to construction contracts and why the NEC3 family of contracts is different, and a look at active risk registers, compensation events and other contract change processes.

Robin Wilkin followed up by showing how MPS supports the NEC3 – “a simple system that is easy to access” even on low-bandwidth connections. MPS delivers an IBM-hosted service (data hosted at an IBM centre near Portsmouth), supporting projects as far afield as Christchurch, New Zealand). He demonstrated the MPS platform, based on templates for the different versions of the NEC, then configured to suit the precise terms of the project contract, including ‘Z clauses’. The monetary aspects of change are managed through the system, with activities managed through a work breakdown structure (the reports look very spreadsheet-y), with linked documents (eg quotations, instructions) captured in the database. The “All Current” report lists all ‘calls to action’ communications and who is required to take the next step.


11.45am: Stuart Farmer from EliteSuite talked about managing collaboration, including use of email and online file-sharing systems (eg: Huddle, DropBox) for basic collaboration. Email of course remains prevalent in collaboration, he says, along with use of files on desktops and local area networks. He positioned EliteFile as a conduit between internet/cloud or hosted applications and desktop applications and local systems. He described it as complementary to existing applications, unifying workspaces, simplifying tasks, and ensuring files (emails, documents, scanned drawings, photographs, etc) are saved consistently according to consistent rules. Elitefile incorporates a universal viewer for common file formats, with a search tool that allows you to search and to download from online applications (he showed Cadweb). Wonder if this covers much the same kind of territory as Union Square’s Workspace?


12.15pm: The RedSkyIT person talked about the Summit product, with presentation of information built around the project or contract – with some good-looking dashboard views (graphs and pie-charts do help convey information quickly). It all looked very Windows-oriented, very conventional – and while the platform is more attractive than the MPS solution’s UI (which, while deliberately simple, Twitter-backchat suggested had been designed by a lawyer!), it didn’t appeal to me.


12.45pm: Richard Brotherton of AceCad talked about tools for steelwork design and fabrication, talking about “Fabrication Information Modelling” (FIM), among other BIM acronyms, so that structural modelling could be integrated with other elements of design – process engineering models, for example. From a BIM point of view, this was the most advanced presentation so far (reflecting, perhaps, how far structural engineering is ahead of some other construction sectors). He showed change management associated with 3D designs; the StruCad system automatically manages all documents, including all revisions, RFIs and variations, maintaining an audit trail of all changes; StruWalker helps project review and collaboration. Richard also talked repeatedly about routine e-sharing of information with stakeholders, with a model viewer showing both the design and associated project programmes and other data.


14.35pm: Clare Watson’s talk in the graveyard slot was entitled Time, Cost and Carbon Savings Using Online Collaboration (a refreshing break from the sales pitches and demos). Cost is critical at the moment, she says, following the economic downturn and last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review – not exactly “There is no money”, but definitely less money – and she picked up on remarks by UK chief construction adviser Paul Morrell who is talking currently (eg: at Constructing Excellence’s members’ convention) about “More for Less”, and Cost and Carbon as the King and Queen of industry issues.

Interestingly, she resurrected the Compagnia report into the UK collaboration market, produced in 2003, highlighting the benefits it identified – and suggested these savings and opportunities could still be applied today. Some direct cost savings are ‘no-brainers’ (print, postage, storage savings, etc), but also indirect cost savings: reduced network data traffic demands and costs, lower data storage costs, faster searches, less lost information, fewer ineffective meetings, reduced travel costs, etc. Examples included: Six Continents Retail saved £17,000 a year in office space costs due to paper storage savings: supermarket identified 4Projects saved it £50,000 in distributing information; architectural practice saved £1500/project; retail chain opened branches two weeks earlier by using 4Projects.

As for carbon savings, “Working collaboratively is a greener way of working,” Clare said, recalling the paper and related savings (paper, couriers, transport, etc). Emirates Stadium involved 72,000 documents, she said – so print and distribution savings can give major carbon savings. Avoiding car and air travel to meetings can also yield significant carbon savings, as can archiving information

Looking into the detail of hosting, she got more interesting, looking at the example of a dedicated project server, looking at typical user patterns, consuming 662kg of CO2 a year. By contrast, the 4Projects datacentre uses 13,109kg of carbon per annum. To achieve similar carbon savings would require 20 customers, and 4Projects has many more than that. Even greater savings could accrue, she said, from using the software to manage information across the life-cycle of a project, not just for project delivery.

Clare also highlighted how the main technologies had all moved way beyond simple document collaboration – tender management, milestone management, and contract manager are all modules that 4Projects has launched in the last 12 months. Some other business processes could benefit (eg: asset management, KPI and financial control, quality management, HR, marketing, internal business processes) as they still involve sharing information and collaboration.

Union Square

15.10pm: Stuart Bell talked about Union Square’s internal collaboration platform, Workspace, which has about 30,000 users, he said, positioning the system as one way to meet various compliance and knowledge management issues. “Too many organisations floundering in a sea of information, structured and unstructured … too many repositories … and specialist technologies,” he said, and – drawing on AIIM research – he highlighted how email represents 85% of correspondence between companies; average corporate user sends/receives 156 emails per day; 2.5 hours a day spent on email-related tasks.

Stuart picked up on Gartner’s 10 Technology Trends to Watch, particularly portals/mashups and cloud computing, and after looking back to the 1990s early adoption of the Web talked about today’s capacity to publish and engage online through Web 2.0 tools (as yet under-utilised for business purposes, he felt). iGoogle and configurable BBC home pages help us keep up-to-date on our personal interests, so perhaps we need similar common tools for business use maybe via an enterprise portal?

He then showed Workspace and its ‘dashparts’ that could be configured for different types of users. Tesco’s use of Workspace as ‘My Property’ got a mention (he didn’t mention that this was delivered by Styles & Wood’s subsidiary, iSite), and he showed several different implementations – all with different look and feel (I liked the company, Connisbeere [I think], who called their portal “Cowshed”!). He touched on cultural change issues (but was a little sceptical about it happening soon), but was obviously optimistic about what portal technology might deliver.

Arup on BEM

16.00pm: Nigel Woodridge talked about changing design requirements, and Arup’s approach: Built Environmental Modelling (BEM): centrally sharing business systems, CAD, GIS and analytical systems, combining information, project, cost and CAD management. He did a quick lesson in using CAD and parametrics, before moving on to 4D modelling, construction sequencing (5D) with costs, GIS (using Google Earth as an example for public consultation), and smarter (and smoother and more efficient) information modelling. He also talked about smart tags with barcodes.

Nigel reckons the government drive to implement BIM will need to be emulated in due course with BEM.

The McGraw-Hill Construction SmartMarket Report: The Business Value of BIM in Europe (overview here) got a plug, highlighting the efficiency opportunities, but also the challenges (including the biggest one: interoperability). Technophobes also need to lose their fear of BIM, and work out a way to evolve progressively and cost-effectively.

The Smarter Planet – IBM

16.30pm: Lu Kum Tan(?) of IBM had a presentation that started at the Planet level, then looked at Smarter Cities, and the need, within that, for Smarter Buildings and for horizontal/vertical connection. The Smarter Planet initiative adopted a “system of systems” approach demanding we be ‘instrumented’, ‘interconnected’ (people, buildings, campuses, offices, etc) and ‘intelligent’ in order to be smarter. Clients adopting ‘Whole life-cycle cost model’ approaches are driving changes (as are contractors looking at similar approaches), and we need to be greener with our buildings (both existing and new build). He highlighted the UK programme for new nuclear power stations as an opportunity to really push the BIM approach.

Review (added 29 October 2010)

The collaboration theme was interpreted in various ways at this conference to fit with vendors’ perspectives, but, apart from the speakers looking at the BIM opportunities (non-vendor Nigel’s presentation was perhaps the highlight), there wasn’t much that was new. Indeed, as one person suggested to me, some content could have been delivered ten years ago with hardly a change, and later speakers were apparently amending their slides so as not to reiterate points already made. For example, the paper and meetings savings were repeatedly rolled out, while I would have welcomed a longer discussion of how SaaS hosting could contribute to carbon savings.

I also think vendors need to avoid talking mainly about their products, services and clients, and including product demonstrations – these are rarely effective and can be a big ‘switch-off’ to some conference delegates.

It was a shame that the event, despite its central location and attractive price tag (well done, Recep!), didn’t attract a bigger audience. Was this because organisations and/or their employees are reluctant to spare time for out-of-the-office events? Did it reflect a view that construction collaboration was something we wanted to learn about in the early 2000s? Was the event publicised sufficiently in the right places?

Whatever the reason, the turn-out (around 50, I think) was relatively sparse and there was little to spark debate – most of the presentations came and went without any questions, sadly. A panel debate, maybe one arguing the pros and cons of Software-as-a-Service, for example, might have broken things up a bit and got more people contributing.

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