Data Management

Newforma Project Center Fourth Edition (Cadalyst Labs Review)

1 Nov, 2007 By: Jerry Laiserin

Efficient e-mail management can save time and offset costs.


When computing pioneer J.C.R. Licklider first juxtaposed the words personal and computing in 1962, what he had in mind was a human–machine symbiosis in which computers would take on the repetitive drudge work of information management and liberate people to do the creative, judgment-based sorts of things that computers can't.



Today, after half a century of digital revolution, we humans often find ourselves burdened by the very PCs that were supposed to liberate us. Particularly in project-centric industries such as AEC, we — not our computers — labor at such soulless tasks as moving and copying digital files in myriad formats across imaginary trees of invisible folders governed by arcane protocols. However, we can recapture much of the original vision that involves using PC software to make our lives easier with Newforma Project Center.

Newforma's founders are AEC technology veterans whose careers include stints on both the practice side and the software-business side. The team's breadth and depth of experience is reflected in the product and in the way it came to exist.

Newforma applies a radical but all-too-rare approach to developing its Newforma Project Center software. Everyone in the company believes that the way a piece of software works should match users' behaviors, not force users to change their behaviors to conform to the software. Most end users and practice managers in AEC have come to dread new software; they fear taking two steps forward and one step back. When Newforma Project Center is added to an AEC firm's workflow, however, the experience is more like the same, only better.

Not Just the Same Old, Same Old

The path to AEC software nirvana is strewn with technologic road kill — everything from document-management systems to knowledge management, intranets, extranets, and myriad forms of electronic collaboration. Each enjoyed its moment in the sun, and some still are used effectively, but most have not survived their initial buzz of enthusiasm. Why and how is Newforma Project Center different?

Newforma Project Center Fourth Edition
Newforma Project Center Fourth Edition

Unlike document-management systems, knowledge management, and most intranets, Newforma Project Center relies on a bottom-up (rather than top-down) approach to managing information. What I mean by this is that it does not impose a preordained way of organizing information — a taxonomy, to use a fancy word. Instead, Newforma Project Center provides a painless and seamless way to find and retrieve any and all information that bubbles up in any design firm during the ordinary course of practice. No special dialog boxes interrupt the normal flow of opening and saving everyday files. No one has to use arbitrary and hard-to-remember file-classification schemata; they just use the same files in the same places they've always been. No tricky and annoying metadata need be applied if one hopes ever to see a particular bit of information again.

In a similar way, Newforma Project Center relies on an inside-out rather than outside-in approach to sharing information within a project team. Most so-called extranets, project-specific Web site services, and similar project-collaboration networks shift the management of shared information outside any individual firm. Those services centralize a document repository, messaging clearinghouse, and transactional database. This approach would be ideal if only one such system existed or if firms only worked on one project at a time. However, hundreds of these services operated prior to the dot-com implosion in mid-2000, and dozens of contenders — from online plan rooms to full-blown electronic collaboration systems — are still out there. This diversity means that project managers dealing with multiple projects on behalf of any firm likely will face multiple interfaces, each with its own login and file structure and each demanding its own cycle of file uploads and synchronization.

Newforma Project Center literally turns this problem inside out, providing a uniform interface to all project personnel for all projects within a firm. Project personnel retain total control over external file transfers — without duplicating, moving, or posting files to any external site; without navigating the arcana of the in-house FTP server; and without stepping outside their familiar user ID and login/security system. Users need only identify the files to be transferred and to whom they are going. This system maximizes any project-centric business' scarcest resource: the time and attention of experienced project staff.

Because Newforma's approach to solving information-management problems is to digitally enable and enhance a firm's workflow, the developers wisely resisted the temptation to impose a de novo workflow system (many concoctions by other vendors may have been theoretically correct software designs but ended up disrupting work). Again, Newforma Project Center works the way users expect, rather than expecting users to work the way the software demands.

Finally, Newforma has chosen to build on and use the existing technology infrastructure of most firms, rather than starting over with new servers, new access controls, and security models or new file-directory structures and indexing methods. This is good news for the vast majority of AEC firms who run a predominantly Microsoft IT environment with Microsoft Office (2003 or later), the latest Windows file servers, and Exchange as the e-mail and calendaring server. For the much smaller group of non-Windows AEC firms? Not so much.

Productivity Software Done Right

This software promises almost everything a user could want and delivers almost everything it promises. As a reviewer, I must resist scrounging for silly little nits to pick, such as criticizing the help system (any software that requires a massive help system is not very productive software, in my opinion). On the other hand, Newforma Project Center is not a standalone desktop application that can be tested as one might test a CAD application. Instead, I requested and received a full-day, in-depth walkthrough of product features and functions from the folks on Newforma's development team who know the product best. Because I had to rely on this vendor-controlled demo environment, I chose to validate that information by interviewing users of Newforma Project Center. All aspects of this process exceeded my expectations.

Figure 1. All Newforma Project Center screens are organized for clarity, consistency, and easy access to relevant functions. (All images courtesy of Newforma)
Figure 1. All Newforma Project Center screens are organized for clarity, consistency, and easy access to relevant functions. (All images courtesy of Newforma)

Newforma Project Center is divided into function-based activity centers — screens devoted to particular activities such as e-mail management, document markup, or file transfers. Newforma Project Center screens (figure 1) typically are divided into a large main area that contains the principal listings of entities within each activity center (for example, lists of projects, e-mails, files, markups, issues, transfers, and so on) and a task panel that reflects task options appropriate to that activity, along with context-sensitive common questions (another reason Newforma Project Center has little need for voluminous help files). In addition to the comprehensive array of activity centers included in Newforma Project Center, users can configure custom activity centers based on any Windows application that can be invoked from a command line or any Web page or Web application with a URL. Thus, Newforma Project Center can easily serve as a firm's dashboard or default desktop, and several user firms reported using it just that way. The organization of most screens and the hierarchy of information presented on each screen in Newforma Project Center are consistent across activity centers, an approach derived from research by Microsoft and others on inductive user interfaces (a fancy way of saying that users can figure things out for themselves).

Figure 2. Newforma Project Center consists of easy-to-install client components (for desktops or laptops) and servers that can work in a single office or a multioffice firm.
Figure 2. Newforma Project Center consists of easy-to-install client components (for desktops or laptops) and servers that can work in a single office or a multioffice firm.

All of a firm's underlying files and directory structures remain intact and unchanged behind the Newforma Project Center interface. Nothing need be moved, duplicated, or renamed. The server-based component of Newforma Project Center (figure 2) automatically indexes all existing content on all existing servers, so what users see in Newforma Project Center's desktop component is a highly organized system of pointers to the existing files, no matter the organization of those existing files. One user described this as "a drape to throw over all the mess." Additionally, it's a low-risk strategy from an IT standpoint, because the existing files are not modified in any way. (Another low-risk feature is that most Newforma-generated content, including logs and markups, can be exported to Excel, PDF, XLS, or other non-Newforma–specific file formats in the unlikely event a firm ever chooses to abandon Newforma Project Center).

Figure 3. Painless management of project e-mail is one of Newforma Project Center's greatest benefits. For many firms, this feature alone could offset the cost of the software.
Figure 3. Painless management of project e-mail is one of Newforma Project Center's greatest benefits. For many firms, this feature alone could offset the cost of the software.

Activity centers feature the ability to navigate among multiple projects; drill down in detail on any project; navigate across multiple documents and document types; search and filter any documents such as e-mail (figure 3); manage issues that might arise during design or project collaboration; manage and compare document sets; redline and annotate any document or set of documents such as CAD/BIM files (figure 4); track and search the markups and compare document versions as well as successive markups; and track submittals and other project administrative details. These functions alone (and others too numerous to detail in a review of finite length) make Newforma Project Center a welcome addition to almost any AEC practice. However, Newforma Project Center's communication-management capabilities tip it from the nice-to-have into the must-have category.

Figure 4. Mark-up and annotation tools in Newforma Project Center can be used with any document or file type, including CAD and BIM files. Markups are searchable and preserve their information context.
Figure 4. Mark-up and annotation tools in Newforma Project Center can be used with any document or file type, including CAD and BIM files. Markups are searchable and preserve their information context.

A Cure for e-Net File Dysfunction

Perhaps the most challenging IT-based problem areas that AEC firms face today are e-mail and file transfers. In the dozen or so years since the mass commercialization of the Internet, e-mail has evolved from a techno-geek curiosity to the principal, if not exclusive, means of business communication today. The sheer volume of e-mail has grown and continues to grow. The number, size, and diversity of file attachments increase apace. Simply managing the contents of one's inbox has become a time-devouring burden for many project personnel. Messages sent to or from one staffer may contain information needed by everyone on the firm's project team, yet those messages remain buried in individual mailboxes, indiscriminately copied into everyone else's mailbox, or shunted to cumbersome systems of unmanaged public folders. Most methods of cleaning one's inbox render the moved messages nearly impossible to find and retrieve. Few workable and easy-to-use tools can archive all project e-mails within a firm alongside all other project documents. Furthermore, file attachments have grown too large and too numerous for efficient transfer via e-mail (senders and recipients often have maximum file-size limitations imposed by their servers, IT staff, or ISPs). Even absent limits, e-mailing large attachments can be painfully slow. Sending to multiple recipients generates multiple copies, increasing the burden on a firm's disk-storage capacity.

Newforma Project Center's e-mail functionality (an Outlook plug-in), combined with Newforma Information Exchange (a separate server that supersedes any FTP server or external service), cures all of these communication-file dysfunctions. E-mails can be saved to dedicated project folders with a few clicks. Multiple copies are automatically unduplicated. Everything is easily searchable and instantly retrievable, first by a clever system of content filters and then by a document/file–agnostic full text search (searching even within text blocks on and attributes of graphics, CAD, and BIM files). Anyone who can use Outlook can be fully productive with Newforma Project Center in a couple of hours. External transfers, whether of single files or massive document sets, are virtually idiot-proof (no offense, but even principals can do it). All transfers offer complete control, notification, verification, audit trails, and so on. E-mail, file transfer, and regular transmittals are integrated into a single comprehensive log or record of everything sent from the firm.

Don't Take My Word for It

The IT and operations folks at one customer firm with whom I spoke had rigorously estimated the amount of time wasted across all categories of staff (time lost to managing, filing, and retrieving e-mails and transferring files) as part of a return-on-investment (ROI) analysis for upper management when they were considering whether to try Newforma Project Center. For this firm, the initial analysis "seemed excessively positive" and had to be "adjusted downward to make it credible." Yet, the actual experience of Newforma Project Center exceeded this firm's expectations. Even at the full Newforma Project Center Enterprise subscription price, without volume price breaks, many firms will find that Newforma Project Center can pay for itself based on the e-mail time savings alone.

When I asked users about their overall satisfaction with Newforma Project Center, the answers all sounded alike: "One of the best things we've ever done"; "We couldn't imagine life without it"; "[Newforma] truly listens to their customers, more so than anybody else out there." When I asked users if they would recommend Newforma Project Center to other firms facing similar issues, one wag jokingly answered, "Not if they were our competitors." To my ear, that is the highest possible endorsement. Highly Recommended.

Acknowledgments

I would like to acknowledge the generous user feedback provided by Jill Rothenberg, CIO at ADD, an architectural firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Terry Turner, operations administrator, and Steve Rabits, IT manager, at BRPH Architects, an AEC firm in Melbourne, Florida; and several other Newforma customers who chose to remain anonymous.

Industry analyst and consultant Jerry Laiserin helps AEC/O businesses — and the technology providers who serve them — build smarter through the integration of technology strategy and business process. E-mail him at jerry@laiserin.com.


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