A Thorn in AEC's Side

20 Feb, 2008 By: Heather Livingston

Despite the range of available solutions, many firms have yet to adopt a good document management system.

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In its American Institute of Architects Best Practices contribution, Victor O. Schinnerer & Co. stated, “The volume and complexity of construction project records are increasing; electronic information is rapidly replacing written documentation; and the demands of document ownership, confidentiality, and security are becoming paramount. Records management is essential to project management. While good records management may help protect firms from liability claims, it may also enable them to manage their profitability better and enhance their marketing efforts.” As the AIA’s Commended Professional Liability Insurer, CNA/Schinnerer knows how important document storage can be, and what a complicated issue it has become in recent years.

Once upon a time, the business world -- AEC firms included -- revolved around the filing cabinet, that ubiquitous receptacle of knowledge and, if a project turns litigant, blame. These days, the file cabinet is little more than a place to put that desiccated poinsettia left over from Christmas. E-mail has become the primary method for project submittals and data storage, with file cabinets predominant in the virtual rather than physical realm. However, due to the proprietary nature of e-mail, key information is not always made available for the entire team.

Over the last two months, Cadalyst conducted an online poll on how project e-mails are managed. The poll asked two questions: How does your firm manage project e-mails, and what is the biggest challenge to managing project e-mails? More than 50% of the respondents reported that their firm tracks project e-mails through the in-box. With the recent emphasis on integrated project delivery, I had anticipated that more readers would use shared document management software like Newforma’s Project Center or ColumbiaSoft’s Document Locator, but only 22 out of 97 respondents do so. A dozen respondents have no project e-mail management system, and a mere eight respondents still employ the file cabinet.

The In-Box: A Big Problem
The two greatest challenges of project e-mail management, according to our respondents, are organizing and coding the files so that they are easily retrievable by the design team (30% of respondents) and finding the time to do these activities (29%).

Beyond that, the problems are many and varied: e-mails that fall in multiple categories; restricted mailbox size; connecting attached files to saved e-mails; and the high volume of project e-mails, to name just a few. In addition, in today’s practice there are many players on the design team. If e-mails and other project documents are kept in individual in-boxes with each employee a silo of information, vital information is inaccessible to the rest of the team. Additionally, when staff members change firms, they often empty their in-boxes before vacating, deleting that critical information.

Heather Livingston photo
Newforma Project Center is designed specifically for the architects, engineers and constructors of the AEC industry. (Click image for a larger view.)

Garbage In
Archiving and retrieving project documents also ranks high on the list of grievances. With nearly a third of respondents reporting that they lack the time to devote to the proper organization of project documents, it’s hardly surprising that files are sometimes miscoded. Because of time constraints, employees often delay putting key project data into shared folders. When they do finally devote time to filing project e-mails, mistakes are easily made. Remember the old computer science principle: garbage in, garbage out. With the vast and increasing quantity of project information required today, retrieving current and correctly coded files expeditiously can be difficult. Finding junked files years after project completion is time consuming, expensive, and nigh impossible.

Heather Livingston photo
Because the process of filing e-mail is greatly simplified, Oasys Mail Manager users can promptly file their e-mails to provide team members with immediate access. (Click image for a larger view.)

Policy Implementation
With all of these problems, what’s a firm to do? Well, the first step should be to create a firmwide document file and retention policy. According to Schinnerer, “Managing information does not mean saving everything. Systems must be efficient and procedures clear and simple so that the records retention process does not interfere with the functions of the firm.” Schinnerer says that the effective records retention policy

  • is in writing
  • identifies records by category
  • describes the length of time for retention
  • designates the methods of storage and destruction
  • establishes a protocol for determining whether hard to categorize documents should be retained or purged

Further, the successful policy addresses both business needs and applicable legal requirements, according to Schinnerer.

Beyond the creation of a document management and retention policy is enforcement. One way to ease the difficulty of project document management is through the use of shared document software. From the poll results, it appears that a good number of firms are using Exchange public folders. That’s a good first step, but there are a number of quality document management programs available, depending on the size of your firm and the degree to which you integrate with your key players. Newforma’s Project Center was the favorite with the respondents, followed by Clarosoft’s bespoke and Building Integration Software Company (bisco). Other programs available include Open Text, Arup’s Oasys Mail Manager, and McGraw-Hill’s Project Document Manager.

Dispute Resolution and Increased Profitability
Whatever solution your firm selects, Schinnerer says that document retention and destruction systems should be logical and easily administered. “The management of project records can make the critical difference between a prolonged dispute with an unfavorable outcome or the ability to continue in productive practice,” Schinnerer believes. “The real value of a firm’s records and records management program lies in the role they play in helping to manage the firm profitably.”

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