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AEC Tech News #148

3 Aug, 2005 By: Michael Dakan

Cadalyst AEC Tech News

Lessons Learned

Implementing Collaboration Management Systems

One of the sessions I attended at the recent AIA Convention in Las Vegas covered the use of collaboration software and techniques. Several architectural firms related their experience with implementing and using such systems to formalize the collaboration process. Collaboration techniques based on electronic information and document management have been a topic of much interest over the past several years, not only within the AEC industries but also for business processes in many other industries.

The need for good collaboration is obvious in processes as potentially complicated as those in the AEC industries. Typically, many different entities are involved in getting a building constructed, including building owners, users, financiers, design professionals and consultants on the many specialized component parts found in a building. Collaboration techniques involving technological tools have been available and in use for many years now in various industries, generating a growing amount of information and experience about implementation issues and solutions to problems that have been faced and overcome, with varying degrees of success.

People problems
I was struck by how many of the problems and solutions found in collaboration technologies are the same as those found in the implementation of all kinds of technology changes in firms, including CAD usage, project and financial management, building technology and CAD standards, information storage and retrieval, and so on. Many of the problems are not technology issues at all, but rather basic people issues and human relations management problems.
The session I attended was presented by Kristine Fallon, FAIA, who has had many years of experience in information technology systems for the AEC industries, and Stephen Hagan, FAIA, the current director of the Project Knowledge Center of the GSA (General Services Administration), which is in charge of the design and construction of all public buildings for the U. S. federal government.
Many collaboration and electronic document managing systems are available, encompassing a variety of capabilities and a corresponding range of costs. Any firm that is contemplating a collaboration system needs to do its own research to find a system tailored specifically to its needs and its budget constraints. I don’t intend to address the many different systems available in this issue of our newsletter, but instead concentrate on the common people issues involved with implementing these and other information management systems.

No way out
For electronic document management and collaboration systems to be effective, they must achieve universal participation. If people can bypass the system and fall back on old paper document management techniques, either through limitations of the software system or through management failures, the system will lose much of its usability and effectiveness. An effort must be made to eliminate paper documents throughout the process of design and construction. If a part of the system does not allow the elimination of paper, that part of the system should be changed.
Of course, any technology that changes people’s work habits and methods can’t be implemented overnight. Many technology changes can initially be implemented partially and in phases. But with collaboration systems, every effort needs to be made to achieve 100% utilization as quickly as possible. The quick elimination of parallel systems and reliance on paper-based systems must be a priority.
One part of this effort that can be difficult to achieve is the elimination of “wet signature” approvals and documentation of legal requirements, but the use of electronic signatures is gaining acceptance fairly rapidly. Including all pertinent e-mail messages in project documentation is also reported to be a common problem experienced by many users of these systems.

Ingredients for successful implementation include adequate training prior to implementation and the inclusion of requirements for use within contract documents. The impetus for adoption of these systems usually comes from building owners, who stand to lose or gain the most from better collaboration and efficiency in design and construction. We have reported in this newsletter (Sept 16, 2004) on a study conducted by NIST (National Institute of Science and Technology) that estimated the cost of inadequate interoperability in building design and construction to be almost $16 billion annually, most of which accrues to building owners and managers.

Solicit support
The one overriding ingredient in the implementation of any information technology system is achieving good “buy-in” by the users of the system. This means that users of the system have a good understanding of the benefits of using it, and they can get beyond a grudging acceptance, or even resistance, to using it. This can be the most difficult issue to overcome, though it’s the most important aspect to achieve.
Good buy-in is most likely to be achieved by including key stakeholders and user groups in the selection and decision-making process leading up to implementing a system. Sufficient training is also required to ease the pain of transition to any new software or IT system. And as is often the case with technology, successful implementation comes down to basic management issues rather than actual technology difficulties.