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Common cause

Industry-wide collaboration is aiming to establish electronic transfer as the routine way of sending information between organisations. Lisa Russell reports.

Time is wasted and errors made when information is printed out and sent to another organisation which has to key it in all over again. No-one disputes the benefits of integrating systems so that the data can be sent electronically, says Tim Cole, community manager for Construction Industry Trading Electronically. 'The problem is that we don't do things just because they are good for us - integration has to be driven by innovators,' he says.

CITE's member organisations from across construction have set themselves the task of leading this innovation, and Cole is keen for more to join the 170 or so already involved.

The idea is to come up with an information language for construction. Just as people communicate through words, computers interface best by exchanging data.

Companies thinking they are safe simply because they don't see change happening, 'won't be able to respond the day they discover their competitor has developed a completely different way of working', he warns.

The signs are already there. He points to an initiative in New South Wales, Australia, launched when the government became concerned that home- grown companies might lose market share if they did not embrace electronic data exchange. The government itself is conducting more of its business electronically. Companies must therefore develop compatible business communications if they want to win government contracts. Singapore has gone even further, with building and development applications only accepted on electronic format. Yet in the UK, says Cole, it is still not uncommon for to require tenders to be filled in by hand.

He points to the many types of information flowing through a project: tendering, despatch notes, invoices, credit notes, site documents and so on. Having a common language doesn't mean everyone having to work in the same way, using the same software, he stresses.

'Flexibility comes from a common interchange,' says Cole. Developing this as part of an industry collaboration allows the industry to remain in control, and avoids duplication of effort.

CITE already has standards in place for aspects including invoices, orders and despatch notes. Various other initiatives are under way. Bovis for instance is piloting the Smart Trak system of bar code recognition of delivery notes.

Administration of the Inland Revenue's Construction Industry Scheme will generally involve more paperwork, but CITE has worked with the IR to provide options for most payment details to be returned electronically.

Membership of CITE spans the industry, including clients, contractors, suppliers, quantity surveyors, client groups, architects and some 30 software suppliers.

The cause has some high profile advocates. Chairing the annual conference on 7 October is Alan Crane, managing director of Christiani & Nielsen and also chairman of the Movement for Innovation board charged with implementing the Egan Task Force recommendations.

In his keynote address, Crane will emphasise how CITE provides a fundamental opportunity for innovators to streamline the process of construction, remove waste and add value to clients and project partners alike.

Time saving is perhaps the most obvious benefit of electronic data exchange, in avoiding re-keying of information - and forestalling resulting errors. Cole points to other tangible paybacks aside from avoidance of disputes. The Department of the Environment Water Service in Northern Ireland found distribution costs were cut by 90%, Kvaerner saved six days on tendering for one job alone, and Hanson Aggregates reduced registration costs by 40p per invoice, he says.

The systems being developed by CITE will also support information exchanged over the internet. For example, tenders might be downloaded from a web site, technical queries could be sent to a project extranet or despatch notes could be sent by e-mail. The software can also support electronic orders being sent or received by e-mail.

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