The internet is fast becoming the first place to try when you need information. Granted, you might not always find exactly what you are looking for, or you may feel that you would have been quicker picking up the phone or shouting your question across the office.
But with every month, the task gets easier as more and more firms set up websites and, in particular, develop these to meet the growing demands of users. Two thirds of construction professionals now have access to the internet at work and around half use it regularly.
But information is only the starting point. More fundamental changes are afoot. The internet is set to become an integral part of the working day as more tools and services become available electronically and e-commerce starts to take hold. Buying gifts and books online might be the big thing now but it is nothing compared to the vast potential for delivering business to business services, potential that is only just starting to be fulfilled.
It is against this background that NCE Plus launches today, providing services tailored to civil engineers.
NCE Plus is one of a family of three new websites launched under the umbrella brand Construction Plus. All offer similar suites of bespoke services, linked with NCE and its sister publications Construction News and The Architects' Journal.
The sites can already be accessed free by anyone on the internet and, if you don't have an account to give you access to the web (or if you want another one for free), you can use Construction Plus as your Internet Service Provider.
Construction Plus is supported by 30 launch partners, all major organisations from across the industry. Together these firms turn over some £12bn a year in the UK and account for about 20% of the industry's total output. They are already finding the internet increasingly important to their operations, and many are taking steps to do more business electronically.
Although NCE Plus bears the NCE magazine brand, it is not simply an electronic version of the magazine. It complements rather than copies the magazine. The site offers services such as news updated throughout the day, searchable product databases, three day weather forecasts, and interactive photo- graphs; features that could not be offered in print.
But NCE Plus users can search and retrieve any magazine article that has been published over the past two years. The well-established Careers in Construction site, carrying over 800 jobs at any one time and attracting over 40,000 visits a month, now becomes an integral part of NCE Plus and its sister sites.
The development of NCE Plus has been carried out in close partnership with netdecisions, a leading e-commerce solutions provider. Netdecisions' works with both established companies seeking to embrace the internet and with new internet ventures that challenge traditional business methods.
'While most of the hype focuses on what the consumer can now access through the internet, there is no question that business to business electronic commerce is of much greater significance,' says netdecisions chief executive Manoj Badale. 'Companies such as Chemdex, Produxion and Internet Capital Group will soon dwarf many of the higher profile consumer players. And the key to winning will be the combination of content and commerce.'
Emap Construct managing director Simon Middelboe, the driving force behind Construction Plus, believes there is also a third vital ingredient for internet success - community.
Creating communities allows people to congregate to exchange ideas and information, monitor industry events and develop their skills and careers, says Middelboe. This aspect tends to be neglected on many US sites, he believes, with construction treated as one homogeneous mass, rather than catering for the idiosyncrasies of the different groups of professionals in the industry.
One of the first tasks for netdecisions was to find out exactly how civil engineers worked - who they talk to, what they do, how long it takes, where their information comes from. This has allowed them to identify how internet-based content and services could make life easier.
This research led to the development of a key feature of NCE Plus - the Knowledge Bank. Good ideas are put into practice every day on site and in the office, but most find no recognition outside the project team or department. The Knowledge Bank is the place civil engineers can describe these solutions, large or small, business or technical, and share best practice.
Whether it is a new bridge strengthening technique, a neat tip for saving time on a structural analysis problem, the benefits of a project newsletter, or an original use for barcodes, the Knowledge Bank is the place to share it.
Operation is deliberately straightforward and informal. Information - typically 200-500 words - can be filled in online (or sent in by e-mail or post). Reports are indexed according to subject matter and the type of work they might apply to. Selected magazine articles from NCE and Ground Engineering are already in place to prime the system.
This is intended to become an essential tool for civil engineers, giving the user practical ideas to put into use or prompts for lateral thinking, and helping the author with feedback, increased profile and perhaps even business. Contact details are included: no-one is expected to give away their commercial secrets.
But construction is also a vast marketplace, with 10,000 manufacturers, some 10,000 new launches a year and 200,000 active specifiers and purchasers. A key role of NCE Plus will be to bring buyers and sellers together, whether indirectly through areas like the Knowledge Bank, or directly through the company and product directories.
This week's launch is, of course, just the start. An internet site should never be finished: there is always more information to add, more ways of making it work better and new areas to develop.
Some new additions to NCE Plus are already being worked on. These new ideas will become apparent as the site evolves and you make your needs in the in civil engineering community known.