Last month BuildOnline declared itself the first project collaboration provider to turn a profit, thanks to an overdue awakening of interest in the civils sector. But was it ever really asleep? Mark Hansford investigates.
In recent months many of the industry's biggest clients have boasted how project collaboration software will save them time and money on construction projects: The Highways Agency, BAA, Thames Water and the Metronet Consortium are all now committed users of internet and intranet based information sharing systems.
One of these deals, with Metronet, was big enough to push specialist provider to the civils sector BuildOnline past break-even point, eliciting huge sighs of relief.
'Two years ago there was a lot of hype around the dotcoms and people were hesitant about investing, ' says managing director Mark Oliver. 'Now the market has settled down and people are asking not 'should I be using this?' but 'who should I work with?'.'
'It's a bit like the early days of CAD [computer aided design], where each consultant had their own CAD software. But they have all now moved to industry standard software, and the same will happen with project collaboration, ' Oliver predicts.
Oliver quotes from Barbour Index 2002, which forecasts that next year the percentage of new projects using collaboration will grow to 20%, up from 10% this year and just 2% in 2002 - figures backed by a recent NCE poll of the internet in which 94% of respondents said they are regular business users of the internet, and 38% said they were using online project collaboration.
Use of project collaboration software varies widely according to the value of the job: On projects worth more than £5M, 55% of teams will use them next year, up from 35% this year and 25% last. That collaboration seems to appeal more to the larger projects is of no surprise to Oliver.
'If you can increase your profit margin from 2% to 2.5% on a £5M job, that's a big gain and means you can afford to spend a bit on software. £1.5M is the smallest project we have, ' Oliver says. His view is shared by Causeway Technologies chief executive Graeme CunninghamWalker. 'Collaboration is coming to the fore and is now part of the IT shopping list for the big multi-million pound projects.
But it is still an open question for small and medium-sized projects. 'We've not yet worked out whether there is a clear return for the smaller, tens of thousands, jobs, ' he says.
But is project collaboration the sole preserve of larger projects? And who decides to use it in the first place?
'In our experience the decision to use collaboration comes either from the client or contractor for use on a specific project, ' Oliver states. 'Consultants tend to work in a decentralised way, so different people have different preferences and decisions are made on a project level, where it is the choice of the client or contractor.'
Oliver firmly believes BuildOnline to be 'the choice of the contractor' and cites projects such as the A303 widening at Stonehenge, the A3 widening at Hindhead, and the A120 Stansted to Braintree improvement, all of which are using BuildOnline through its links with contractor Balfour Beatty.
But major consultants would surely disagree. Atkins for one has been a user of project collaboration for more than two years, with over 5,600 employees worldwide using iProNET, a customised version of Business Collaborator.
Similarly, consultant Mott MacDonald has this week signed a deal continuing its commitment to collaboration provider 4Projects. Like Atkins, Mott MacDonald uses a generic form of the extranet facility provided by 4Projects and has almost 1,800 users worldwide.
Certainly, no suggestion that civils consultants have been slow on the uptake goes down well with Business Collaborator technical director Stephen Crompton. 'Six out of the top twelve UK consultants use our software, but they use it in a generic system, ' says Crompton.
'There is a big difference between having collaboration for one project and having it for an entire programme. We are certainly only interested in getting in on a company-wide basis. Being project-based is not financially supportable.'
Consultant Arup is another early adopter, and through Causeway Technologies will be using collaboration across the project team on the M6 Toll (see box). 'Arup has been using our solution for two years or more, ' says CunninghamWalker. 'You might argue that the civils sector was late to embrace collaboration, but it is my view that we have now leapfrogged over the building sector.
'In the building industry, where traditional, adversarial contracts are still the norm, firms are holding a lot of information outside of shared extranets. But in civils, because of the new procurement methods, firms are using extranets to take on a more collaborative culture. Civils firms are opening up far more information for all to see through extranets.'
So is it the decision of contractors and clients? One client to definitely let its consultants decide is the Highways Agency.
It left the choice to its new Managing Agent Contractors (MACs) with Causeway coming out clear winner - its software is now being used in Areas 7, 9 and 11.
The Agency will be hoping it can match the benefits claimed by another major UK client, BAA. Savings made in the last year through its use of Asite - which supplies project collaboration tools through Citadon and BIW Technologies - have prompted BAA to predict that £8M will be saved by using Asite in 2003.
'Over the last year Asite has delivered significant time and cost benefits to BAA's projects, typically reducing out-turn costs by 2%, ' says Mathew Riley, BAA commercial director for Terminal Five and a non-executive director of Asite. 'As a direct result of these benchmarked figures we are now rolling out Asite across all future projects.
'This will deliver predictable savings in the region of £8M for 2003, ' says Riley. And that really is the bottom line.'