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Weaning users on to technology

The typical communication chain in the delivery of projects is tortuous and inefficient. Briefings from customer to designers, planners and specifiers lead to design requirements in drawn and written form from designers to contractors. This results in a plethora of data with sub-contractors, suppliers and installers.

Amendments and revisions are common throughout the process and correspondence is voluminous. All this combines to produce a confusing and sometimes inaccurate picture, and often an administrative and contractual nightmare. Certainly, it is all very costly.

Recent information technology developments offer construction project teams many opportunities.

Modelling software allows unprecedented simulation of building systems. Data can be linked with visualisation software to produce 3D representations of design proposals from the earliest stages of a project.

Appearance and function can be expressed in a way which can be understood by all and enable the widest informed range of contributions to brief and design development. Building on the computer before going on site allows coordination and methods to be optimised economically.

Data describing the building can be shared continually from the earliest stages of design through to occupation.

Networked computers allow information transfer without loss of quality.Databases and search engines enable instant access to up to date information in a form that can be reused by local software applications.The tools feature highly graphical interfaces that are intuitive and easy to use.

Project collaboration extranet sites can make this information available anywhere in the world at any time and require no more skill to use than primary school children deploy when they surf the internet.

The opportunity Building (conception, realisation and occupation) is a collaborative process between disparate people with differing skills and needs.It is a meeting of strangers coming together to create a one-off facility that satisfies the unique needs of a particular set of clients and users.The success of this venture depends on how successfully members of the team make their needs and proposals accessible to others.

Communication must be founded on a bedrock of face to face interaction, for which there is no substitute.This is how key decisions are reached and common purpose is developed and maintained.

The methods commonly used by project teams have seen some development in recent years.The reality is that the ability to change is being stifled by, on one hand, a lack of awareness of the possibilities and, on the other, the inertia of a critical mass of project participants.

There is tremendous scope for change. Access to personal computers, networks and the internet are becoming commonplace. People at the interfaces between construction companies are becoming increasingly computer literate, as useful and easy-to-use software becomes available at a reasonable price.

The culture for change is becoming stronger as the pressure to address fragmentation and confrontational relationships grows and clients increasingly insist on cooperation and emphasis on the project rather than the participants.

Collaboration extranets The day-to-day reality of information exchange on projects has much to do with transfer through a secondary media such as paper or electronic files. In practice, too much effort goes into dealing with the media and too little is spent developing, understanding and implementing ideas.

Consider how you spend your own time and you may be surprised how little of it is actually spent adding value.How can this be improved?

The internet revolution has, one way or another, touched all of our lives, whether we realise it or not.The reasons that it has been able to do this are well known:

It is inexpensive, readily available and easy to use.

It is interactive and packed with pictures and sounds that stimulate and inform.

It allows easy navigation around information held in many remote locations.

It allows this information to be downloaded, manipulated and published easily.

It potentially reaches everyone, everywhere, all the time.

It can work with databases which allows generation of workflow and audits.

We would like to have many of these attributes in our ideal project communication system, hence the collaboration extranet website.An extranet is nothing more than a secure version of an internet site, generally set up to share information between specific members of a project team. The technology and methods used are otherwise identical.

Integration is the collaboration extranet which has been developed by Arup. A single 'virtual repository' of project data is created at the outset and is developed and administered for the access and use of all involved parties.

Drawings, specifications, minutes, correspondence, contact details, questions and their answers are all deposited on a structured extranet site which builds over the project duration to a comprehensive and accurate database with a trackable history. Input and amendment protocols ensure efficient and appropriate use of the system and firewalls protect confidential information as appropriate.

The technology can support a linkable range of different formats of information ranging from CAD drawings, through to project correspondence, cost plans, programmes, interactive virtual reality, on-line discussions and meetings, and site cameras.

E-business implementation The key to successful implementation of an e-business strategy is to take baby steps that must be small enough to carry users along with the proposed changes to process and use of technology.The issues are practical ones:

Implementation requires planned investment in software, hardware and training.

An effective training method can be through an initial intensive period of instruction followed by supervision 'on the job' Success depends on understanding between those who facilitate the technical aspects and those who control the business.

Consider whether to implement using resources available in the project team or to use an external agency or provider.

Do not just use IT because it is there. Potential benefits need to be quantified in advance and referred to and reassessed along the road.

Consider what you want to do and then overlay the technology, not the other way round.

Involve project teams in the implementation process, both to make sure that the IT is used in the most effective way and to secure their buy-in.

Do not underestimate the value of training.

Benefits will only be maximised where there is buy-in across the project team and where any necessary translation of data between different software applications can be proven.

Beware both of software hype and misinformation on one hand and of the semi-informed cynic who has 'seen it all go wrong before'on the other.

Plan how the methods will respond to the changing personalities and the needs and types of input throughout the project.

Consider relevant technical skills and attitudes of prospective new team members before they are appointed and put procedures in place to educate them.

Establish feedback and change mechanisms to ensure effectiveness.

This offers many benefits and promotes a culture of openness, information sharing and mutual support on projects. If adopted sensibly it leads to fewer surprises and less waste and brings efficiency benefits to all members of a project team.

The good news is that there are a number of examples where there has been real beneficial and measurable change. Only our imagination, our will and our ability to implement these technologies limit the possibilities for improvement.

Stuart Cowperthwaite is associate director at Arup.

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