Building a Collaboration Bridge in Architecture, Engineering and Construction

The architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry has experienced rapid increases in design sophistication, leaving firms to grapple with how to address traditional concerns of how to raise productivity in the face of heightened project complexity and compressed project schedules. Add to the mix a proliferation of alternative project delivery methods and a growing number of stakeholders, and maintaining, let alone improving, productivity can become a challenging goal. With a renewed focus on effective collaboration, however, companies are realizing that this goal can be attained.

A number of industry developments are driving the need for greater collaboration within and between AEC firms. Foremost among them is schedule compression. As the design-build method of delivery becomes more prevalent, more projects are breaking ground before designs are finalized, putting pressure on everyone in the project to keep up. This abbreviated timetable raises manpower and logistics issues and strains existing communication processes. In addition, greater regulation and liability exposure, industry consolidation, and heightened specialty and complexity of design contribute to the need for improved collaboration.

As in any market sector, the AEC industry confronts a constant need to improve organizational efficiency in the face of ongoing competition. In the past, tools that improve productivity on an individual basis have typically provided organizations with a competitive advantage. For example, construction managers have improved their efficiency by using specialty software designed for estimating, resource planning, scheduling, tracking, and project accounting. Similarly, architecture and engineering professionals have increased their productivity by using CAD tools, benefiting from greater use of visualization, higher-level modeling, and computation. As these tools have become standard, however, they have put AEC firms on more or less equal footing with respect to individual output, and so the advantages to be gained in productivity have shifted elsewhere: to efficiencies gained by enhancing collective output.

Understanding the importance of collaboration and overcoming organizational challenges and resistance to adopting new systems are the first steps in creating a collaboration-focused environment. Projects involve individuals and groups at various levels, including owners, contractors, vendors, and even regulatory agencies, while collaboration is a process that takes place over time as people work together to reach a common goal. By implementing tools that facilitate the controlled sharing of information and drawings, including document communications, and by monitoring activity and automating business processes, firms can achieve greater efficiency and profitability while lowering risk.

Collaboration Toolsets: 3 Tiers of Sophistication

Using available collaboration technology, project leaders can ensure consistent information and priorities across a team, reduce time spent communicating with internal and external participants, and improve the accuracy and traceability of those communications. A number of tools can assist in these efforts and can be arranged in tiers according to their levels of complexity.

The first tier of collaboration tools includes commonly used and accepted communication technologies. From the telephone and fax to e-mail and instant messaging, these technologies foster unstructured and ad-hoc communication between individuals and sometimes among groups. However, they provide few collaboration benefits with respect to structured sharing of documents, recording and archiving communications, or managing business processes.

The next tier of collaboration tools are team-oriented tools that provide cooperative capabilities, such as the use of portal sites, document libraries, and shared task and status lists. These tools can make team or project information accessible to internal and external stakeholders, enhancing consensus and enabling information to be shared more effectively than possible with first-tier tools alone. Nonetheless, team-level tools often fail to deliver the larger business benefits of capturing and structuring information for use beyond the immediate team, or for meeting current and future corporate requirements. Furthermore, team-oriented tools often lack sufficient security, control, and auditing of document access for operational and legal needs.

The third tier, enterprise-class document management tools, represents the most advanced level of collaboration, and can provide seamless integration across different applications, roles, tasks, departments, organizations, and business processes. These tools can deliver business process automation, records management, and automated workflow as part of their collaboration functionality. Taken together and implemented correctly, such capabilities can significantly impact business efficiency and profitability. Using enterprise document management tools, workers can integrate information within their own operations as well as across the business departments that support them, such as finance, human resources, and legal, inside or outside the corporate firewall.

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