AECbytes Viewpoint #59 (March 29, 2011)

Message to the Project Management Software Industry: You need to learn ESPERANTO

Gustavo Lima, AIA, LEED AP
Principal, Cannon Design

Esperanto is an artificially constructed language, developed with the goal of being a lingua-franca across nations speaking different tongues, in the hope of facilitating collaboration, cooperation and good will.

We, the users of Project Management programs for the A/E/C industry, need the Project Management software industry to teach their programs how to speak a neutral language to each other, so that we can all use them to communicate directly with one another, without the need for duplicate data entry and while keeping our own data secure and private.

Project Management (PM) software in the A/E/C industry was developed to facilitate the creation, tracking and exchange of large volumes of information. Originally targeted at the contractor community (which remains its primary user), these programs are today also used by architects, engineers and clients. Unfortunately, these systems don’t play well with each other, so while collaboration is possible and desirable within each system, it is virtually impossible across systems. The different systems operate like a series of locked rooms, with their users passing forth virtual sheets of paper to each other and re-entering the information by hand.

Collaboration vs. “My Way or the Highway”

For centuries, the design and construction industry had two types of documents: drawings and text (photos are a recent invention, not quite 200 years old). During all this time, “document management” meant managing paper. This remained the case even after the invention of CAD and word processing applications, since these programs were mainly a way of producing paper documents more efficiently.

In the late eighties, taking advantage of the incredible power of standalone personal computers (those 386’s running DOS, complete with 20 MB hard disks!), a few enlightened pioneers made it possible to harness the power of databases to manage the information contained in those pieces of paper, instead of the paper itself, and the modern “document control system” was born. At that time, CAD was already an established technology, but because it was running on the same underpowered computers, it was still only a few notches above “etch-a-sketch.” In that pre-Windows era, the Internet was a geek-only product and e-mail was an über-geek tool, mainly used by the likes of physics post-docs at MIT.

Fast forward to 2011 and e-mail is everywhere (too much of it, in fact!), social networks are the norm, and BIM and “the Cloud” rule the A/E/C world. Everybody understands that open collaboration is the way to increased productivity.

However, the only way to really collaborate in the construction PM arena is for all players in a project team to agree to use the same software platform and the same unique database. This information can only reside in one place, and is either hosted by one of the players or by a third party neutral provider, putting all this ultra-valuable information outside each player’s own in-house information system. And since team players are routinely working on more than one project at a time, the information they need to improve their own performance resides in multiple remote sources, all incompatible with each other, and beyond the reach of management. What a waste.

Better, Faster, Cheaper

The benefits of integrated and collaborative document control are very large. For the last 20 years, Cannon Design, a leading Architecture, Engineering and Project Delivery firm of 1,000, with offices in the US, Canada, China, India and the Middle East, has been using Oracle Primavera Contract Manager, a powerful web-based system, to generate, track, and respond to all construction related documents associated with the projects we design. Each year, Cannon Design creates, logs, and tracks more than 40,000 submittals, RFIs, change orders, field visit reports, meeting minutes and other construction-related documents in its projects (currently close to 200 projects per year, with a construction value in excess of $2 Billion). By giving team members from all over the world the ability to access and act upon this information directly on a 24/7/365 basis, we have drastically reduced turn-around times while increasing record-keeping accuracy.

However, it is our ability to aggregate, analyze and report on this data, in real time and across projects, market segments, disciplines and geographies which gives us unparalleled insight into our performance. Consider the following:

  1. Management, from the project level to the CEO, now detects potential problems in their infancy and deploys the necessary resources to address them before they become crises.
  1. We detect and understand performance differences across business units and challenge them to excel.
  1. We challenge contractors, construction managers, and consultants to improve their performance, because we know what their competitors do on a real time basis. And we have the data to prove it.
  1. We use our performance information to more accurately price our services, and then, once the project starts, we use the same metrics to monitor compliance with the project business plan.

Data mining has given Cannon Design a substantial competitive advantage and dramatically reduced our exposure to delay claims.  

Submittal Volume vs. Turn-Around Time (Calendar Days) Average: Note how the average monthly turn-around time (red line), which in 2005/06 was between 12 and 14 calendar days, has steadily decreased to under 8 calendar days in 2010, in spite of the large variation in the volume of documents processed (yellow line). (Courtesy: Cannon Design)

However, because in many projects, the client, contractor, or construction manager has a document control system of their own which they ask everybody to use, we are frequently “double logging” this information, once in our own system and once in the project-mandated system. The cost for this effort is substantial and, I submit, prevents most companies from implementing an enterprise-wide strategy. Furthermore, it contributes to an industry-wide productivity drag.

It’s Time to Stop This Inefficiency

In order for the construction industry to improve its overall performance, we need to go beyond project productivity and focus on portfolio productivity. All players in the industry need to improve their own performance, for which they need to be able to use metrics to analyze it across all projects in which the company is engaged. The only way to do that is to have immediate and unfettered access to enterprise-wide data and to use powerful analytics to mine it for valuable knowledge. (See “Competing on Analytics: The new science of winning” by Davenport & Harris, 2007.) Remember: You can’t improve what you can’t measure.

The PM software industry leaders need to agree on a set of “on-the-fly” translation conventions, a “Rosetta Stone” of sorts, so that each player can enter data in his or her own system and still communicate with each other efficiently, without the need for duplicate data entry.

Each company needs to be able to have its own system, tracking its own documents, across all the projects it is engaged in. This is the only thing that allows for development of consistent enterprise-wide practices and metrics. The reduction in liability exposure that stems from being able to view a picture of the entire firm’s backlog of construction related documents is enormous. Couple that with the performance improvement derived from being able to use consistent practices instead of having to learn the idiosyncrasies of a dozen software packages and 200 different project setups, and the savings start piling up. (Note: Accounting departments in all industries, including our own, recognized this phenomenon decades ago; it is the rationale behind Management Information Systems world-wide.)

Each company needs to be able to shield certain data from others. Security is important: the industry is routinely involved in critical projects, and much of the documentation being “shared” is either copyrighted, proprietary, secure, mission-critical, privileged, or all of the above.

Each company needs to know that its data is secure and won’t disappear. There are huge sums of money riding on this. Nobody is interested in putting all its available information into somebody else’s system, risking that a dispute may result in being shut-out of your own data, or risking that their server goes down and dies.

Why Can’t We Do Better?

In an ideal scenario, the constructors (GC’s & CM’s) should be able to generate an RFI in their own document control system (DCS), then send it electronically to the consultants (architects and engineers), who would open it with their own DCS, provide the answer, attach any required documents and bounce it back to the constructors, who would forward the answer to their subcontractors, who would, in turn, open it in their own DCS. Multiple document control systems, no duplicate data entry.

If you think that this is farfetched, please realize that this is exactly the way in which e-mail works today. The content of an e-mail, its attachments, and all its meta-data such as sender, recipient(s), date and time, etc., all are accessible by everybody, regardless of the e-mail platform they use.

Why can’t we have this? After all, RFI’s are nothing but glorified e-mails! We’ve been asking for this for a long time (see AECbytes Newsletter # 31 on the AIA TAP 2007 conference where I presented a joint session with John Moebes of the Building division of Crate & Barrel highlighting these problems). The Industry Foundation Classes has been doing something similar for BIM, arguably a more complex data structure. It is indeed time for the PM software industry to develop our own Esperanto.


About the Author

Gustavo A. Lima is a Principal at Cannon Design. He has over 30 years of experience in architecture and construction management. As corporate Director of Construction Administration at Cannon, Mr. Lima is responsible for the development and coordination of construction quality initiatives for the firm’s 17 offices, and oversees Cannon Design’s construction-related performance in more than 200 projects annually throughout North America. Mr. Lima’s area of interest resides at the intersection of design and construction, believing that both disciplines are essential components of a powerful client-centered architectural practice.

A native of Argentina, Mr. Lima holds a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Buenos Aires, and a Masters of Architecture in Advanced Building Technologies from the University at Buffalo. He is a frequent lecturer at the Cannon Design Academy, the University at Buffalo, and the American Institute of Architects.

Note: The views expressed in Viewpoint articles are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect those of AECbytes. Also, AECbytes content should not be reproduced on any other website, blog, print publication, or newsletter without permission.


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