Networking the building team

With project management online, firms find a whole host of issues requires consideration
August 11, 2010

As singer Bob Dylan used to croon, the times they are a' changin', and the area of project management is no exception. Before the advent of the dot-com world, Ken Herold, chief knowledge officer of St. Louis-based A/E Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Inc. (HOK), recalls: "Typically our drawings were sent out separately either through the mail, e-mailed to different subcontractors or to the contractor or printed and mailed." Multiple channels of communication meant an uneven distribution of knowledge about the status of the project, "which can get kind of hairy on some projects where 30 parties are involved," Herold notes.

With the advent of project management Web sites and extranets, life in some ways has grown much simpler. Alde Ortega, vice president, e-business operations for New York City-based contractor and construction manager Bovis Lend Lease Americas, says project management Web sites are primarily used for collaborative work, which includes storing and retrieving documents.

"Essentially these things make the communication flow more efficient and effective," says Timothy N. Beally, senior vice president and head of the information technology (IT) group for architect/engineer, contractor and construction manager 3D/International, based in Houston. "The benefit to the marketplace is that it will reduce processing time," says Beally. "Requests for information that took 21 days may take just a week or even two days."

Online project management also allows for better accountability. When someone looks at a document, the computer keeps a log as to who saw it and when. Later a firm cannot deny having seen it because the log proves otherwise.

Another benefit, except for Federal Express and other overnight services, is that the cost of mailing documents is eliminated. "Generally speaking, 5 to 10 percent of the cost of the project is saved" with online project management, Beally says.

Of considerable value is the faster pace of construction. "When looking at Wal-Mart or Intel, if the plant or store is brought on line a month earlier, it saves hundreds, thousands or millions of dollars" as the companies' production draws income more quickly, says Beally.

To capitalize on this trend, a multitude of software companies have jumped into the project management marketplace, and managers can be left confused and dazed by the decision as to which software to use. "You have to determine what you want because there are so many features," says Beally.

Process, technology must jibe

From another perspective, Ortega says, "The first thing we discovered was that it was really critical to align our business process with the technology or the Web site functionality that was available."

Each product has a different feature set, so the choice must depend upon what is needed. If the managers want a file management system, the ability to send drawings back and forth and process requests for information, that functionality must be included. "It's really a continuous process that they have to go through in defining what they need and learning about what's out there," Beally says.

An important factor in selecting the product, says Beally, is properly picking the people to help research software and implement online project management. "Forcing change in an organization is not an easy thing to do. You have to have the right people who can go with the ups and downs of change and make sure it will be done effectively. Find people who are willing to think out of the box a little bit," Beally explains.

A persistent, articulate champion who will sell the project — one who is from the operational field, not from IT — is necessary. "These solutions are no more an IT solution than Microsoft Word is an IT solution," Beally says. It also isn't necessary to have every bell and whistle, says Beally. "Eighty percent of the need can be satisfied by 20 percent of the features."

Web cams, for example, may be part of project management software, but can be expensive. "With us," says Ortega, it comes down to simply dollars." If the owner wants to have a Web cam and it fits within the budget, it will be included. More typically, though, a Web cam is employed more as a marketing tool, although it does show progress.

A pilot project is useful in determining bugs, such as discovering how much bandwidth (communication speed) is necessary and obtainable within the construction trailer.

Proper training is critical as well. As Ortega explains, teaching the entire building team, which involves both internal and external members, is an ongoing process. "We've focused now on just-in-time training, starting small and continuing with improvement," he says. Participants are only trained on what they need to get their objective accomplished.

Instituting project management online is not without its pitfalls. New releases can be especially disastrous. Ortega says, "Every time new software is released is very painful." Some of the software has not been properly tested before release, leading to costly mistakes.

"One thing I think is very important is for the organization to incorporate this e-business into its overall strategy and then attack it like any other mission critical to have in the organization," says Ortega. "Senior management has to support and believe in it from the top down, and it has to be adopted from the bottom up."

Industry officials compare the acceptance of online project management to the incursion of computer-aid design (CAD) into the profession, which took 10 years or more to accomplish. The same is true of online project management. "I think document sharing is becoming pretty standard. That's been around for eight or nine years," he says. Capturing the process of decision making, however, is in its initial stages of adoption. Herold estimates that only 10 percent of HOK's projects are managed online now, but he expects that someday project management online will be a requirement, not merely an innovation.