According to recent report from the Australian Construction Industry Forum, total construction spending from 2013-14 was $233.2 billion.

Growth rates in construction activity are expected to remain relatively flat over the next several years, or in the case of engineering, experience significant decline as the spending in the mining and resources sector winds down.

Compounding the severity of this economic situation are two forces: labour prices and productivity. According to a report from Deloitte Access Economics and the Australian Constructors Association published last year, tremendous investment and growth in the engineering and construction fields produced higher wages relative to other sectors in the Australian economy.

The report indicates the possibility that, due to a variety of factors, these higher wages may persist over time, a particularly troubling scenario considering the predicted downturn in heavy civil construction.

The relatively higher cost of labour becomes even less palatable in an industry that is, according to a paper from PWC written in 2013, “a serial productivity underperformer.” This situation is not uncommon in other developed economies, and as someone who’s worked closely with the construction industry in the United States for nearly 35 years, I have seen the impact this can have on construction businesses.

In a low margin business that faces labour shortages, increased competition and funding scarcity, contractors need to be laser-focused on finding ways to maximise the efficiency in which their employees are managing projects, exchanging documents, tracking financial performance and resolving disputes.

Enterprise software that is built for the construction industry can play a critical role in improving a company’s overall productivity. From automating the workflow of documents to analysing project performance in real-time through reports and dashboards, enterprise software can give you the ability to reduce bottlenecks around project visibility and communication that occur not only in the field, but in the back office.

Evaluating construction software solutions can be a daunting process, so it’s important to begin the process with the end in mind. What are your strategic plans for the year and what are the potential barriers to those goals that software might be able to address?  One area that continues to be a major contributor to poor project outcomes is ineffective collaboration among the designer, architect, contractor and client. While this industry was once generally regarded as a low-tech business sector, great strides have been made in revolutionising project delivery processes and, in using technology, to enable effective collaboration.

A web-based collaboration platform can handle the constant exchange of information between all project team members, supporting common processes such as RFIs, variations, instructions and notices. With information stored in one place, finding the latest versions of drawings and other documents is simplified -search and reporting tools allow any authorised user to view the current status of any aspect of the project.

Contract change management workflows can be tracked to give project managers and the client more accurate forecasts of schedules and budgets, adjusting for weather events and other unpredictable factors. Drawings, documents and workflow information on the collaboration platform can also be accessed via mobile devices when the user is out on a job site. Structured data can also be captured in the field – for example, during inspections for health and safety, or construction quality control.

Web-based platforms provide a powerful means to centralise information for use throughout project delivery, from the earliest conceptual stages where the project brief needs to be developed, through detailed design and construction, to the final hand-over of a fully-documented new asset to the owner-operator.

These systems do not require any major investment by other end-users in new hardware or software to access the system. Information could be made available from a project-specific website hosted at the vendor’s facility, and could remain private, securely managed and only accessible by authorised team members.

Broadly, all such systems can be accessed through a computer equipped with a standard browser and a working internet connection. Authorised users, no matter where they are located, can get immediate 24/7 access to a single, secure, central repository of project data that grows as information about the project is developed by the team. Team members can add comments, issue notices, instructions and requests for information (RFIs), and publish drawings and documents, singly or in batches. Everyone works on the most up-to-date, accurate and relevant information backed by all the archive material, with all versions and interactions tracked and documented in a secure audit trail.

Ultimately, these web-based applications offer a way to improve the management of key project information, leading to an outcome in which project times, costs and risks (as well as post-project claims and litigation) could be reduced, and efficiency, communication and quality improved. Perhaps most importantly, with the improved productivity, a higher margin of profitability is gained, even on the tightest project budgets.