The architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry was once almost synonymous with inefficiency and conflict, and was generally regarded as a low-tech business sector.

Over the past two decades, great strides have been made in revolutionising project delivery processes, and in using technology to enable effective collaboration. 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 hand-over of a fully-documented new asset to the owner-operator.

Partnering, integration and collaboration

Within a notoriously conservative industry, some contractors and consultants during the 1990s recognised the value of establishing long-term relationships with customers and other members of the supply chain.

Instead of working on single projects, some owners began building more long-lasting, strategic relationships on the grounds that they were also capturing information, experience and best practice by working repeatedly with a small number of framework suppliers. They realized that knowledge created during project delivery was a valuable ‘whole life’ asset that could be used to enable better planning, continuous performance improvement and risk reduction across their current and future property portfolios. This ambition is reflected today in the push to adopt Building Information Modelling (BIM).

The rise of online collaboration

By 2003, the future direction of the construction industry was being tied to the adoption and implementation of more collaborative and integrated methods of working, underpinned by new collaborative forms of contracts. The key role of IT was also being repeatedly stressed by industry change initiatives, particularly as progressive owners were already harvesting the benefits of new web-based technologies.

The development in the late 1990s/early 2000s of new internet-based collaboration platforms – so-called ‘project extranets’ – had already heralded a new era. Unlike previous technologies such as FTP, groupware or LAN/WAN-based electronic document management systems, these did not tie end users to particular networks, and did not compromise corporate network security by allowing outsiders to penetrate firewalls or otherwise access private data.

Broadly, all such systems can be accessed through a computer equipped with a standard browser and a working internet connection. The same basic functions are common to all. 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 or program (a building, a road, a bridge, a water treatment plant, etc.) is developed by the team.

Feasibility studies, budgets, sketches, CAD drawings, approvals, schedules, minutes, photographs, specifications, standards, procedures, digital models, etc., can all be viewed. 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 – “a single version of the truth” – 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. The goal is that project times, costs and risks (as well as post-project claims and litigation) could be reduced, and efficiency, communication and quality improved.

A collaborative caveat

The achievement of these benefits throughout a project, however, remains dependent on adopting an open and collaborative approach:

  • Collaboration requires a combination of people, processes and technology/information
  • Successful collaboration is 80 per cent people and processes and 20 per cent technology or information

In other words, successful collaboration is much more dependent on the culture of the team than it is on the technology it employs.

Collaboration in the built environment is also different from collaboration in other fields: it involves individuals representing different professions with different goals, objectives, even beliefs. Architects, engineers, clients, property managers, and others who comprise a design team rarely share a common educational foundation, and often differ on what is important and what is not.

In turn, those involved with regulatory work, with construction activities, with supplying materials and products used in the project, and with long-term responsibility for the asset’s operation or maintenance will have different perspectives and motivations to those in the design team.

A construction project involves temporary groupings of independent organisations who join forces to accomplish a specific, relatively short-term project. While they work together to achieve the common goals of the project, each organisation also has its own, long-term goals, which may conflict with the project goals.

Collaboration in construction also tends to stretch out over a long period time, often beyond the involvement of the initial participants, though their decisions and actions may still affect the project. Equally, some team members may only have a transient input during a project, but their involvement and the legacy of their actions can still leave a lasting impact.

So what is purported to be collaboration may not be collaboration at all, particularly if a project team is unable or is not prepared to collaborate. Team members may look to configure or customise their applications to mimic traditional project information controls and so electronically restrict access by some team members to certain types of information. Such teams might achieve one-off savings on tangible costs such as postage and printing, but will miss out on the significant efficiency (time, cost and quality) improvements arising from adopting more integrated and genuinely collaborative approaches.