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Technology trends – online collaboration

Online collaboration allows architects and specialists to work together more efficiently, saving time and reducing costs and allowing you to provide a better service to your clients. Colin Barnes of Collabor8online explains how it works.

Online collaboration allows architects and specialists to work together more efficiently, saving time and reducing costs and allowing you to provide a better service to your clients. Colin Barnes of Collabor8online explains how it works.

The construction industry has long since recognised the advantages of online collaboration products, traditionally known as ‘project extranets’ and appreciated the benefits they bring. As a result, their popularity is increasing dramatically.

To understand why, it’s worth considering the history. Amazing as it may seem, email has been around for some 40 years and has proved to be a wonderful way to share documents, drawings and specifications. Initially, inboxes filled rapidly and emptied just as quickly, which was fine. Then people started to forward content to colleagues and copy in others so that one e-mail soon spawned into seven, then seven more etc. Consequently, multiple versions of documents appeared, e-mails were lost or misdirected, inboxes overflowed and confusion reigned.

In contrast, online project management systems allow users to get the documents out of the inbox and into a ‘shared project space’ where all the relevant people can see all the relevant information.

Of course the true benefit, recognised by larger practices and contractors, was that of reducing costs. The obvious savings of reduced postage, communications and travel paled into insignificance when compared to the benefits of fewer mistakes and misunderstandings. Furthermore, clients also welcomed this open, participatory environment, so project extranets were universally accepted as a good thing.

And, of course, they still are – but the growth of ‘cloud computing’ means these benefits can now be shared by smaller organisations as well as larger corporates – because all that’s needed is a standard web browser and an internet connection.

Most people think of ‘the cloud’ as simply ‘computers on the internet’. While this is essentially true, it doesn’t fully explain the enormity of this new concept – a concept that even has Microsoft promising new initiatives in this area.
Cloud computing can be explained through an analogy to electricity. Whilst every home and business uses electricity most don’t possess their own generator; they simply plug in and use whatever electricity they need and pay accordingly. The advent of broadband Internet connections, large server farms and an interesting technical development known as ‘virtualisation’ has meant that computing power and services can be delivered in exactly the same way. You simply log on, connect and pay for what you use. No long-term contracts and you have the option to increase, decrease or even switch off as you go.

This functionality is exemplified by tools such as Collabor8online, which has embraced ease-of-use as the first and most fundamental building block. So you can create folders and then put documents, correspondence, specifications, drawings, videos and images into those folders – just as you might on your own desktop. Crucially, you can then invite others to share that information.

Clearly security is important so such a system needs to be able to allocate different authorities to different users – eg read only or edit. In our experience, the top level folders typically represent projects with a number of subfolders for various aspects such as Drawings Issued, Drawings for Approval, Work Instructions, Correspondence, Health and Safety – but these can be whatever you like. Simplicity is key, but flexibility is also paramount.

Current issues/revisions are also immediately visible and obvious to all, and the system is intelligent enough to notify interested parties if any of their own particular content changes. Users can place documents or folders on ‘watch alert’; and the system immediately informs them by e-mail if any changes are made to their ‘watched’ content. The more technically advanced can take an RSS feed out of the system straight to their own desktop and immediately be given a ‘helicopter overview’ of all activity on the project.

Premium versions include task management systems that allow ‘To Do’ list items to be created and assigned to individual team members. The system alerts the originator of the task when any item is marked as complete and other team members can be automatically copied in on progress. Tasks can also be given a target completion date, which is recorded automatically into the project calendar, and this too can be a shared with other team members. A separate calendar is available for each project and a consolidated company-wide calendar is available for managers and supervisors.

Another advantage is that all of the content can be viewed by suitable mobile devices, ranging from laptops and netbooks to iPads, iPhones and other smart phones.

So, project management has evolved from your inbox and on to your project extranet, and from the project extranet into the cloud – and from there into the palm of your hand while you’re standing in a muddy corner of a windswept site – because that’s one thing that will never change.