Online collaboration

August 2010 » Features » BUSINESS STRATEGIES
A neutral platform enables the trust behind successful project management.
Dexter Bachelder

Every engineering and construction company under-stands the challenges of completing large-scale construction projects on time and under budget. These projects involve hundreds of stakeholders in an elaborate web of relationships, yet a complex sequence of tasks must be completed with pinpoint timing. Most people agree that the only way to accomplish this is with a high degree of collaboration, resulting in structured communication and effective cooperation. There’s just one problem. Collaboration requires trust, and trust is hard to come by in today’s construction industry. Consider these issues:

  • Short-term, project-driven relationships — It’s not uncommon for partners on one project to be competitors on another. As a result, a lack of trust is the norm, and fearing a loss of competitive advantage, firms are reluctant to share information with each other.
  • Organizational and cultural differences — Coordination must occur across multiple cultures, languages, and geographies — and also across different technology platforms for project management, communication, document control, and other information-driven functions.
  • The high-stakes construction environment — Operating under increasing scrutiny by regulatory bodies, engineering and construction firms must demonstrate unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability, requiring costly layers of people, processes, and systems dedicated to ensuring compliance.

Under these conditions, many firms take a defensive position and limit how much information they share with their “partners,” but this lack of sharing causes misunderstandings that result in change orders, late payments, and rework. As a result, the relationships often turn openly adversarial and result in an additional financial burden of arbitration or litigation, and potentially settlement payments as well. Legal disputes also damage good reputations and destroy relationships that could have created other business opportunities — which means they directly threaten a firm’s future revenue stream as well.

Building trust through collaboration
In business relationships, trust is built by turning clearly defined processes and transparency into actual behavior — the ability of participants to share information and validate the work of others.

The industry, however, suffers from a substantial gap between the widespread recognition of the need for collaboration and the low, but increasing, level of adoption of collaboration tools. In the 2004 FMI/CMAA Fifth Annual Survey of Owners survey, nearly 80 percent of project owners said they “believe project collaboration software can help avoid disputes and miscommunications.” But only 35 percent of the owners mandated the use of project collaboration software for their service providers. Reasons for not adopting collaboration tools included that the software was too complicated, too costly, and “it won’t work in our organization.”

While the construction industry has generally been slower to adopt new technologies than other sectors, the resistance to technology doesn’t explain this huge gap. The August 2007 edition of the Elsevier journal Automation in Construction included results of a study about the introduction of collaborative technology in a construction consortium. This study uncovered the primary issue: fear of possible exposure among the users. The new technology imposed serious changes on work practices. Users didn’t trust the system or the changes in culture it was creating. Instead of sharing information, they began to withhold it. Eventually, their lack of willingness to accept the new framework interfered with coordination and destabilized their projects.

Adoption, trust, and neutrality
Recently, on large, complex, public and public-private projects, a trend has developed toward including RFP specifications for a project collaboration platform that is operated by a neutral third party — not owned by a single stakeholder in the project ecosystem. In the “neutral ground” of such a platform, participants can control how, when, and by whom their sensitive information is accessed. The owners and builders mandating the use of such systems have discovered that this ability allows the stakeholders to stop competing and start collaborating successfully, while also enabling the higher level of accountability required for high-stakes projects.

In fact, anecdotal evidence from several firms suggests that stipulating a neutral platform is especially helpful in joint ventures and similar structures, and having project data that is not owned and controlled by one party has proven invaluable in resolving disputes.

Beyond the neutrality of the collaboration system, it’s critical to understand the need for easy-to-access training and ongoing support. Without these, adoption rates for the collaboration platform may never reach the “critical mass” required for effective collaboration. Participants need to see that the system supports their specific workflows and communication needs.

Finding a collaboration platform
Once a construction or engineering firm decides to build trust through an online collaboration platform, it should ensure the system:

  • is operated by a neutral third party — not controlled by one of the stakeholders;
  • supports broad construction and engineering industry-specific project management and communication needs;
  • provides appropriate levels of security to protect against external threats and maintain confidentiality of each organization’s information;
  • offers fair and equal treatment of all stakeholders — clients, architects, engineers, project managers, suppliers, contractors, and facilities managers — no matter their role, size, or level of use, throughout the life of the project;
  • protects the rights of each stakeholder to ownership of their own information; and
  • performs regular health checks of project use, recommending process improvements when needed.

Minimizing risks and maximizing return
A neutral collaboration platform built around the principle of fair treatment for all, linking project partners on a single, secure, common platform, helps build trust among engineering and construction industry partners. Such a solution encourages stakeholders to trust the collaboration system with even their most sensitive documents, which, by keeping information always accessible, accurate, and secure, drives even greater adoption. This in turn produces greater control over schedules, quality, and costs, minimizing the inherent risks and maximizing the return to each participant — and enabling them to do their jobs better and faster, while competing more effectively in the global engineering and construction market.

To read more about the role of trust in successful project collaboration, visit www.aconex.com/collaboration

Dexter Bachelder is the vice president and general manager of Aconex’s Americas operations. He can be contacted at dbachelder@aconex.com.


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