The Rise of the Subcontractor
Technology & collaboration with subs can bring your business new expertise

One of the consequences of the "do more with less" emphasis in construction is that everyone who participates in designing and building a project plays a more important role—subcontractors included. Building owners seek to satisfy customer demand for eco-friendly, ergonomic environments, all while keeping costs in check and projects on schedule. The result? Everyone must innovate. But, for subcontractors to add significant value to the process, they can no longer be thought of as hired hands brought in to do specific tasks and then sent on their way. Subcontractors have developed substantial expertise, and building owners reap considerable benefits when their project teams harness their subcontractors' vast wealth of knowledge.

Instant Teaming

From design through the building phases, companies that have not previously worked together (and are possibly located in different time zones) come together for a particular project. These companies are expected, within days or weeks, to morph into a fully functional team, even though they may have had little opportunity to work face-to-face previously. This requirement for instant teaming makes the relationship among contractors and subcontractors integral to the project's success.

Getting There

Through the years, the industry has seen its fair share of adversarial relationships between architects, general contractors and their subcontractors. Many assume that this is just part and parcel of the industry. In fact, construction is just like every other sector, in that poor communication and collaboration threatens project success, creates mistrust among key players and needlessly adds costs and delays.

For proof, consider the industry's rigid lines of communication and how they affect a subcontractor facing a tight deadline with a critical question to ask. The traditional RFI process can take up to 2 weeks, even though the ultimate response from an architect or designer may be fairly straightforward. The new dynamic in our industry—build more complex projects and build them efficiently—demands that subcontractors are active collaborators throughout the project delivery process.

Fortunately, technology is a proven enabler of better coordination and collaboration among the extended project team—contractors included. For example, software solutions now provide a central repository for all project documents, allowing every team member to access the information he or she needs at all times. Better still, architects and designers have the power to ensure that only the most up-to-date documents and drawings are in that repository, which means all team members always have accurate information.

Technology allows for true collaboration by providing a forum for subcontractors to share their expertise. They can ask specific questions, share photos from the field and even mark up drawings for the rest of the team to discuss. True collaboration—where extended project teams leverage a central repository for project information—results in a single source of truth and all team members having a seat at the table.

Finally, technology can promote transparency and accountability by tracking when updated documents are sent to the field and when contractors and subs actually download them. Conversely, subcontractors can track the status of the RFIs they submit and feel assured that the appropriate architect or designer is addressing their questions. Ironically, an industry where technology was once thought of as a necessary evil is now embracing it in order to design, plan and build better projects.

Unexpected Benefits

Companies that have embraced collaborative technology have been surprised by unanticipated benefits. Specifically, in response to the new demands of building owners, contractors have continued to adopt advanced technologies and business practices that allow them to cut costs and improve project efficiency. As a result, the industry has seen an increase in the volume of project data. This data can be mined for business intelligence that makes projects even more efficient, and the volumes of data generated by each project no longer die when that project is completed. Enterprises can glean insights into what worked and leverage it through the building's lifecycle, including ongoing maintenance and future renovations.

Enterprises no longer need to manage projects in siloes. Project team members from different companies recognize that technology can reduce the amount of time they spend on administrative tasks and managing information, and give them more time to do the work they got into this industry to do.