by Richard Sampson
November 2, 2011

As construction businesses grow, communication becomes even more important.

This is especially true when it comes to Requests for Information (RFIs) and other construction documents that can control a project.

Failure to manage such documents can limit business growth by increasing workloads, delaying projects and increasing potential liabilities.

Fortunately, technology can help. Let's take a look at the pros and cons of various communication technologies, including the newest online systems for controlling construction documents. What should you look for in such software and how can you encourage the entire construction team to support a new online system.

Traditional Communication Methods

Today, many construction business owners rely mainly on the traditional communication methods-phone calls, faxes, e-mail and desktop construction management software. While these technologies may work well, they limit the company's ability to grow.

Phone calls are convenient, but offer no useful record that can be shared with a group. The only record, a voicemail message, is not easily shared.

Faxes often get lost. Also, there is no guarantee the person has received the document.

E-mail offers permanent records that can be shared with a group. However, like faxes, the sender has no automatic way of confirming receipt. Also, the sheer volume of e-mail, as well as the threat of spam and viruses, has reduced the effectiveness of e-mail.

As the volume of communication grew, desktop software became popular in the 1990s. However, by their nature, desktop systems don't allow information to be shared easily outside of the company project team. Unfortunately, sometimes the biggest communication challenges are with people outside the company-subcontractors, architects and the like.

Online Construction Document Management

The latest systems use the Internet to enable people to share information among all members of the project team. The first online systems were complicated and expensive, limiting their adoption especially by smaller companies. Today the better web-based communication systems are simpler, easier to use and cost-effective.

Such systems are becoming more and more popular because they offer some decided advantages, including the following:

  • Reduced workload-Contractors can receive needed information (such as answers to RFIs) faster, helping them to complete projects in a timely fashion. An online service also reduces the time needed to log the various documents.
  • Faster decisions-The time saved with online services increases proportionately with the number of different parties who have to view and approve information.
  • Online "paper trail"-With its immediate access to information and electronic search capabilities, the online service can significantly reduce the time needed to research previous communication and submittals.
  • Increased accuracy-Information can be entered at the source and does not need to be retyped. A field superintendent can directly enter an RFI question. The engineer or architect can answer the question. That information becomes immediately available to the field superintendent and anyone else who needs it.
  • Increased accessibility-Online systems overcome some of the limitations of e-mail and faxes, which must be sent to everyone who needs access to the information. With an online system, people are responsible for going to the web. The online system "pulls" people to the information; the traditional means of communication "push" the information out to the people. It is the difference between sending the information many times to be read once (e.g., e-mail), or sending the information once to be read by many people (e.g., online systems).

Contract Administration: The Appropriate Application

To get the most value from the online system, the business owner must know which processes are best suited for online activities.

The most effective systems automate routine and repetitive tasks [e.g., RFIs, Construction Change Directives (CCDs), Architect's Supplemental Instructions (ASIs)]. Routine questions, which often involve design changes to solve field problems, need quick responses. With an online service, the contractor can get the quick responses needed to move projects forward, keeping delays and any cost increases to a minimum. The information is automatically updated online, keeping everyone up-to-date.

Effective online systems also make it easy to monitor the cycle of approvals from the architect or designer to the contractor to identify situations where information is delayed.

Selection Criteria

After deciding to use an online system, the construction business owner must decide what system to use.

When selecting a system, the five most important criteria are:

  • Familiarity
  • Ease of use
  • Focus
  • Confidentiality, and
  • Flexibility.

Familiarity-The system must mirror the way the construction team has communicated for years. It must not require people to learn a new way to share information. Instead, it must use familiar formats for presenting and exchanging data.

Ease of Use-The system must be intuitive. It must look simple and be simple to use. It must be easy to input and view information. If users can teach themselves with little or no training, they are more likely to try the system and discover its advantages.

However, if the system looks complicated, field personnel are likely to reject it and revert to other, more labor-intensive (and costly) methods.

Unfortunately, some online systems offer a bewildering array of links that make the user's job more difficult. Such systems, which may have been designed for big utility or transportation programs with large technical staffs, are often impractical for individual building projects.

Confidentiality-The most effective online systems preserve the private exchanges of information between subcontractors and the general contractor. To protect that privacy, avoid cross-communication and prevent unauthorized approvals, online systems should have pre-set communication paths that users cannot change. The more confident users are that the right people (and only the right people) are accessing the information, the more likely the system will be used.

Focus-A system should focus on the areas where it can make the most difference (e.g., routine, repetitive tasks) and ignore-or link to-other applications that are needed less often (e.g., CAD drawings and schedules). The first online systems tried to do too much. They were too complex and difficult to use, making many contractors reluctant to use them.

Flexibility-Finally, the online system needs to be flexible enough to accommodate projects using the traditional structure (architect, general contractor and subcontractor), as well as jobs with multiple prime contractors.

 

Ways to Encourage Acceptance

One of the biggest obstacles to adopting online systems is the status quo. We are all creatures of habit. Some people will not want to change what they are doing, even if it is not working well. Many members of the construction team will have no incentive to log on. However, for an online system to be really effective, the whole group must participate.

So how do you encourage acceptance? Depending on your focus, here are three possible approaches:

  1. General contractor-If you are a general contractor, you can just make using your system a requirement for the subcontractors.
  2. Subcontractor-If you are not acting as a general contractor, it is trickier. In this case, it's best to use e-mail to overcome resistance to an online system.  For example, a contractor who uses the online system e-mails an RFI question with a link to the online system. The general contractor reads the RFI and clicks on the link that connects to the Internet system. When the general contractor responds to the e-mail, he is, in fact, entering information into the online system. But most contractors find it easy to work this way because the RFI came as a familiar e-mail. When the contractor's customer is the general contractor, this approach is generally the most effective.
  3. In-company use-The third possible application is just to use the online document-control system internally. The company can still get many of its advantages.

Construction business owners have a great deal to gain from controlling their construction documents online. The trick is to select a system that meets their needs, focuses on the most important applications and is easy to use. Such a system will gain the support of the construction team, assuring that the construction business owner can increase efficiencies, reduce workloads and increase profits.

The result is the opportunity to take the business to the next level easily and cost-effectively.

 Construction Business Owner, January 2007