Learning to view digital information as data, not documents
by Andrés García Damjanov
December 6, 2018

Technologically speaking, the greatest obstacle to success in construction today is the proliferation of the data silo. Few, if any, companies ever realize the value of all the information created on a single project—data that could be used to improve decision-making, efficiency, quality and safety, as well as reduce liability on that project and all those that follow.

Surprising to some, the problem stems from the very thing that was meant to help: digitalization. Too many companies in the construction space are doing their jobs exactly as they did 20 to 30 years ago. Much of the workflow was driven by paper-based processes, but with the destructive potential of massive amounts of digital data. We use computers, but still think in terms of printed documents. While sitting in front of a computer, most people don’t see it as a massive soup of data that can be polarized in different ways and used for many applications. Instead, they see a bunch of documents in a folder.

Information in the digital world is not just content contained within the document; therein lies the challenge of understanding digitalization in construction. Until we address and resolve that mindset, we will never realize the full value of our emerging digital world. To do so requires a look back.

Inside Information

Not so long ago, architects, engineers, contractors and owners established a solid workflow for how structures are designed, engineered and constructed. That workflow included the generation of paper, drawings and spreadsheets. The information was printed on documents and stored on shelves, in boxes and in file cabinets. In those days, information was the same as a document, because for us, the document contained the information, and we had control of the information through our file systems. 

Then, computers came along and allowed us to generate these documents very fast. With the introduction of the desktop computer, we established a common platform, like Windows; tools, like Word, for documents; and CAD for drawings to standardize and simplify our workflows, and a network to share information. Every one of these programs stored information into what we continued to call a "document" or by the digital name, a file, and the lines began to blur between a document or a file and information.

The amount of information created on any one project with these electronic tools increased exponentially over the years—and effective document management became a real problem. What we used to define in 15 pages now turned into hundreds of pages stored on various computers and servers, which multiplied by two every 2 years.   

The software development community recognized that it’s not possible for companies to manage all the emerging digital information like we did with paper, so they developed relational database management tools called enterprise resource planning (ERP) software to control and manage workflows, such as contracts, spreadsheets and invoices.

That worked—at least on the operational side. Unfortunately, these database management tools, still good for managing structured data, are no solution when trying to manage unstructured data: project information is unstructured data. Not only is it the document or the information in the document; it is also versioning of that information plus the communications regarding that information. Let’s also not forget the thousands of email messages sent and received pertaining to a project, and their attached files. Managing this project information can be a frustrating experience when working with piles of unstructured data spread across various platforms with tools designed to manage structured data.

The PM Twist

Project information is fundamentally different from operation information. While operational data is contained under the umbrella of one entity, project data is created by a team of architects, engineers, contractors, subcontractors, suppliers and more. Each one of these team members creates several hundred different types of "documents" with different naming standards and versions.

Developers offered a solution: an electronic document management system (EDMS). With EDMS, companies had a way to manage document changes amongst many teams—not a bad solution if the quantity of information created didn’t continue to increase exponentially. An EDMS is not built to intelligently handle all the layers of information, largely emails in most cases, which occur on a project, nor were they built to understand the life surrounding the project. Too often, the database becomes a tsunami of unmanageable data.

Then, web-based collaboration technologies began to emerge, providing owners and project teams with a hosted data management environment. Web-based collaboration sites, fundamentally project-specific solutions (e.g. common desktop environments, or CDEs) certainly helped some companies because it eliminated the need for deep IT departments. Unfortunately, it completely siloed the project information, making it accessible only to the owners of the CDE when a project was complete—or in some cases, to those willing to pay for it.

To gain value from information created on a project and continuously improve workflows, companies need a solution that helps manage and leverage data—not store it. We must look beyond the "document" and understand the value of the data.

Remember, information in the digital world is not a document.

The Cheesecake Correlation

To better understand the difference between information and documents, consider the following analogy. 

If I’m at a conference, and I write the word cheesecake on a paper that I share with 200 attendees, many might believe that I have created one document with one piece of information. In reality, I have created one document with 200 pieces of information—because every individual reading that word is now part of an information network and will have a different interpretation of the value and its use—resulting in one document with the potential to result in 200 related items.

Keep in mind, it’s not the bits you are putting into the file—it is the life around the specific words, because now you’re in a digital environment. With the distribution of that one word, cheesecake, I created a network of connections. I know who’s looking at it, how many times it’s been transmitted, how many action items are assigned, and how many associated activities are facilitated. 

So now with a firm concept of information versus documents, the next chapter in this series will put information to work with the help of a project-focused information management solution—a solution that is developed specifically to intelligently manage the massive amount of data (not documents) generated by a specific project.