A typical construction project is overflowing with data-data from the project managers in the field, data from the accounting office, subcontractor data, project owner data, equipment and labor data, daily journals, meeting minutes, invoices-and the challenge for any construction business owner is to turn all this data into information that can be used to make useful business decisions.

A trend in project management software is the recent incorporation of a computer language called extensible markup language (XML), which allows construction business owners to transform data into real-time information by allowing for the transmission of project data across different software systems.

For a perfect construction project, the flow of information would look something like this-project information is sent from the subs and project managers (PM) on the jobsite to the general contractor (GC), who consolidates the different pieces of information and sends it to the accounting department, where it's processed and stored. Any project stakeholder, such as the project owner, can access the information in a variety of formats, obtaining a clear picture of the project's progress and health. The data is entered once and travels between all parties in real-time, without having to be re-keyed, across different software platforms.

Contrast this scenario to the way a typical construction project looks now. The GC, the subs and the project owner all use their own proprietary system, and sending information between the different systems requires massive amounts of data re-entry or complex data bridges that have the potential for data loss and data error.  This type of setup creates the silo effect, where information is walled off into one department without much access to other departments.

A downside to this approach is that on mid to large-sized projects, there could be multiple versions of the same request for information (RFI) or change order residing in different systems. Every time something changes, if all the systems aren't changed, the one department or stakeholder could be using incorrect information, which causes poor decisions. The silo approach and its lack of transparency creates divisions within a company. This approach also creates divisions between project collaborators, because the owner might think that the GC is holding back information, but in reality, the GC is struggling to keep all the systems updated and doesn't have a firm grip on the information flow.

What XML does is knock down the walls between departments and collaborators and enables information to be exchanged easily.  To put it simply, XML is a computer language used for transferring information between different systems, but XML doesn't care what the information is or what system is going to use it.

What this means for the industry is that a GC can exchange information with an owner, in real-time, without having to re-key information, and with no regard to what software systems each are using. With the right XML adapter-a program that can read XML-a GC could use one system and the owner could use another, and the information is transmitted back and forth without having to be translated from one system language to another.  XML eliminates the process of dumping the information out of the GC's system and then re-entering it back into the owner's system, saving labor hours and increasing data integrity.  Differences in terminology are also overcome by using XML-a GC's invoice becomes an owner's contractor request for payment-which in turn leads to an increase in communication, collaboration and better client relations. XML removes the owner mandated system obstacle that many GC's have encountered in trying to perform government-funded work.

Another advantage of XML is that it can be used to incorporate other applications into the project, such as Business Information Modeling (BIM). BIM has made a big splash in the construction industry, but for the most part, it has remained trapped in the design and pre-construction phase of a project, and most companies fail to use it effectively in the other stages of the construction project lifecycle.  With XML, however, a BIM application can be integrated into a construction business owner's project management software system, so information from the 3-D BIM model can flow into the project management information, such as RFIs, documents and job costing information. As the project develops, changes can be sent back to the BIM model and be represented in 3-D, making BIM more relevant to the day-to-day operations of a construction company and the construction industry in general.  XML can also be used to incorporate other applications that live outside an organization's main project management system, such as subcontractor payment systems and scanning and imaging solutions, creating more business value for these applications and for the project management system.

XML can be used to increase interoperability within your organization. Knowing the status of a project at any given time is essential for success because decision makers can dissect project trends and identify upcoming trouble areas in time to make course corrections. A project management software system should allow your organization to receive an up-to-date snapshot of the project's progress by sending real-time information, and XML can be used to bridge the gap between departments.

To achieve maximum efficiency and productivity, your organization should be using a construction software system that integrates all departments-accounting, operations, human resources, business development and preconstruction-onto a single, scalable database.

Construction Business Owner, April 2010