Promoting Project Web Sites
Technical support, software training, enthusiastic users and well-defined roles among the project team are key to the effective use of extranets and web sites as project management tools
Although project extranets and web sites have yet to be fully integrated into the project management strategies of most M/E firms, they have made major strides. This month's roundtable gathers engineers and IT professionals who have both worked with commercial software products and developed their own proprietary systems.
Mike DeBacker , P.E., associate vice president, HNTB Corporation, Kansas City, Mo.
Doug Eberhard , chief technology officer, Company 39, Denver, a subsidiary of Parsons Brinckerhoff, New York
Alex Kirk , interactive technologies, WD Partners, Columbus, Ohio
Chuck Kensky , P.E., vice president, Bala Consulting, Wynnewood, Pa.
Barbara Horwitz , moderator
CONSULTING-SPECIFYING ENGINEER (CSE): What are the biggest advantages of project extranets/web sites?
EBERHARD : Information and communication consolidation; document and workflow collaboration; remotely managed security and tracking; project archives, timeline and history; project-specific branding; web-browser accessibility and convenience; the ability to act as a project portal, aggregating other relevant information including web site content, links and personalization; project and information auditing; database and workflow management.
KENSKY : Project web sites also provide the construction manager (CM) with another management tool during the construction phase. The CM can readily see when drawings are updated and available to the contractors, when shop drawings have been reviewed and processed and when responses to a request for information (RFI) have been provided. Since the CM is generally the recipient of all of these documents, he or she is provided with another way to view the status of the project from the construction perspective.
DeBACKER : I see a twofold benefit. For the project, it increases productivity and communication. For the owner, it allows them to be as involved as necessary and to be in close communication with project leaders.
KIRK : I believe the advantages are on-line collaboration, increased accountability and greatly simplified information distribution.
CSE: What are some of the difficulties engineers encounter when utilizing these systems?
KIRK : Poor or slow Internet access, fear of the unfamiliar and a perception that it may take more time than the way we do it now.
DeBACKER : Management must support the idea of the extranet and it must be supported, even mandated for all team members, by the lead consultant or contractor. Without this support, it cannot be successful.
KENSKY : These systems primarily benefit the CM and burden the design professionals (DP). The client still receives progress reports, logs, drawing files, submittals, RFIs and the like from the CM and DPs; therefore the information gathered from the site is duplicated. The major burden to the DP is the time and effort to upload drawings, sketches, RFIs and submittals to the web site. Even with a T1 telephone line, this can be very time consuming.
EBERHARD : Engineers don't always embrace web sites as something they can use on a regular basis, and they don't fully understand the potential and how it's organized. Problems occur because there is no established web site plan, nor a champion to lead and implement that plan. Problems also exist when there is no formal designation of the project web-site administrator, no clear definition of the groups, roles and responsibilities within the web site and lack of user training. Many engineers have different expectations of the project web site, and if it cannot meet those expectations in a manner acceptable to the engineer, they tend to revert to a better-known method for collaboration, communication or management.
KENSKY : The typical procedure on a project without a web site is for the DPs, the client, the CM and the contractor to transmit electronic data via attachments to e-mails. Hard copies are sent via overnight delivery or fax. When new drawings are available to the DP from the architect, they are sent via e-mail. Most firms have an e-mail system that works in the background on the network and does not reside on the individual desktop computers, so that they do not tie up the computer during transmission of drawing files.
On the other hand, with web sites, you have to log onto the Internet and physically upload the files to the site. With 2 to 20 megabytes of drawings files, this takes quite a long time, even hours. During the construction period, shop drawings and comments are scanned and uploaded or downloaded on the system. On a large project, this can amount to extra hundreds of hours not budgeted.
A simple approach would be for the person sending the e-mails to attach the files to that notification e-mail and save everyone the countless hours of download time.
Dealing with misperceptions
EBERHARD : One of the biggest difficulties, however, is lack of sufficient or reliable Internet bandwidth. Users tend to equate performance with the speed and response they get. What they tend not to understand is that the system relies on a sufficient Internet connection.
Many people use the Internet at home and at work and believe they are proficient, when in fact many users do not understand the basics of browser functionality such as saving files from a web site onto their local computer, or the difference between an e-mail form and a mail-to link that uses the e-mail system.
CSE: How do you communicate the value of such project management services to your clients?
KENSKY : We have told clients that this service does not add any value to their project and that our participation in these systems and services are excluded from our contract and will be an additional service to the project.
EBERHARD : We equate the cost of the project web site relative to the improved communication, collaboration and decision making it would provide. It also helps to examine other software and labor costs associated with doing work, reporting and managing key project activities.
CSE: Have engineers, accustomed to more traditional methods of project collaboration, been reluctant to use project web sites? If so, how have you addressed this?
KIRK : Change is not always welcome. To address this, our systems attempt to replicate current procedures to avoid wholesale changes.
EBERHARD : Engineers with an affinity for computers tend to be more willing to adopt web site tools and approaches. Traditionalists do in fact tend to relate to the tools they have used in the past; however, they can be converts if their initial site experience is both relevant to their specific needs and is simple enough to use and understand. Setting up a web site correctly from the beginning and providing training to users are big steps in getting better adoption by all parties.
DeBACKER : Value is communicated through their ability to be 'close' to the project and the inherent efficiencies in using an extranet.
CSE: How do you deal with the challenge of training all project team members on how to use project management software, especially when people are brought in during different phases of a project?
EBERHARD : By setting up a web site correctly where structure, content, groups, roles, responsibilities and dependencies are established and documented up front, any member of the project team can quickly see how and where they plug into the web site. Training needs to be based not just on how individual web site features work, but on how the site is structured and how and where individual users are supposed to interact. This helps ensure consistency at the beginning of a project and at any subsequent stage. Just as good projects have a thorough plan, good project web sites must also have well documented operating plans and guidelines specific to the project, beyond simple user manuals and help systems.
KENSKY : We try to train people in groups so that we minimize our overall costs. We also find that people learn better, in a group setting, as other participants' questions can spark more questions and everyone grasps the concept better.
DeBACKER : You must have a local extranet administrator to be successful. These people are then responsible for communicating upgrades, new applications of the technology and training new project staff.
Going it alone
CSE: What are the advantages and disadvantages of developing your own proprietary project extranet system?
KIRK : Advantages are speed, flexibility, lower cost and direct access to your customer. Disadvantages are that it can be too tailored to a single perspective.
KENSKY : Hiring the software developers to create the system is expensive and redeveloping something that has already been developed is like reinventing the wheel.
EBERHARD : Advantages include the ability to control specific development and integration without having to rely on commercial product or technology constraints. It allows for more ad-hoc prototype and development efforts and can tend to lead to more uniquely tailored solutions. It also provides the greatest flexibility to select and integrate different technologies, data sources and user interface options.
Disadvantages include greater difficulty in keeping up with constantly changing technologies and standards. Cost of development tends to be higher with proprietary systems, and overall product enhancements tend to lag behind those of commercial software/ASP products. User support can also be more of a challenge for home-grown software as opposed to commercial software vendors who tend to have more established user and technical support solutions.
CSE: What are the technical challenges and limitations involved with maintaining and operating these systems?
EBERHARD : Technical challenges include keeping proprietary systems up-to-date with latest trends and capabilities as well as watching other commercial software companies develop and market their technology and capabilities with bigger budgets. Other challenges revolve around hosting environments that require larger capital investments in instantly depreciating hardware.
CSE: What kinds of legal issues have surfaced as a result of the growing use of project extranets?
KENSKY : Some of the issues have been: who owns the files, who has rights to modify or use the files, what copyright information is now exposed to others and what sensitive information is available to the public.
From the viewpoint of a DP, if shop drawings are received electronically and then plotted by the DP, what exposure does the DP have if some of the layers are not correctly turned on or plotted correctly?
EBERHARD : Data integrity and security are two major issues that have always existed and have been accentuated by the pervasiveness of both e-mail and project extranets. The U.S. laws governing electronic information are different from those of nations such as Singapore, the United Kingdom, Germany and China. Providing hosting from the U.S. has different implications depending on where the project and client are located.
CSE: What new capabilities do you foresee these systems offering in the next five years as the technology continues to improve?
DeBACKER : I believe extranet sites will be a commodity soon, just as CADD has become. New applications will grow from this concept, such as business-to-business and business-to-government services, integration of spatial components and increased wireless technologies.
KENSKY : New capabilities include automatic uploads and transfer of files via e-mail, and the ability to receive and automatically post faxes directly to the system.
KIRK : Greater integration of public data such as demographics and information from government agencies; improved opportunities to learn from previous projects; greater communication between legacy systems and web-based collaborations.
EBERHARD : More integration with primary computer and production systems including office automation, CADD, engineering, accounting, estimating, controls and enterprise resource planning systems; more personalized project portals that can aggregate relevant information from a number of sources; better Internet bandwidth, performance and reliability; and more standardization around proven processes and technologies.
Picking a Winner
With so many project management software companies having gone under, M/E firms have been forced to become more shrewd when looking to purchase these products and support services.
'Users are much more careful to select vendors with some measurable track record and longevity as opposed to any new upstarts. Many users have been burned by companies who went under or who were acquired and saw their familiar tools phased-out,' says Doug Eberhard, chief technology officer for Company 39, Denver, an e-media subsidiary of New York-based Parsons Brinckerhoff.
For those who are left, Eberhard claims that software companies will have to exercise good business sense with regard to 'what the market is actually ready for, what technology can reliably provide and what customers are willing to pay for.'
When shopping for these products, Chuck Kensky, P.E., vice president, Bala Consulting, Wynnewood, Pa., suggests selecting a software package supported by a strong parent company.
Yet another strategy is to develop one's own extranet as HNTB Corporation, Kansas City, Mo., and WD Partners, Columbus, Ohio, have done.