Using online commissioning tools

Properly and strategically positioning an online commissioning tool can significantly differentiate a service provider from its competition, saving time and money and adding significant value.


This article is peer-reviewed.Learning objectives

  • Select an online commissioning tool that matches the intended use with appropriate cost and complexity.
  • Become an expert on the selected online commissioning tool and how to successfully roll it out to internal and external stakeholders.
  • Know the basic core modules that are incorporated into most online commissioning tools. 

Figure 2: Online Cx tools allow project stakeholders to quickly understand and review project status and improve contractor performance with real-time tracking and powerful reporting features. Courtesy: Environmental Systems Design.Project management, documentation management, and data-transfer activities within the construction industry are continuously becoming more reliant on advanced digital technology. Documentation delivery and communication protocols are now digital, and many are online. The expectation of having the ability to access the most current information from anywhere, whenever it is needed—by the construction team and by the client—has never been greater. Why would this expectation be any different for managing the commissioning process?

Commissioning (Cx) is a series of documentation collection and quality control/quality assurance processes, including documented testing activities, that are laid across the construction process to ensure that the final building delivered to the client meets his or her requirements as well as the documented design intent. Advances in cloud-based technology allow Cx service providers to make the commissioning process more transparent and collaborative than ever before using online Cx tools. Properly and strategically positioning an online Cx tool can significantly differentiate a Cx service provider from its competition, saving time and money and adding significant value for the client. Similarly, incorrect implementation of online Cx tools can yield negative effects and be extremely challenging if not managed correctly.

Implementing online Cx tools promotes efficiency

About two years ago, Chicago-based Environmental Systems Design, Inc. (ESD) decided to move to an online Cx tool to increase the visibility of the status of equipment and systems included in the Cx scope to the project stakeholders. The goal was better implementation, documentation, and management of the Cx process. Using a cloud-based Web application, one interface became available to all team members on the project to perform their job functions more efficiently and to collaborate more effectively because Cx documentation can be easily accessed from a central location.

When attempting to deploy an online Cx tool, ESD did not take the process lightly. The company quickly realized that there were several variables that demanded attention and consideration prior to selection. First, there are at least a dozen companies that provide online Cx tools, and several others that are slightly more geared for construction management or project management, that could be used to manage the Cx process online.

These programs assist with managing the Cx process and help with issue closure, file access, documentation records, schedule coordination, and milestone tracking (see Figure 1). However, they have different functions, cost structures, and most importantly, different pros and cons that could influence effectiveness for the project team. The company recognized that it was important to understand these differences in advance of use because the main point of implementing an online Cx tool is to save time, money, and to make project delivery more efficient.

First stop: product selection

It is important to establish the goals of employing the online Cx tool prior to product selection. A simple analogy: Don't buy the luxury car if you are on a budget and you don't need a luxury car. Any car that runs somewhat reliably will get you from point A to point B. In other words, make sure that you choose an online Cx tool that is appropriate from a complexity standpoint to match its intended uses and cost. Some of the online Cx tool options are extremely powerful and may offer greater functionality than what is needed for your company's specific project delivery needs. Also, it is important to keep in mind that added complexity within the online Cx tool will increase resistance from the people that you want and need to use it. For the online Cx tool to be a success for you internally, you will need all project stakeholders—both internal and external—to work with the software you select. Selection of an online Cx tool with added intricacy will also increase the amount of training required for your internal team to champion the benefits and capabilities of the software. Online Cx product selection criteria include:

  • Cost
  • Complexity
  • Functionality: Consider the types of projects you'll be using the program for and know what features you need
  • User friendliness
  • Training.

After you have selected the software you want to use, make sure that you roll it out internally before exposing it to a client or to a construction team. Most online Cx tool providers will equip you with a development project that is not made accessible to any external parties. The development project allows you set up and use the different modules within the software to ensure that the output produced and capabilities of the software act as expected and meet your intended uses. In addition, it is important to leverage the fact that the companies providing the online Cx tools are competing for your business. They also fail to benefit if you are unable to successfully use their software. Plan on working with them to ensure that they assist with training your team or at least make you aware of the benefits of their software, to help smooth out the internal and the external rollout.

Know the capabilities of the tool

ESD was involved in a project (referred to as "Project X") where the general contractor tried to use a new, unproven online construction and Cx management tool. The general contractor did not understand the capabilities of the tool it was using, and many portions within the Cx module had not even been completed by the software provider. The online Cx tool provider ran on-site training for the entire construction team, and it was immediately apparent that the tool wasn't going to work as intended by the general contractor or the client.

From the moment the vendor began demonstrating the capabilities of its online Cx tool, it was clear that the rollout was a disaster. The entire room began asking questions about the uses and capabilities of the tool, making suggestions on how they thought it should work and assumptions on how they thought it would work and best be used. The vendor and the general contractor waffled back and forth on many topics, and clarity on the intended use of the online Cx tool quickly diminished. In that moment, the majority of the project team lost confidence in the ability of the online Cx tool to make their jobs easier. This opposition was carried throughout the rest of the project.

When demonstrating the benefits and intended uses of the online Cx tool you select, present the tool in a manner that shows the audience how you intend to use it and demonstrate your confidence in its use. Don't allow the presentation to be a forum for adhering to requests of other people that don't know its capabilities. Don't give the audience the opportunity to override your process with their ideas unless you are absolutely certain that they can be easily incorporated.

Set realistic implementation goals

The general contractor failed to implement an online Cx tool for Project X because it attempted to use a software tool it didn't understand. Due to the selected product's complexity, the amount of time required to gain a full understanding of its capabilities probably would have been at least 2 to 3 months to get to the level of proficiency that was required. Unfortunately, Project X was a large, fast-tracked project with an expected completion timeline of less than one year. After the rollout, the general contractor and the vendor tried to force the construction team to use with the software, but they ultimately gave up. The process was not only embarrassing but also very time-consuming. Many of the checklists and documents that had been half-completed in the online Cx tool had to be recreated outside of the tool in cumbersome spreadsheets, which took countless hours.

How can this be prevented, and how can it be done better on your projects? The general contractor should have never made the attempt, given the level of familiarity with the online Cx tool coupled with the size and critical schedule milestones of Project X. That was the first and biggest mistake. The general contractor should have beta-tested the software internally and then made sure the software would work as intended on a small project with less risk. This would have allowed the internal team to become familiar with the software and develop a well-thought-out strategic method to incorporate it on Project X. The company also made the mistake of trying to use all aspects of the software in its first major application, rather than using it first for some of the most important functions and then branching out to additional features as proficiency with the software increased.

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