The point of no return
web based construction management
Adel El-Samadony, Vice dean of faculty of Engineering, Professor of construction
management-Helwan university, Egypt
Every aspect of management in the modern age relies heavily on information to thrive. Nothing moves without information and it is generally believed that information is power. This paper explores project information and communication management concept, context and construction information components. The construction industry has entered a new era and managing construction projects using web-based techniques have come to be essential. In this paper, a review of current and emerging web-based techniques and methodologies, such as virtual on-line design studios, on-line bidding, on-line project administration, on-line building products catalogues, and project monitoring and control through the use of web-cams, is presented. The emphasis is not only on web based project management, but also describes the use of other existing information technologies within the construction industry: project databases, communication networks, electronic commerce and electronic procurement.
An important factor discussed is the direction for fundamental change that will contribute to greater integration in the building and construction industry. A wide survey on web based project management software is presented.
WHAT IS INFORMATION
Within the context of the modern organisation, information may be defined as data that has been collected, processed, stored, and retrieved for the purpose of making a decision or for the support of efficient production and distribution of goods and services.
Stonecash (1981) defines information by stating that “information is simply symbols (data, text, images, voices, etc.) that conveys meaning through their relative ordering, timing, shape, context, etc. … information is the raw material for making decisions for creating knowledge and fuelling the modern organisation”. As a concept, information has always connoted different meanings to various information professionals, depending on what side of the information profession they belong.
Information has to be viewed as one of the basic resources of an organisation, along with human resources, capital, material, plant, and equipment. Thus, as a basic resource information:
- Is important and key to the survival of the organisation as a going concern, as well as its improved economic positioning in its own industry;
- has a cost associated with its generation and its use;
- must be timely for effective use;
- must be used efficiently for an optimal return on its cost to the organisation.
The types and sources of information will vary according to management function and level. Information can be classified into:
Organizational Information Components
Strategic Information permits top management to fulfill its responsibilities for setting the objectives of the organization, the amounts and kinds of resources necessary to attain the objectives, and the policies that govern their use.
Management Control Information assists upper and especially middle managers to make decisions in the current period, normally one year, which are consistent with organisational strategic objectives. This includes comparisons of actual results with objectives, budgets, and measurements of performance.
Construction Information Components
Much of the information generated during the course of a construction project fits this resource or production based view. For example, once a project moves beyond the design stage, its working drawings, specifications, and budgets remain relatively static for the duration of the project. As such, this information can be used effectively by multiple parties.
Construction information can be classified more narrowly in terms of three categories: technical information, commercial information, and management and control information (BT, 1995).
Includes designs and technical evaluations that describe a building. Examples might include drawings, specifications, details, and design clarifications.
Includes the contract details, which establish responsibilities for the delivery of a project. Includes delivery schedules, costs, prices, payment schedules, terms and conditions.
Management and Control Information:
Includes the project management information needed to control the project and generate reports. This category includes information which is developed by the project manager including: Meeting Minutes, Submittals and Shop Drawings, Change Order Status Log, As-Built Drawings, Requests for Information, Contract Status Log, Safety Information, Daily Logs and Project Schedules.
THE INFORMATION MANAGEMENT CONCEPT
Information management has been defined as the organisation- wide capability of creating, maintaining, retrieving and making immediately available the right information, in the right place, at the right time, in hands of the right people, at the lowest cost, in the best media, for use in decision making (Langemo, 1980).
THE INFORMATION SYSTEMS CONCEPT
Information systems are becoming of ever-greater interest in progressive and dynamic organisations. The need to obtain access conveniently, quickly and economically makes it imperative to devise procedures for the creation, management and utilisation of databases in organisations. Management information and information systems, in particular those related to effective decision-making processes in an organisation.
Salton (1975) highlighted the most important computer- based information systems as follows:
- Information retrieval system (IR);
- Question- answering system;
- Database system (DBS);
- Management information system (MIS);
- Decision support system (DSS).
MANAGEMENT INFORMATION SYSTEMS (MIS)
One approach, by which organisations can utilise computing capability, is through the development of MIS. There is no universally accepted definition of MIS and those that exist reflect the emphasis and perhaps prejudices of their authors. However, the term “management information system” can be seen as a database management system tailored to the needs of managers or decision makers in an organisation. MIS is a system using formalised procedures to provide management at all levels in all functions with appropriate information based on data from both internal and external sources, to enable them to make timely and effective decisions for planning, directing and controlling the activities for which they are responsible (Argyris, 1991).
COMMUNICATION CONCEPT & CONTEXT
Communication is the transfer of information from a sender to a receiver, with the information being understood by the receiver.
The word “communication” comes from Latin: communicare = make together. So, the question is about interaction between people, which is impossible without communication. Integration between project management areas is also impossible without information and communication management.
Communicating is the broader subject and involves a substantial body of knowledge that is not unique to the project context. For example:
• Sender receiver models: feedback loops, barriers to communications, etc.
• Choice of media: when to communicate in writing versus when to communicate orally, when to write an informal memo versus when to write a formal report, etc.
• Writing style: active versus passive voice, sentence structure, word choice, etc.
• Presentation techniques: body language, design of visual aids, etc.
• Meeting management techniques: preparing an agenda, dealing with conflict, etc.
Project Communication Management
Project communication management includes the processes required to ensure timely and appropriate generation, collection, dissemination, storage, and ultimate disposition of project information. It provides the critical links among people, ideas, and information that are necessary for success of everyone involved in the project.
There is little doubt that communication skills are vital to project success. Any taxonomy of a project manager's skills includes his/ her ability to communicate. Studies show not only that managers spend between 70 and 88 percent of their time communicating.
IMPACT OF INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY ON CONSTRUCTION
Construction is a multi- organisational process that is heavily dependent on exchange of large and complex data. Successful completion of a project depends on accuracy, effectiveness and timely communication and exchange of critical information and data between the project teams (Akinsola, et al. 2000). The need for effective information processing and exchange increases with the increasing degree of task- uncertainty, number of organisational units involved, and extent of interdependence among the units. By sharing information within the organisational units as well as among the participating organisations significant integration in construction processes can be achieved (Ahmad & Ahmed, 2001).
In the construction industry, information technology (IT) is creating new possibilities and, as a result, its advancement is placing new demands upon design and construction organisations. IT can no longer be viewed as an enhancement to traditional construction procedures but rather as an innovative agent that enables new and different alternatives to organising and operating construction enterprises.
As a consequence, construction organisations are faced with opportunities as well as challenges (Ahmad, et al., 1995).
The information management component includes all aspects of IT for capturing, storing, organising, and retrieving data. Internal (project/company) and external (industry) standards are essential for maximum integration in the process. Shared databases, data normalisation techniques, data warehousing, barcode technology, CAD graphics are examples of advancement in this area (Ahmad & Ahmed, 2001).
THE WORLD WIDE WEB AND THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY
Web based project management is a management information system that uses information technology, like internet or intranet to manage project information and communication, in order to enhance projects in time, cost, quality, and scope.
Despite an explosive growth of the Internet usage during the last five years, in many areas of business and commerce, the construction industry has not kept pace to the same degree. However, many large construction firms have now entered the Internet age. The basic Internet services such as electronic mail, remote login, file transfer, network news, and the World Wide Web have become familiar tools for majority of construction managers. These current trends constitute new opportunities that can be used to improve construction processes (Skibniewski & Abduh, 2000).
When the WWW browsing era initially emerged, application development required significant programming knowledge. This consideration alone stagnated application development from most noncomputer gurus ends. With the current emergence and influx of easy to use application development tools, the development of web- based applications has ceased to be a hindrance to effective IT exploitation in current applications. Now construction managers can access specific project information in desired formats in an accurate, timely, and pertinent form from anywhere across the globe and this, too, at particularly any time. If so set-up, they can even view live happenings at the site location without physically being at the site, in its city, or even country (Kazi, 1999).
Today, the web is not only used to display text and to provide hyperlinks to display the text. It also becomes a dynamic client/server system and a universal medium that can handle several communication protocols that had to be handled previously by several dedicated systems. Web browsers are playing important roles in providing dynamic and universal client programs independent of machine and running platforms (Skibniewski & Abduh, 2000).
Data communications links are already expediting decision-making, reducing miscommunication, cutting travel and other overhead costs, and providing firms something new to market” (Phair, 1997a). In another ENR special report, Andrew Roe states, “With electronic data swapping on the rise, the Internet is playing a greater role in delivering data. With projects of any size, we're going to see more extranets—password protected websites set up for individual projects” (1998). The implications of this for project management are clear. “Information technology is moving from a non-core business to a core business for construction companies (Angelo, 1997).
This project has grown out of an interest in interaction between designers and contractors; two groups that are so reliant on each other, but yet so often at each other's throats. One of the most critical ideas behind the web is a so-called “transparent access to information” (Doherty, 1997). This is the idea that end users care not where the information came from or how it got there, but about the actual quality of the information itself. Designers and architects have long sought to extremely limit access to “their” information (plans, specifications, etc.) in an effort to protect themselves from a supposed threat from the contractors. The Construction Industry needs to reverse this trend and increase the sharing of information among all parties to the project.
Another developing area in the Construction Industry has been the integration and manipulation of databases for the control of project information. At no other time in history has the management of information been so critical for success in the marketplace. Database Management Systems have been the likely outgrowth of this need for structured interaction with all manner of construction project data. The developing tools that the web offers for Internet database connectivity continually enhance the ability to manipulate this flow of information across traditional barriers of time and space.
The exponential growth of the Internet is already promising a bright future for the construction industry. The development in communications technology brought on by the World Wide Web has opened up new opportunities for the communication of construction project information. “Collaboration is driving the latest technology wave in the construction business. Far-flung project managers, engineers, owners, administrators, regulators and vendors who seek to work closer together in real time are pushing paperless communication into hyper drive with a new generation of data networking systems” (Phair, 1997a). The cross-platform interface that the web offers allows project data to be shared more efficiently, without concern for barriers of time and place.
In an industry that has typically been sceptical of information technology and even more divided on how to use it to improve the project management process, construction firms need evidence that computer communication can leverage their ability to manage projects. “Many design firms and contractors have yet to embrace information technology even as its impact grows” (Angelo, 1997). While some larger firms have been quick to integrate the personal computer into the areas of estimating, scheduling, and other intra office duties, many are still unsure about how to integrate networks (including the Internet) into their businesses.
The construction industry is no stranger to the Internet. However, most firms still use the World Wide Web only for marketing, leaving most of its ability as a communications tool unrealised. Drawings, specifications, change orders, submittals, etc., can all be managed through a web browser that may be accessed by privileged individuals (password protected) from anywhere at anytime. Project decisions and issue resolution can occur without concern for time and place
CONSTRUCTION IT APPLICATIONS
The paper proposes that the use of existing information technologies within the construction industry be extended. It also seeks to encourage participants to adopt innovative technology as it develops. These technologies may be used individually or used together as one system according to project conditions Existing technologies that are most relevant to the construction industry include:
A project database contains all the information about a project such as project models and physical attributes, as well as financial and project management data. The project database provides a central pool of information, which can be accessed by any project participant, at any time, from any place, and in a form most suited to the participant. Tools such as design and scheduling software can be integrated with the database providing increased functionality as well as saving time and eliminating data re-entry. Where the project database is object oriented, the information describes real objects such as walls, doors or windows, and abstract objects such as decisions. The real objects have attributes or properties including dimensional information, material requirements, fire, thermal or noise ratings and authorship. Abstract objects have attributes including date of creation, authorship and dependence on related objects.
Communication networks allow access to a single project database, rather than multiple data sets held by each project participant. These networks may be the Internet or dedicated networks (Intranets and Extranets). The increasing use of the Internet and web browser technology provides access for project participants to a range of databases including the project database, client databases with generic information about their requirements and historic data, and product databases for manufacturers and suppliers.
Electronic commerce and electronic procurement:
Electronic commerce processes can be used for procurement activities including internal and external communication, business transactions and management of supply chains and alliances.
Virtual On- line Design Studios
The virtual design studios allow designers and experts from different places to interact using audio and video conferencing. They can also share the same screen and same program thereby entering the same virtual reality space. This allows discussing virtually any matter without the need to travel. An illustration of such system is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1 Virtual On-line Design Studios (Source: Turk, 2001)
On- line Project Administration Systems
The on- line project administration systems can provide round the clock information about the project such as project status; directory of contractors, consultants, vendors and suppliers; project drawings and specifications; project control reports and the facility to submit on- line change orders. A number of construction companies are adopting such systems to facilitate better communication between the head office and the remote project sites, which could result in both time and cost- savings.
On- line Building Products Catalogues
On- line building product catalogues, also known as Web- based catalogues have become major building product information sources on the web. The content of information in these catalogues include performance data, standards and specifications, installation instructions and the facility to place on- line orders.
Most on- line catalogues organise and present product information in a format and detail that is useful for construction documentation, thereby saving time and effort. Moreover, they allows CAD users to call up graphical directories of elements used in their current design project and examine product descriptions and specifications that are available on the WWW. (Coyne & Lee, 2000).
Project Monitoring and Control Through Web Cams
Using dedicated video cameras to remotely monitor construction sites through the Internet may seem like a small jump from ordinary security surveillance, but the Web- cam's unblinking eye may be key to a project management revolution. Among other things, the round- the- clock digital views and archives of project progress are serving as impartial dispute arbiters. The Web cams provide continuous pictures regardless of weather and safety conditions and save hours or even days of travel time. Moreover, all images are recorded for archiving and have date and time stamps.
CSR Nevada, LLC a Las Vegas based company recently used the images of web- cams as evidence in a court- case as stated by their viewmaster (Angelo, 2001).
A typical construction site uses three cameras, two stationary and one pan tilt, which costs $10, 000 to purchase, install and set up (Angelo, 2001). The cameras typically shoot one picture per hour but the system can handle as many as one shot every 30 seconds. The pictures are transferred through Internet to the company's head office or wherever required. Figure 2 depicts a real- life use of Web cam in a construction site. Web cams could become more popular as project participants recognise their importance in project monitoring and dispute resolution. According to Angelo (2001), Web cams typically can help resolve critical- path delays caused parties or by an Act of God such as floods. They can also be used to stop workers' compensation fraud.
Figure 2 On- line project monitoring using Web cams (Source: Angelo, 2001)
Advantages of Web based Construction Management:
Why should one use web enabled technologies in their work place. The main idea of to create a shared understanding of goals, schedules, standards, policies, and procedures governing any project. The most common features of web based construction management and also the benefits that one can get by making the projects go online are the following.
- Up-to-date information is obtained at anytime by all participants.
- All documents are online and can be shared.
- Participating in planning and problem solving using collaboration features such as shared notebooks, threaded discussions groups and chat forums is possible.
- Communication between team members and project managers is not an issue any more.
- Errors caused due to poor communication and the delays due to the time it takes to move documents and people around for approvals and meetings are reduced or eliminated.
- Records can be maintained and so the projects can be maintained on track.
- Project managers can be alerted automatically when a task starts late, slips deadlines, overruns the budget or diverges from the plan.
- Team members get vital information when changes occur and thus can keep track of what is happening.
- The use of paper is also reduced which results in the elimination of copying and distributing printed information which is often obsolete by the time it reaches someone's desk for further review.
- It also eliminates piling up of papers by taking on many of the record keeping jobs.
- Saves a lot of time and money as meetings can be conducted online and the employees don't have to fly to a distant site to have design meetings.
- Also, this technology allows more than two people to log on at the same time and view and manipulate three-dimensional models in real time, no matter what the design software used to create them. Also, if one person manipulates the design, the other viewers can immediately see the altered views.
- Most of the construction websites also create virtual paper trails of the project including who viewed what information and when, so that, if legal disputes arise, there is evidence about which parties were informed of and accountable for what parts of the job.
- The information thus collected during the whole process of construction is very essential for the building's maintenance team after the job is completed. The data can be compiled on disks rather than having stacks of equipment manuals and building specifications.
SETTING UP WEB BASED PROJECT MANAGEMENT SYSTEM
When a construction company commits to adopt a Web- based project management system, there are two possible strategies that the company can choose in developing the system: in- house development or outsourcing this activity to a professional consultant (Skibniewski & Abduh, 2000).
Regarding the first option, the company needs the following software, hardware and interfaces.
- Powerful server for computing and transferring information.
- Internet, Intranet or Extranet availability to access information within project circle with maximum security.
- Web- based construction project management software specially developed keeping in mind the company's organisational structure and needs.
The second option is useful for companies with limited resources to develop their own Web- based project management systems. Consultants may be hired to build a Web page to fulfil the company's Internet advertising needs. For other services, commercial Web- based software such Webster for Primavera®.,AdvatnageNET., etc. can be used.
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