Engineering firms, architectural practices and construction companies are getting their project information management right. And it is easier than one might think
1) The right use of email
The history of email has always been about communication, analogous to that of a simple paper letter. With more than 4.5 billion email accounts active worldwide it has evolved into the most widely used communications medium on the internet.
Instant and direct communication between team members is of paramount importance on projects. Therefore, including emails in your overall project data set, ideally within a system that makes them accessible to the whole project team, is vital. Information held within emails is often critical in resolving questions and understanding why decisions were made both during and after the project has completed.
With higher bandwidth and better overall connectivity, more and more people have also defaulted to using email to transfer files. It is not uncommon for AEC professionals to send several emails a day containing 20 MB PDF, DWG or other files to contractors or even other team members, mostly because it’s easy and simple.
The inherent problems with this workflow are limited file sizes than can be transferred via email and the fact that transactions via email are inaccessible to those not included on the distribution list. While email can be the go-to solution to share a file, it offers reduced visibility to the sender’s business, who remain responsible for decisions made long after the project has concluded. Additionally, emails also lack the ability to notify the sender, if a file has been successfully downloaded by recipient.
As much as letters do not make good parcels, emails are not the optimal solution for exchanging files on a project.
2) File transfers
Now that email has been challenged as the preferred way for sharing files on a project, what are the tools most suited for this task? When there are no in-house systems in place, many AEC professionals make use of mainstream tools that target a wide-range of consumers. The primary reasons for using such tools are typically convenience and familiarity.
While these tools have great appeal, they are operating outside of the overall digital project infrastructure. Just like email, these tools make it difficult for the wider team to have visibility on a transaction, for example if a person is sharing the most recent document. It is hard to find out which files were sent to whom and when or if and by whom they have been downloaded if there is little or no audit trail. Or if the only record is an email notification. With team members leaving a project or going on holiday, this can easily turn into a difficult situation to manage. Uploading information to a hosted service can also introduce concerns from clients over data security and sovereignty.
Within a high-risk environment such as the AEC industry, it is important to use Project Information Management (PIM) systems, which allow you to stay and work within your own data infrastructure. Not only to maintain proper project context, but also for being able to track information flow with a proper audit trail. In cases of potential litigation, this can be essential to avoid major monetary damage.
3) Searching for project information
Historically, to work in a structured world required neatly organised folders, drawers and filing cabinets. Order was an absolute necessity to find anything, typically by using a numbering system as the backbone of every search operation.
Many people still work this way today, even in the era of digitalisation. There are folder structures within folder structures within folder structures, mostly organised by name, type, date, etc. All designed to serve one purpose: finding information as quickly and easily as possible.
There are three major problems with this process. Firstly, it can take significant effort to agree and maintain a solid and logical structure, which then needs to be adhered to for all time to not cause issues. A potential risk when considering the high likelihood of human error in such a complex industry. Secondly, there’s a high probability of delays when searching for files.
Thirdly, if not properly documented such a structure is only valuable to the people who originally created it. Others might file differently if they use their own logic to categorise information, causing co-workers to spend an unacceptable amount of time locating data.
The digital world equips professionals with better and more efficient tools for such tasks, making processes from analogue times obsolete.
Indexing is one of the most powerful ways of being able to locate information quickly and with a maximum of convenience. Modern internet search engines use exactly that principle to find millions of website pages and documents all around the world within the blink of an eye.
To fully utilise this principle, it is important to use a PIM solution that can index file content and not just its filename and attributes.