The Project Extranet: Web-based Project Management

In Uncategorized by tfwm

The Internet is cutting across many different planes and touching many millions of individuals, businesses, and communities. Let’s peer into the crystal ball and consider the age-old industry of design and construction of our physical world. How is the Internet and the convergence of technology affecting team/project management? How can your church’s construction or renovation project benefit from these opportunities? The Problem: Communications “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Or: “Did you hear what I think I said?”

These sayings highlight one of the most basic requirements of effective teamwork and project management, and that is communications: among team members and stakeholders, banks and building committees, architects and contractors, and congregations and communities. Through effective communications, needs are defined, problems resolved, and above all: expectations expressed. Too often assumptions are made and/or relayed information is distorted (playing “telephone”). Project Management Principles Successful project management encompasses and balances three basic principles: quality, schedule, and budget. Of these, it is often said, “Pick any two.” The scenario where one gets all three – high quality, short schedule, and low cost – is certainly perfect, but often elusive. Compromises are inevitable.

Consider the extremes: High Quality: (of course; this is God’s work!), Short Schedule: (let’s get it done before Easter, OK? but oh boy, will it cost!) or Low Cost: (we have a budget here) plus Short Schedule: (hurry, hurry!) EQUALS low quality (sloppy work, cheap materials, etc.) Or: Low cost, high quality, forever schedule (might never get done!) Through effective project communications, we can minimize surprises and encourage collaborative decision making, hopefully resulting in a balance among budget, quality, and schedule. Project Team Communications One important thing about church building committees: these are volunteers from the congregation, most if not all of whom have had NO experience in the commercial design and construction industry.

A committee member may be knowledgeable in the residential construction world, but commercial construction is quite different, especially if the project is over $1,000,000 in value. Even smaller projects can get derailed if there is no “owner’s advocate” or project manager to oversee the process. The church building committee is usually responsible to the board of Trustees and ministerial staff of the church. It is also responsible for being the conduit for all “official” communications with the contractors. The cardinal rule is to have a single individual be the “spokesperson” for the Church from design through construction. The building committee may limit the authority of this representative, but the importance of appointing a single individual as communication link cannot be over stressed.

The traditional owner’s advocate (and sometimes project manager) is the architect. They are typically engaged early in the planning phase and develop a close relationship with the board, building committee, and sometimes the congregation. As the project progresses, the architect hires other designers (lighting, interior, etc.), engineers (mechanical, acoustical, electrical, etc.), consultants (audio, video, security, telecommunications, etc.), and other specialists to develop detailed design documents for the project. This team will be making many thousands of decisions, some small and some very significant, as the design progresses. How will the building committee, architect, and stable of specialists communicate with each other? Historically, the industry has been (and still is) largely paper-based, using couriers and Faxes for blueprints, memoranda, specifications, etc. Coordination and communication among members of the design team is typically inefficient and marginally effective, especially on fast-track projects. On the other side the table are the contractors who are trying to make sense and construct your project from these documents. They have questions. They also have a schedule and budget to adhere to.

Timely answers are critical to coordination and minimizing misunderstandings. Field conditions will surprise all members of the design and construction team; how will these issues be dealt with? Traditionally, the process calls for the contractor to submit an official “Request for Information” or RFI to the general contractor, then to the architect or construction/project manager. Then the RFI is passed to the appropriate design professional who answers the question (or thinks he does) and the response travels backwards through the circuit. If the response generates another (or more) question(s), the process is repeated. Meanwhile, the project clock is ticking and opportunities for a cost-effective solution often pass. How can this process be improved? Since the communications circuit was designed to maintain control and responsibility with the appropriate parties, we cannot short-circuit that. So the speed of response is the only variable we can affect.

Finally, remember that projects do not happen in a vacuum. They happen for a particular congregation and in a particular community that also feels they should be informed if not involved in many of the processes. Wouldn’t it be great if the technology solution we created also provided a portal for information of interest to the congregation and community? Web-based Solution: Project Communications How can the Internet help keep projects on time and under budget? If we can get the design team members to use it, we can certainly reduce meetings, reduce travel and communications overhead, as well as the costs associated with printing and courier/overnight delivery services. We can also save time by making information easy to find (open books) and communicated via broadcast rather than through a serial circuit. This efficient distribution and communication of information alone can save projects significant costs in both time and dollars while improving accuracy and accountability. This model of communications also provides a mechanism for issue/problem solving. It will provide a virtual forum for collaboration among design and construction team members. It also permits “big picture oversight” by the project manager and building committee who can thus maintain control of the project. How can we apply technology and the Internet to encourage and enhance communications? What if we had a virtual filing cabinet that:

 Had drawers big enough to be reached from the desks of anyone on the project?
 Contained all project information, both document-based and system-based?
 Stored the documents in their native form so that they could be modified?
 Archived previous versions with each subsequent filing?
 Had an administrator that tracked every activity in the cabinet, no matter where it occurred?
 Was always unlocked and available, but recognized who should get in and who should not?
 Understood which information was relevant to which team members and automatically notified them when it changed?
 Had a method of locating files that did not rely on file naming?
 Could store discussions directly with the information being discussed?
 Provided the tools everyone needed to review each document? The Project Extranet is the term being applied to Internet-based project information portals.

There are many ways of building a project extranet, from hiring programmers and a webmaster and creating one from scratch to signing up for a subscription service or purchasing an off-the-shelf server application designed to fulfill this specific requirement. In all cases, the most effective and comprehensive project extranets have the following features: It should provide the right information at the right time and place to the right team members. It should do this electronically to reduce or eliminate costly and time-consuming manual distribution. The project extranet should permit continuous information sharing with individuals from other firms. This collaboration in real time or asynchronous time (time shifting like voicemail or e-mail) leverages the power of the Internet and the new paradigm of communications. Note that the traditional way of sharing information and collaborating is also asynchronous as information is mailed or sent by overnight services to team members who then respond and send information back to team members.

The Internet allows this transaction to take hours rather than days, dramatically speeding up the process and saving the costs of printing and mailing. It should integrate information in external applications or databases such as project-specific project management programs, accounting programs, Cad programs, etc. It should deliver information in native form so that it can be manipulated and modified by the appropriate team members. It should permit team members to view information in all forms without having to have the related application loaded on their computer; they should be able to view and mark up the documents from within their Internet browser. It should be easy to use and navigate. It should be accessible to all team members with minimal or no changes to their computers and provide the tools everyone needs to review each document. The project extranet should automatically track and record user activity and archive previous versions of any changed documents. It should track and link discussions with the related documents. This track record holds team members accountable for changes and errors during design and construction and can support/refute claims for additional charges. It should manage access rights, make associations between team members and relevant data, and notify appropriate team members about new, pertinent information when it becomes available. This protects data and speeds up the communications process. The project extranet would also have a means to generate requests for information (RFIs), track them (RFI Log), and resolve them. It would similarly track proposed change orders (PCOs), construction change directives (CCDs), and change orders (COs). This reduces the number of steps and the time it takes for the submittal and review processes. It thus shortens the overall project design and construction schedule and reduces non-responsiveness on the part of the design professionals involved (a chronic problem with traditional methods of processing these issues).

All of this technology-enhanced communication reduces rework on the project as participants are notified automatically of updates and changes. The project extranet would also provide on-line review and coordination of design documents, progress photographs, reports, drawings, etc. It would be easy to use and allow drag-and-drop updating of information. It would support the use of hyperlinks and allow all teams to use standard business software right away for creating and collaborating on a wide range of document types. How does the project extranet enhance congregation involvement? It allows congregation members to observe construction progress and encourages support and contributions. Architect and artist renderings help them visualize how the new sanctuary or education building will look when completed. The site could be fitted with a webcam to permit watching the construction progress in real time. You could even set it up to accept charge card donations for various project elements (a buy-a-brick or pew program.) So, how would we summarize the definition and purpose of a project extranet? It is an internet-based information portal that integrates system- and document- based data and makes the appropriate information available to authorized participants. It provides custom organization and navigation that reflects your project specifically. It provides integrated communications and encourages collaborations among team members. It provides an issue-specific context for on-line review, discussion, and resolution of project issues. And it tracks information requests to keep projects moving and keeps the congregation and community appropriately involved and informed.

Solutions Providers: The industry has thus far provided two ways to use the Internet to manage your project: Subscription services and purchased application software. The main distinction is that, for subscription services, you pay a set up fee for the project, and then pay a monthly fee to use the service and keep your project on the provider’s servers. The cost varies according to the scope of the project, but plan on spending from $500 to $1,000 for the setup and $500 to $1,000/month for the subscription. Training is also strongly recommended for at least the church’s project executive, and costs approximately $1,500 for the day’s worth. Most of the solution providers are subscription based. Examples are: BlueLine OnLine: www.bluelineonline.com, ESI AdvantageNet: www.emergingsolutions.com, and MPI Interactive E-Builder: www.mpinc.com. Please note that not all of the solution providers offer all of the features we described above; careful comparison and analysis is strongly recommended. The other alternative is buying an off-the-shelf project server program and installing it on your (or another member of the design/construction team’s) server.

The advantages are that there are no on-going monthly fees, you have complete control and know where your data resides, and the “look and feel” of the website is yours to create, as you want. Subscription services either force you to conform to their pre-defined structure for the information or charge consulting fees to make adjustments to customize the site. Once the facility construction is completed, the site can be used for facilities management, since there are no ongoing monthly fees associated with using the program. The up-front cost for the purchased application approach would be from $16,000 to $25,000, depending on how much experience you have in-house. The best (and so far the only) example of this solution is Framework Technologies ActiveProject Builder/Server: www.frametech.com. This is what Electro-Media Design, Ltd. uses both for our own in-house collaboration and workflow management and for our clients. Is it worth it? Depends on how effective you are at getting the team members to use it. If the project website is being built as an ancillary to “normal” project meetings and you still are using the traditional paper-based document generation and distribution systems, then you will not experience as much of the savings that are intrinsic in this new process form. However, if it is required that all design and construction stakeholders participate in the extranet, then the savings can easily outstrip the costs, just on the cost of printing and time saved alone.

Another consideration relating to the subscribe vs: buy decision is how long the project will last. If your project is a one-time, short-schedule project, then it may make the most sense to use a subscription service. If, however, you are developing a campus complex with main sanctuary, chapel, fellowship hall, and education building, and the development including design and construction is slated to take several years, then the best (and most cost-effective) solution would be purchasing your own project server in the beginning. Of course, if you are fortunate enough to find an architect or designer who already has their own project server (as we do), then you gain the advantages of the convergence of technology with design team communications in the most cost-effective scenario. So, good luck, have fun, and enjoy the process of exploring the new ever-expanding world of project communications.