I must confess that when I first heard about CEMEX’s successful use of IBM Connections I was amazed at how an apparently very manual, practical and non-IT-oriented organisation had become a social business:
It got me thinking about how I might apply a social business environment to other industries and I realised that the construction industry is an ideal place to deploy social business.
The Anatomy of a Construction Project
A construction project – building a new home, office block, shopping mall, or whatever, is all about people. In most cases the people work in many different organisations and are appointed either by the client (the organisation who has commissioned the building) or the contractor (the organisation charged with physically building it).
As well as the client and contractor there will likely be the following other companies to a greater or lesser extent:
- Quantity Surveyor
- Mechanical Engineer
- Electrical Engineer
- Planning Supervisor
The contractor, whose job it is to build the thing will appoint sub-contractors who are specialists in their areas, e.g.
- A/C Engineers
- Structural Steelwork
- … and so on
What I want you to understand from this is that there are lots of different companies involved. Each company of course has multiple people involved and hence you immediately have a social network formed where people need to meet, understand their position and hear about what they’re doing.
The construction industry is typically quite conservative when it comes to working practices. This is partly because it is very litigious (often a company’s only route to making a profit on a project is through litigation). Times have changed, however, and nowadays project extranets are virtually mandated on projects of any size.
Construction is all about instructions. Everyone covers themselves with an instruction to do this, or othat, and failure to do so, or to act in time is often the basis of litigation. Therefore in the bad old days, a construction project would produce literally tons of paper. As time moved on this moved to fax and then email. Many hundreds of gigabytes of emails, drawings, documents and other information are produced on a construction project of any size.
Thus the project extranet was born. Instead of bombarding everyone with all this data and giving each company the same headache about receipt and retention of information organisations such as 4Projects, BIW and others have sprung up to provide a customised centralised location for information to be stored and notifications sent.
Although these systems achieve their aim by cutting down the IT hurdle involved in managing a construction project, they don’t offer the benefits an in-house project team deploying a social intranet experience.
So why would a construction project want to be run in a social manner? A project needs the following:
- A place to store and manage controlled documents like drawings, specifications and reports;
- A way of updating others on changes to files and other important information;
- A project directory so that everyone knows each other’s responsibilities;
- A management and workflow engine to provide a standard approach to managing changes and which provides industry-standard templates to achieve these changes;
- A way of managing revisions to documents and being able to back-track through previous revisions;
- Security and auditability of all changes in the system;
Using a Social Business approach to these requirements allows:
- A great reduction in irrelevant information flooding into users mailboxes (remember that many construction professionals work on several projects at a time and hence can receive several hundred notification emails a day);
- The necessary management and control structures to deliver industry standard processes which as subject to audit;
- Cross-system tagging and discovery of information which previously was not possible through traditional systems;
- The opportunity to simplify the reporting structure and information update paradigm so that although the same rigour of reporting is put in place, it is done so less formally (I will explain in a minute).
- The basic utility functions of file sharing and information dissemination are covered through Files and Wikis.
- Knowing who to contact is addressed through Profiles.
- Fine-grained control of project activities, completion and progressing is delivered using Activities.
- Standard Operating Procedures, Policies and other standard documentation is covered and controlled using Wikis.
- Micro-blogging by each participant can be used as a way of updating others on the status of their part of the project, such as “Drawing 193783 – Second Floor Revision A drawing posted to the General Arrangements Folder”.
Working Socially in Construction
Blogging might be scoffed at as simply a way for the idle to promote themselves (ahem!). In a construction context, blogging can be a system of record where each organisation reports formally on the work they have done, advises others of issues arising and generally uses it to communicate.
I advocate that blogging would allow the individual organisations to make the formal reports they need, provides the security to prevent later tampering with the reports and also provides the longevity of data storage which is needed to aid referencing in the future.
Instead of endlessly producing memos of updates on the status of work, construction projects can use micro-blogging (similar to Twitter) to publish what’s going on. Those involved can subscribe to the feeds from different players in the system.
Centrally storing files and providing a mechanism for revision is a given in any viable project extranet. Any social business solution worth its salt provides this functionality. By tagging the files (with the same bank of tags which are used throughout the system) not only can the hierarchy of files and folders which the industry is used to be maintained, but cross-functional meta data can also be provided.
For example, any project would likely structure its files according to the building, the structure, then perhaps the package of work the drawings represent. This would still be the same. However, by using tags to further describe the content of the drawing it becomes possible to locate the information you need in future alongside other explicit knowledge in other areas of the system. For example, on an electrical drawing you might tag the file air conitioning, data outlets, electrical sockets. Later, blog entries, wikis, status updates and other content similarly tagged can then be grouped with what might otherwise seem to be an irrelevant file.
The ability for not only the owner of the file but in fact any user to tag the file means that the tacit knowledge the users of the system have can be applied. Let’s say I open the drawing and find that it also includes information on the lighting. I tag the file with ighting and have contributed to the body of knowledge without affecting the original data.
Most project extranets provide inflexible approaches to managing processes. Some construction projects can be complex and require many different pieces of information to be recorded as well as actions to be taken.
Using a social system which has something like IBM Connections’ Activities framework (where rich templates of process can be defined and reused over and over) provides a mechanism to define, refine and run change management, information review and general management processes for the project.
Where information needs to be gathered into logical groups, communities can be formed. These allow files, wikis, blogs, activities and all sorts of other information to be brought together under one logical group.
This allows the like-minded to gather and discuss, share and contribute in ways which is not currently possible using traditional extranets.
Tuning Out Socially
As I alluded at the start of this article, there is a defined structure to a construction project. The amount of information generated can easily overwhelm anyone. Using communities and activity streams to group and connect with the relevant people involved in the project allows everyone to stay in control of the stuff that is important to their job.
A Social Construction Project provides these social features with the same rigorous controls for auditing and security which are needed to cover everyone’s backs but with the flexibility of encouraging collaboration and sharing.
To illustrate some of these concepts, my next blog post will show how I would construct a Social Construction Project using IBM Connections.
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