Project Management Journal Vol 28, Number 3, Sep 1997; p. 44Project-Specific Intranets for Construction Teams
Stephen R. Mead, Department of Construction Management, School of Industry & Technology, East Carolona University, 331 Rawl, Greenville, North Carolina 27858, USA email email@example.com
This paper discusses the rise of intranets and describes how this technology can be applied to specific projects. The paper also presents a methodology that can be used to develop project specific intranets and includes sections on objectives, project teams, informatino needs, technology decisions and information control and security. The paper also ues graphic models that outline basic, expanded and comprehensive intranet systems.
Keywords: communication; information distribution; project teams; virtual teams
1997 by the Project Management Institute 1997 vol 28 No. 3 44 - 51 8756 9728/97/$5.00 per article +0.50 per page
Today, complex contracts are inundating building teams in a sea of project communications. Decreasing product life cycles and the cost of capital are compressing the time needed to design and construct complicated facilities. At the same time, increasing technological complexity is shifting project control away from prime contractors and toward specialized subcontractors (Kubal, 1995). These trends suggest that we need to consider reengineering how we process and move information during the design and construc- tion process.
The rapid development of intranets may provide construction and design teams with an innovative tool for meeting these growing communication challenges. A project-specific intranet uses an Internet-based Web server to store project information such as specifications, design documents and information requests. Project team members can then access this information using the Internet-based World Wide Web (WWW) system. As information changes, the server content can be easily updated with new or revised data. This flexible approach allows geographically remote project teams to access timely, consistent and accurate information without expensive typesetting, printing, distribution and mailing charges.
In many industries, intranets have shown promise as a cost-effective way to improve the delivery of information. As such, the development of project-specific intranets may lead to improved teamwork, streamlined project schedules and reduced litigation, thus providing customers with increased project satisfaction.
The Internet was developed in the 1960s by the United States Department of Defense to ensure electronic communications during nuclear attack. The system used a computer language called Internetworking Protocol (or IP for short) to move electronic files to remote locations via a series of distributed networks. With IP, information is passed independently, so that if one site is down, the information can be routed through alternate sites to its destination.
Using the Internet protocols, client machines can send and request electronic information from server machines. These servers act as information brokers, and they can be contacted by more than one client at one time. Using well-established electronic protocols, clients and servers can exchange information via a network that connects computers around the world (Varier & Turk, 1995)
World Wide Web.
The growth of the Internet has been fueled by the rapid development of the World Wide Web. This environment allows for the seamless exchange of text, graphic, audio and multimedia files (Vetter, Spell & Ward, 1994). WWW uses a graphical user interface (GUI) or browser that is simple to learn and user-friendly. By simply pointing and clicking, the user can navigate rapidly through a series of distributed Internet servers.
This format provides a seamless interface that can be accessed by any type of computer, regardless of its platform. Unlike electronic data interchange (EDI) that attempts to standardize information data sets, the Internet acts as a translation device that allows the storage and transmission of most file formats. This translation feature solves some of the software incompatibility problems that have commonly hindered electronic information exchange.
An intranet is a restricted Internet network that uses a series of linked Web pages to distribute information to individuals within an organization or to interorganizational members of a project team. These restricted Intranets use the World Wide Web to give employees and project teams instant access to virtually any sort of electronic document. Because Web browsers run on any type of computer, the same electronic information can be viewed by project team members regardless of platform or geographic location. For some firms that includes phone books, procedure manuals, technical support, requisition forms, schedules, timecards or virtually any information that can be converted to an electronic document (Business Week, 1996).
Countless organizations are beginning to incorporate Intranets within their organizations. A recent survey indicates that over 80% of Web application development is occurring within organizations on internal networks. For instance, Sun Microsystems is using team-based Web servers for project management and information distribution on a host of collaborative projects. Using the Web, segmented corporate teams can access and review information from other remote teams in a Virtual" environment (Bicker, 1996).
Other companies are developing intranets as a way to improve communication on construction sites. Fails Management Systems, a U.S. construction management consultant, has developed intranets to form virtual environments for construction teams. Here a Web site is used to upload and download files relating to schedules, contract drawings, change orders and other project management information. The intranet is also used to establish a partnering agreement between the disparate teams that form the project. One example of a Web-specific partnering project can be seen at http://www.gcn.net (ENR, 1996).
Intranets in Construction
While still in its infancy, the Internet holds promise as a medium for construction information. Mitchell notes that the "electronic flow of data means one thing for construction - less rework at the construction site." In the future, Internet-based information technology can be used to create "global offices," where local firms access global expertise 24 hours a day. The Internet will be used to form virtual teams where resources are leveled through timely communication and design and construction time scales will be reduced through the collaborative sharing of project information (Mitchell, 1993).
The Internet will become an invaluable asset to members of a design team, "allowing them to communicate directly to their colleagues, consultants, contractors or manufacturers without numerous phone calls or expensive meetings. The technology can provide an electronic record of all discussions, decisions and project notes. It also allows members of the design and construction team to transfer or share word processed documents, specifications, change orders, CADD drawings, database records, and hypertext documents in a quick and efficient manner" (Varier & Turk, 1995).
Other groups are using the Internet to provide access to diverse building reference sources. For instance, Massachusetts Institute of Technology has placed Building Codes on its WWW server and the Canadian institute for Construction Research (IRC) uses the Internet to provide worldwide access to its research. At Carnegie Mellon University, researchers are using a Web server as an information broker that can be used to search environmental regulations for specific projects in specific locales. This broker provides a computer-based mechanism for distributing information to a distributed collection of users without the users having to know where that information resides (Krofchik, Garrett & Fenves, 1995).
Establishing Goals and Objectives
Because each construction project is unique, intranets are custom-built to meet the specific needs of the project. Establishing a project intranet begins with an information partnering session between members of the project team. During this session, team members review the specific goals of the project and develop consensus on several key issues: Who makes up the project information teams.
What information is critical to making the project work smoothly? What technology will be used and who maintains it? Who publishes and controls the information? What type of training will be required to make the system work?
Establishing the Project Team
Most construction projects are comprised of unique teams of designers, managers and subcontractors. Depending Upon the project, the intranet development sessions should include key members from the organizations that will manage and maintain the project information flow.
Likely members would include the ownner's representative, the project design group, the construction management staff, key subcontractors and vendors and the technical staff that will develop and maintain the project intranet hardware and software.
As part of the development process, the project leaders have to establish a group of key players who will lead and maintain the intranet effort.
Once this development team is selected, the information needs of the project can be addressed. Typically the development team can develop a list of specific information needs through a brainstorming session. These needs can then be separated into broader categories. In developing Sun Microsystems intranet, participants came up with 51 information categories related to their work. The developers listed the categories on 3- by 4-inch note cards, then used focus groups to sort the cards into similar piles. The development team used these groups to develop the Web pages for their intranet (Bicker, 1996).
While every project will have unique requirements, most construction project information falls into four broad categories:
Design Information includes any information generated by the design team, such as contract drawings, specifications, clarifications and changes, and punch lists.
Management Information includes information that is developed by the project manager, such as 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.
Financial Information includes information that is developed by the accounting staff responsible for the project. Important information might include cash flow projections, requisition status, general ledger, contract status reports, and so forth.
Creating an intranet is a relatively low-cost investment, which requires some expertise in TCP/IP network administration. The basic configuration consists of a file server which uses a WWW server software and remote client computers that can be used by project team members to "pull" information off the server. Once connected to the Internet, this server can distribute project information to project team members down the hall or around the globe. Dependent on the project size and information requirements, one or several Web servers can be used to distribute information to the project team.
It is critical that the intranet development team develop careful procedures that dictate what will be published, how information will be transferred and who publishes and controls that information. these standards can be set through a detailed information partnering session. To ensure team compliance, these information handling procedures can be included as part of the project specifications (Zell, 1995).
The intranet development team also needs to consider the costs and possible benefits of the networking investment. Since the intranet takes advantage of WWW open standard technology, it offers a good way to distribute information cost effectively to disparate locations. According to International Data Corporation, WWW applications can be fully developed and deployed for $10,000 or less (Bicker, 1996).
In an era of tight margins and global competition, this may seem like a significant project investment; however, once an intranet has been established, these systems can also be reused to manage future projects, increasing the payback potential of the investment. One project Web user recently noted, "If we communicate well enough to save one moderate-sized change order, then we'll be more than able to pay for the system" (ENR, 1996).
Perhaps the most important technological question is,
For most corporations, this task is given to a "webmaster." A webmaster is usually a computer specialist who helps to develop and maintain a project intranet.
On smaller projects, these duties can be outsourced to an increasing group of computer consultants who specialize in WWW development. On larger projects, intranets are typically maintained by the firm's network administrator.
Given the contractual nature of the construction business, many firms are afraid of losing control of the information they have developed. One contractor recently said that an engineer's CAD file he had received contained the following disclaimer: "The engineer shall not be responsible for the accuracy or completeness of any data, specifications, designs or any other materials transferred as electronic media" (ENR, 1996). Through effective partnering, the development team can help streamline information transfer methods and provide standards for liability and control issues.
Fortunately, the open standards of Internet-based systems offer several ways to move information. For instance, a superintendent at a remote location can download a file from the design team's computer, then view it with a site-based CAD program. Another solution is to use the browser to view the design files in a "read only" mode. Web-based applications like Adobe's PDF format enable developers to publish documents that look just like the printed page. Like paper blueprints, this enables the user to look at the drawing and retrieve information, while leaving the control of the file with the original publisher. Given the increasing popularity of the Internet, most software applications are now being developed for Web publishing.
Webmasters can also set up servers to control access to specific parts of an intranet. For instance, an intranet can be set up to allow public access to the project description and project roster, while restricting access to more sensitive parts of the intranet. As part of the intranet development effort, the project team can set a up a matrix that can be used to analyze the access privileges of the project (see Figure l ).A C c a P M t s u M t i R S h r A g o e u F c D N n q b I P A h P D r A C M s m N a n R e R P D a G h i I t i A y a O O s o h E S w E a n s t N m l r J c s o S p i M n u s I t C e y d E r t t I e n E g t u n a I n s e C i e o G c g N e e e f l A t i r T p r s N s s T s s s o s L s s s
Distributing information via an intranet gives all members of the project team equal access to the information. As such, the organization that maintains and controls that information has considerable power. A possible solution is to let the organizations who have the liability for the information maintain the electronic control of that information. Given the seamless nature of the World Wide Web, a design firm can maintain drawings and specifications on an intranet server, which they develop and control. In turn, multiple servers can be linked together with a single home page, providing a seamless electronic environment.
Given the rapid growth of the Internet, a Web browser may someday become as commonplace on a construction site as the telephone. Once connected to the Internet, a Web browser uses a simple "point and clicks methodology and intuitive hyperlinks to move seamlessly between remote servers. Given the simplicity of the interface, employees can be trained to use the WWW in a matter of minutes. Also, because the HTTP protocol is platform independent, managers can use the Internet to link together existing information infrastructure including Windows, Macintosh, and Unix environments. This interoperability can help streamline the training needs of the project team. Still, the technological literacy of the project team should be assessed by the information partnering team and strategies should be set to make sure that all participants understand how to use the project-specific intranet.
Basic Project Intranet
The purpose of the basic intranet is to provide Internet access to key members of the project team and to provide descriptive and marketing information about the project. As such, this type of system acts as a "front doors to a virtual project. Construction projects that have short durations or restricted budgets can use this type of simple intranet to establish a framework for enhanced communication.
The heart of the basic intranet is an Internet e-mail distribution system that can be used to transfer communications and files between team players. Using an email program distribution list, or project list, project players can route information and files to other members of the project team. Primary players would include the owner, architect, contractor, field staff and major subcontractors.
The basic intranet system also uses a project home page to provide access to a project roster, a project description, project links and progress photos of the project. A good example of a basic intranet can be seen at the Global Construction Network's Web site (www.gcn.com) (see Figure 2).
The basic intranet uses project information that does not change rapidly. This simplifies administration and publication. As such, the basic intranet can be easily developed and maintained by a third-party Internet service provider, or by internal staff with basic Web development skills. While requirements will vary, this type of system can be established for less than $5,000 dollars (Wilder, 1996).
While minimal in scope, this type of system helps train Internet novices by providing access to simple Internet tools like e-mail and the World Wide Web. Accordingly, the basic intranet can help enhance communication between project teams and act as a stepping stone for the development of larger intranet system.
Expanded Project Intranet
The expanded project intranet moves beyond the basic intranet to include a library of integrated management information that can enhance the performance of the project team. That information might include an updated project schedule, a two-week look-ahead schedule, meeting minutes, pending change orders, requests for information, submittal status log and a list of action items.
Like the basic intranet system, this system includes e-mail and a Front door" Web page that includes basic project information. A link on the front door page allows project players with proper security to access the project management library. Project documents can then be downloaded via FTP, or viewed through a remote browser via HTML.
Unlike the basic intranet, the expanded intranet requires information integration among select members of the project team. This integration requires additional coordination and monitoring. Because project information changes rapidly, files have to be translated into HTML, format and then updated regularly. Security restrictions also require additional system setup and expertise.
The development and maintenance of this type of intranet would require staff with a sound understanding of Internet network administration and HTML development. Given their role as administrator of project information, the control of this system would best reside with the construction manager or prime contractor.
Comprehensive Project Intranet
The Comprehensive Project Model illustrates a complete reengineering of the construction information process. In this model, construction information is separated into four main libraries: project, management, design, and financial information. These libraries become information hubs that are maintained and controlled by specific teams within the project organization.
For instance, the architect-who has responsibility for the design-maintains a project Web server that includes updated drawings, specifications and details. Similarly, the construction manager maintains a server that is used to coordinate project management informa- tion. The prime contractor's accounting department maintains information published on the financial server, etc. In this way the information needs on a construction project can be distributed by the groups that control that information.
Current literature provides many case study examples of how industries have used electronic technologies to improve overall performance. In other industries, elec- tronic information has led to increased efficiency, higher levels of productivity and improved information quality. These benefits result from the ability to move informa- tion beyond departmental and organizational bound- aries. As such, the rapid development of Internet technologies may enable firms to move beyond those boundaries, providing a low-cost, platform-independent source of project information.
While the details vary, research shows that by integrating information electronically, firms improve information accuracy and accessibility, and enhance communication and teamwork between disparate teams. According to a study by the Constnuction Industry Institute some specific benefits include elimination of redundant files; elimination of multiple data entry tasks; multilocational access to information; elimination of departmental and organization ownership of information; improved process efficiency; reduced labor and resource requirements; improved customer/supplier relations; reduced dependency on paper-based information; accurate and timely reporting (Back & Bell, 1994).
The rapid development of collaborative intranets gives project teams new tools for reengineering the way we process and distribute construction information. In an era of increasing project complexity, these low-cost, easy-to-use networks give geographically isolated construction units efficient new ways to share and exchange informa- tion. This rapidly evolving technology can be used to speed information delivery, improve information accuracy and reduce costly paperwork and mailing costs. tlopefully, project-specific intratlets will also lead to improved teamwork and streamlined project schedules, providing customers with increased project satisfaction.