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Removing Barriers to Effective External Collaboration

November 7, 2023

The AEC industry is ready to improve external collaboration, but who takes the first step still remains a question.

As digital solutions expand in the industry, so does the information gap. Building relationships and trust across the project team by sharing information more freely across firm boundaries may help close this gap.

Newforma, in conjunction with the Dodge Construction Network and the Construction Progress Coalition, conducted a new study “Finding Common Ground: The Future of Project Information Management,” to gain deeper insights into how the management and flow of project information impacts the AEC industry and successful construction project delivery. Newforma and the Construction Progress Coalition also conducted a closed roundtable session with industry professionals to provide context to the survey results.

This year’s theme “Finding Common Ground” identifies where information bottlenecks in key workflow processes are occurring. Project teams can then focus improvement efforts on the areas that have the most significant impact on project delivery and the firm.

This year's main themes highlight human and technical obstacles.

The barriers to freely sharing information are not obvious. Our roundtable panel discussed both human and technology obstacles that remain unaddressed.

Major themes from the survey and roundtable include:

Firms cannot find the information needed to make informed decisions.

This is a major challenge for sixty-nine percent of this year’s respondents. Other survey findings point to a few reasons why this is an issue. For example, when asked how project decisions are tracked, email (59%) and meeting minutes (76%) were the top two responses. Key information stored in unstructured formats such as email and meeting minutes can be difficult to find. 

We also asked how workforce volatility impacts their firm’s ability to manage project information. Almost half (48%) of the respondents report that project information is lost when staff members leave. Half of the respondents also cited that errors are occurring due to missing or inaccurate project information. 

In addition, the lack of standard processes for managing information creates inconsistencies from project to project. Most respondents (79%) cite a lack of consistency in performance from project to project as the greatest impact when standard processes for managing project information are not in place.

Our roundtable panel discussion shed some light on the problem and recommended solutions. A contractor participant shared...

“We got off the rails several years ago. We had several different operating groups, and regional offices where our Chicago office does it this way, and our Milwaukee office does it another way. Our HQ positions, like legal, senior leaders, and risk, needed to go find something in everyone’s folder structures, and everyone’s saved stuff in different places. Now we are all going to do things the same, starting with that folder structure. Bring it down to two-parent levels. And then after that, have at it.”

Roundtable participant Michael Finley, Project Technology Specialist from A&E firm RS&H, also spoke about the need for standard processes…

“We collect data because data is immensely powerful, but if you don’t have a means to access that data, it’s useless. So, the big part about the data architecture is to collect it in a meaningful way so it can be re-used later.”

There are still issues with sharing information externally.

Two-thirds of respondents are still struggling with collaborating and sharing information with people externally.
Over half of respondents (58%) cite that information is not getting to them on time. And when information is shared, over half (54%) of architects and engineers and most (61%) contractors commonly receive incomplete information.

Survey respondents (61%) cite a decrease in productivity due to manual administrative tasks as a net top three impact on project performance. The industry is still challenged by each party needing a specific software solution not addressed by other platforms. Yet, firms may not be taking advantage of the software integrations that exist today to automate workflow processes.

Manual efforts to exchange information can result in human error.

Furthermore, when manual effort is involved in sharing information across external parties, errors are bound to occur.

Many respondents (47%) cite human error as the biggest challenge to effectively collaborating across project stakeholders. Errors commonly occur when data is manually entered across different platforms. In addition, information communicated primarily through email is also subject to human error through delays in forwarding, distribution list issues, and emails getting lost in personal inboxes.

Project information that is not synchronized across software systems was also reported as a challenge impacting effective collaboration by one-quarter of respondents. Miscommunication may occur when information is out of sync between project stakeholder platforms. If all parties are not on the same page with document versions, schedule changes, or issues found, friction between parties is likely to occur.

There are some barriers that technology cannot resolve.

In addition to technology barriers, transparency, trust, and expectation setting also get in the way of open sharing of information between external project team members.

When sharing information externally, more than half of respondents (57%) cannot track the status of items once it is outside their organization. This lack of visibility when information is transferred to another party’s system often results in communication issues that ultimately impact team relationships.

In this year's thought leadership roundtable, a general contractor shared his thoughts on how collaboration can be improved:

“Having transparency and trust enables faster workflows, more transparency into the project, and frankly a level of trust that allows us to remove that minutia that constantly is just stringing us along on projects. So, whether it be costs, schedule delays, coordination delays, or just communication between stakeholders, it affects the entire life cycle of a project.”
Dan Smolilo, The Walsh Group

Setting expectations early in how and why information will be used may be the key to more open sharing of information. Openness with teams on how the information will be used also creates a level of transparency that builds trust. A roundtable participant from a leading architectural firm shared:

“It is not only trust, but it’s also expectations. If you know at the beginning of the job that I’m handing this over to the contractor and I’m handing it over to the owner, you know that there are certain aspects that have to be in alignment with their expectations of how they’re going to use it.”
Donovan Wattier, HDR

Download the full study “Finding Common Ground: The Future of Project Information Management” [link to whitepaper]

About the author

Peg Landry
Content Marketing Strategist