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Project information on a secure web connection for real time communications is what Internet interactivity is all about

Project management can be overwhelmed by bureaucracy. In a speech by Al Gore in 1994, in which he popularised the expression 'information superhighway', he explained his vision: 'In the same way that the two-lane highways were inadequate to the new concentration of automobiles, the two-lane communications links that were constructed for plain old telephone services are not capable of carrying the huge new flows of information.'

Excusing the US vice-president's clumsy grammar, he was saying that the new Internet dream was of a system of multiple-linkages enabling faster, more manageable, more convenient and more accessible communications and use of information.

Unfortunately, the Internet still has not lived up to its potential - it is still separated into packages of information, interest groups and areas of restricted access. The paperless office is still an abstract proposal, written in triplicate, on every office manager's desk in the country. Computer systems are still dogged by issues of incompatibility, under-utilisation and 'training'. Office computing is as much to do with the downtime of reading glossy magazines for the latest software package, as about actually producing any thing.

A new architectural computer system, however, makes a very good attempt at addressing the shortfalls, albeit within the microcosm of the building industry. Cadweb E-Project Management System (the name is deceptive, it is more of a quality management system) has the benefits of being compatible with all Internet-connected office networks. The system is net-based, so theoretically no-one has to purchase additional kit. Anyone can use it although, obviously, the better the office's existing computing power and modem speed, the less hassle it is to connect.

Cadweb acts like a recorded delivery postal service running on an extranet.

The sender addresses a message - a drawing, a bill of quantities, a letter or whatever - to the recipient and Cadweb sends it electronically to that person via the Internet or ISDN. The system records the exact time and date the information was sent, who sent it and to whom. It also records the time and date that it was opened. All the information is automatically compressed and sent via secure networks which are not vulnerable to hacking, unlike conventional e-mail.

This is quality management rather than project management, because the system is devised to track and record the movement of every piece of information to build up a full audit trail which is legally acceptable and guaranteed under BS 7799. It is still only as good as its weakest link - the user - but manages to cover most of the technical loopholes.

The system takes the relevant outputs of all the parties to a design and construction process and places them into a centralised virtual filing system, rather than sending them to the agency of a separate information manager. In this way, information sits in the ether - accessible to everyone who has a password to the system. Equivalent systems that rely on an 'independent' server, manager or webmaster, entrust the management and distribution of intricate and binding documentation to a third party and have no guaranteed audit trail. The Cadweb system, on the other hand, allows users themselves direct access to the information and logs all transactions. It cuts down on paperwork, printing costs and distribution time (see the sample costs on the opposite page).

Most laborious chores in the modern office are related to audit bureaucracy - the transparency trail; the practice of not necessarily doing things any differently, but being able to show documentary evidence of having done enough. Primarily, this takes the form of the drawing issue sheet, that irritating piece of paperwork that always needs to be filled out at 17.30 on a Friday afternoon. But it is not just about drawing issue sheets. Often, ISO 9000 Quality Plans dictate that offices should compile incoming data check-off sheets, drawing registers, document logs, audit records and so on.

Cadweb carries this out as an automatic function of sending or picking up documents. In this way the Internet becomes a facilitator of a less bureaucratic future. Or rather, the laboriousness of increased bureaucracy will be carried out as an automatic function of more necessary and productive activities. So how does it work in practice?

The project client should pay for the Cadweb service which will usually be engaged at Stage C. It typically costs 1 per cent of contract costs, although the system is generally only economically viable for schemes worth more than £1 million.

Once this matter is dealt with (hopefully not distracting from the architect's fee negotiations), then each participant to the design process is given a password to enter the site and has unlimited access, free save for local-rate telephone calls.

The real benefits of the system are the speed of transmission and the improved co-ordination of information. Ensuring that all team members are working on consistent and up-to-date information cannot be underestimated and this network can ensure that this is done (although actual human project control and management should not be allowed to relax).New users joining the team can be easily accommodated.

They will be given a separate password to log on and can gain immediate access to the full history of the works depending on the project manager's restrictions. Letters, for example, can still be addressed to a single recipient and placed onto the Internet without them being accessible to everyone.

Most offices are now conversant with e-mail technologies and often supplement normal snail mail with electronic transfers. However, the incompatibility issue, as well as the incredibly tortuous upload and download times, can often end up frustrating the good intentions of many offices to use e-mail more regularly. Cadweb recognises all the major file formats in use in the construction industry both for CAD drawings and written documents, so users do not have to standardise with a single piece of software. Indeed, linking documents across a webpage means that users can share a document online and make changes to it in realtime.

For example, clients often demand extra facilities, such as online conferencing, redlining and object-orientated databases. A site photograph can be uploaded onto the web at a building site (remember the only outlay is for an Internet connection, a basic on-site computer with modem and a cheap digital camera) and accessed by the architect and engineer. They can use it to resolve minor problems on site. The architect and engineer can converse, and redline the drawing while the contractor looks on and puts in his views. Scribbling on a drawing or photograph online is what real interactivity is all about; saving silly site visits and not wasting everyone's time. Site visits and face-to-face interaction will not disappear, but hopefully they will be more productive when they do happen. Certainly, there will be a dramatic reduction in call outs to resolve silly discrepancies.

The one drawback that I can see is that everyone is accountable to the system. No longer can the architect pre-date a piece of correspondence to pretend that an important issue had been actioned before it actually was. No longer can the rallying defence of 'it is in the post' be used to excuse the fact that the technicians are finishing off a drawing in the background.No longer can architects claim that they never received an information request form.

Everyone will know.


General data

One drawing issue for every £2000 spent x £5 million = 2500 drawings issued

1000 documents per month x 12 months = 12,000 documents issued

Average cost of labour £60 per day

Average delay caused by postage four hours

10 per cent of drawings delivered by courier £20 per delivery

5 per cent of documents delivered by courier £20 per delivery

Cost of delay caused by postage of drawings (25 per cent on the critical path)

Average delay caused by postage = four hours

25 per cent x 2500 drawings so 625 drawings posted 625 drawings x four hours = 2500 hours total postage delay 2500 hours divided by four = 313 working days delay 313 days x £60 per day = £18,750

Cost of document printing

Documents printed out twice and average four pages long

12,000 documents x two print outs x four pages = 96,000

96,000 documents printed x 5p per page = £4800

Cost of drawing photocopies

12 copies of every drawing made (design, tender, construction, record x three)

12 copies x 2500 drawings = 30,000 copies

30,000 copies x 50p per copy = £15,000

Cost of special delivery 10 per cent x 2500 drawings = 250 delivered by courier 250 drawing deliveries x £20 per delivery = £5000 5 per cent x 12,000 documents = 600 delivered by courier 600 document deliveries x £20 per delivery = £12,000 £5000 on drawings + £20,000 on documents = £17,000

Total quantifiable savings

Cost of delays caused by postage of drawings = £18,750

Document photocopies saved = £4800

Drawing photocopies saved = £15,000

Cost of couriers saved = £17,000

Total project savings = £55,550

£55,550 total cost divided by £5 million project cost x 100 =1.11 per cent of contract costs

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