DANIEL PINHEIRO* discusses how emails will keep pace as projects become more complex, file sizes increase, and team members proliferate.
MANY in the design and construction industry may not be aware of it, but there are moves afoot to fix email. So what’s wrong with email?
The international consulting firm McKinsey and Company says knowledge workers spend 28 per cent of their week – roughly 650 hours per year – on email. When people are managing email, they’re collaborating with all of the people sending and receiving those messages, so email in itself is not a bad thing. But 28 per cent is a lot of time, and email carries lots of risks. These include:
• Email is used to conduct company business, but it resides on the computers of individuals who may leave the company;
• Email often contains information needed by team members who have not received the email, as when a company’s attorney must conduct a legal discovery; and
• It’s clumsy and time-consuming to file emails with other project documents.
Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of email is the same problem that plagues the entire building and infrastructure industry: it is another silo of information, separate from other silos that require the information in – or attached to – the email. And all those information silos are one reason why the same McKinsey report finds knowledge workers spend 19 per cent of their time searching for and gathering information.
Larger companies often point the way to new developments in information technology. More and more, international companies are managing email using project information management (PIM) software made for the design and construction industry.
For example, global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm HOK implemented a comprehensive PIM solution to manage everything from large file transfers to mark-ups, as well as email. It uses it to file email with other project documents, retrieve filed emails, and tie email to the workflows followed to manage action items, transmittals and other processes.
HOK’s PIM software includes a search function that makes information retrieval as easy as web searches have become. Now all HOK files related to a project, including email, are more complete, organised and locatable.
Another leading architectural, interiors and town planning practice tp bennett’s IT director Stephen Yates had been fielding requests from the practice’s architects, designers and planners seeking a better way to manage their Outlook email. They wanted to file email with other project information, retrieve it with ease, and maintain associations between emails and their attachments.
“We had been using Public Folders,” Yates says, “but they don’t work in the way we needed them to. Microsoft also indicated they were going to stop supporting them anyway.”
Trevor Gale, tp bennett’s director in charge of office procedures and compliance with ISO 9001, found a solution that stripped attachments from emails, “which sent shivers down the spines of our lawyers”, says Gale.
Ultimately, the tp bennett team implemented the same project information management software that HOK was using.
“It ticked all the boxes,” says Yates. “People could file email. They could find it again with ease. The software does not replicate already-filed emails. It recognises attachments and ties them to the email they came with. It allows us to take the email out of one person’s inbox and make it available to the rest of the team.”
“Because we limit email attachment sizes to 15 MB, email is not a good way to share large files,” says Yates. “FTP (file transfer protocol) sites are unauditable, and project extranets don’t integrate with internal processes, email chief among them.”
Instead, the firm’s PIM software enables easy, web-based, two-way transfer of large files and maintains records of who downloaded what, when. It allows managers to generate activity reports and set up automated email reminders to those that have not yet downloaded files.
The file sharing function drove adoption of the PIM software, but the software’s search function may be its most popular.
“The ‘search’ capability is an application almost everyone uses in the course of a day,” says Yates. “It finds information whether it’s in an email, in an attachment to an email, or in the notes on drawings.”
Another user Alistair Kell, the director of information and technology of Building Design Partnership (BDP), calculated the return on Newforma Project Center, the PIM software used by HOK, tp bennett and BDP.
“A user survey told us Newforma software is saving individuals 15 to 20 minutes a day over the incumbent system,” says Kell. “So we rounded down to 30 minutes a week and chose a low average billing rate of £30 ($49) per hour.
“Time savings alone generate an annual return on investment of four times, meaning the software earns back its cost in the first 12 weeks of use each year,” says Kell. “I have confidence in this figure because of our conservative assumptions. Whatever the productivity savings, we feel the most important benefit comes in risk reduction,” he adds.
“It’s all about risk management,” Kell says. “To find detailed information that resolves or diffuses a situation, sometimes when callers are still on the phone, is invaluable.
“I have been in meetings when I’ve been challenged to demonstrate that we have done something on time. I pull up emails, drawings and transmittals that showed the download of key materials on such-and-such a date. It is difficult to quantify the financial benefit of that.
“People were managing projects from their individual email inboxes. Newforma software allows them to keep using email, but provides ways to file it with other project documents or associate it with an action item, RFI (request for information), issued drawing revision, or BIM (building information modelling) model, and find it again.”
This ability to find information quickly becomes even more valuable when applied to archives, where people who had little or nothing to do with the project need to retrieve vital information years after the job closes.
“We’ve saved money in related areas,” says Kell. “For example, the elimination of FTP sites saves £20,000 ($32,675) a year in hardware, software and management costs, plus eliminating FTP set-up and administration hassles.”
Design and construction professionals who recognise the problems with email have to admit it is not going away. Email is like aging: people may not like it, but the alternative is worse. In truth, email does not need to be replaced. It simply needs to be integrated with design and construction project delivery. New software for project information management is doing just that, and more.
*Daniel Pinheiro is an expert in design and construction project information management (PIM). His background includes project management, CAD (computer-aided design), IT, and BIM. He is currently the Middle East business development manager for Newforma, a PIM software company whose software is being used on more than 1.5 million projects around the world.