Much of construction remains reliant on analogue methods of communication and data capture, says SymTerra director and co-founder John Ryan. Yet, in a fast-evolving legislative landscape, the need for better and more efficient collaboration and data assurance has never been more critical
Repeatedly, we see the same scenario play out. At the start of a project, construction site teams begin with aspirations of singing from the same hymn sheet with one source of the project truth. Soon after, they realise they have not been provided with the tools needed to capture the right information. Furthermore, they find that the project team keeps changing with time.
Ultimately, data management in construction is broken.
We think paperwork is part of the problem. In such a dynamic and purposeful sector, the way that information is logged and shared is stuck in the dark ages. Let us be honest here, nobody joined construction for the paperwork, nor for the process flowcharts or the thrill of chasing down 20 signatures on a document by 4.45pm on a Friday.
Even as the sector’s information management approach looks much the same today as it did 30 years ago, the legal and regulatory environment has evolved hugely.
Today, buildings are being built at ever increasing levels of complexity in design and delivery – supported by a global supply chain – and to carry out these works safely, new, more complex, and stringent specifications and legal requirements are constantly emerging. All this on top of the squeeze of inflation and turbulent economic times means many construction firms are at palpable risk of extinction.
Information management is so often at the root of building – and company – failures, where lack of access to the right information at the right time almost certainly leads to bad decision making in the boardroom.
Most commonly, the gap we find lies at site level – where site teams are left behind on the digital journey, and point-of-work data is all but left to languish on endless WhatsApp group chats.
The key factors of failure
Essentially, there are four key factors to data management failures. We all need to know what is happening on a project as the environment is ever changing.
For progress updates, we are always chasing:
- Who has it?
- Where is it?
- Can I get hold of it?
- Is that all of it?
If you can only answer three out of the four above, chances are, it will be quicker and cheaper to re-survey. When you consider that re-survey so often becomes the best option for record-keeping, you can begin to understand the extent to which data management in construction is broken.
The risk of having no information management strategy is enormous. Whether it is a megaproject or a fit-out, each project is unique, and there are so many factors at play. The consequences of inconsistencies can range from minor leaks in pipework to catastrophic failures putting lives at risk.
“Nobody joined construction for the paperwork, nor for the process flowcharts or the thrill of chasing down 20 signatures on a document by 4.45pm on a Friday”
These inconsistencies can arise due to many different reasons.
- Many companies develop their own systems and structures to comply with client requirements and industry standards
- Chances are multiple companies across the supply chain will be reporting and record keeping in different ways on multiple platforms with their own processes and procedures
- The project itself may take many years to complete, and in that time, there will be numerous companies and people involved, each adding their own update to the project’s history – with the risk that some of those companies may disappear by the wayside
The result of all this is that records of works become spread across multiple offices, teams, and companies and a lot in engineers’ attics and memory sticks in kitchen drawers across the country
Whether a company spends millions on proprietary or customer-built software or utilises free software to apply across the project supply chain, everything must start with getting a basic information management system in place.
This needs to cover three core areas: Capture, Store, and Find.
- Keep it simple and conventional, use non-proprietary industry standard formats that will be around in 100 years
- Allow users to input quality information, open questions for their assessments instead of hundreds of tick boxes that discourage detail and encourage frustration
- Get the whole team on the same easily accessible system so there is one source of truth
- This includes how you store, how you share, and how you re-use
- In the simplest structure, this could be a project drop box account
- Ensure data portability, that material can be imported and exported to be valuable and usable
- Using simple Excel document register will help people find the latest version of assets
- Everything should be Excel-able, avoid bespoke customised solutions that cannot be shared across the project chain, every party owns their data
Back to the start
We keep going back to why we joined the industry, and it was not for the paperwork. Nobody ever got praised for a fabulous job on how neat they keep their folders; we focus on the physical works delivery at all cost and paperwork can follow on when you have time, often on the weekend.
We get so engrossed with the excitement of delivery that we forget the assurance paperwork, the progress updates, and the records, as they are not at the coal face of project delivery.
One big pushback we heard from site teams in our many years on projects is the perceived enormity of the data management challenge – there is so much guidance, noise, standards, and specifications around this that we just give up. We do not have the time to sort it all out.
But best practice and industry standards can help you get things into a good structure quickly without having to waste a lot of time for no reason (many are free). If you keep it simple as outlined above, you will find that you naturally align with these from the start.
Focus on instilling a good record-keeping culture and provide your increasingly digital-native workforce with basic, simple, and intuitive tools to capture data. Even with a minimal information management approach, you will get 90% of the way there in changing the sector’s reputation as a disgruntled dinosaur chasing paperwork.
Build in Digital Stakeholder SymTerra is a construction site management software firm that provides a simple, instant and integrated method for the entire supply chain of any project to communicate, collaborate and capture vital information at the point of work.
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