In the days before e-mail, there were limited options for sending information from one office to another. Businesses either faxed small missives or sent huge packages from one side of the country to the other overnight. Now, there are a host of software-based and Web-enabled document collaboration applications that will connect a group of geographically scattered team members and allow them to keep close tabs on each other and project status.
Phil Chandler and his partners at Keubler Builders, a McDonald, Tenn.-based general contracting firm with 25 employees, seemed like perfect candidates for online document sharing. As builders of big commercial properties such as grocery stores and shopping centers, they had a number of details to track. Keubler Builders farms out 75 to 85 percent of the work on a project. Chandler, its vice president and project manager, felt the ability to communicate changes between the different companies quickly and accurately is key to its success.
After eight years in business, the partners at Keubler Builders had established a reliable paper-based method of tracking project details and updates, but they wanted to tighten up the process. They looked at e-Builder, a Web-based collaboration tool for the construction industry that allows users to set up password-protected Web pages to catalog every approval and track each action. It seemed to be what they wanted, so they took the plunge.
"We track a lot of documents," says Chandler. "Everyone from the plumber to the air conditioning guy is issued contracts for service, and they, in turn, have to provide submittals detailing everything they have done."
That generates a lot of paper, Chandler says, and it is up to Keubler Builders to ensure that it moves swiftly along the proper chain of command. "The paperwork comes to us, we send it to the appropriate people for approval, and when it comes back to us, we send it back to the contractor," he says. "Of course that process is happening while we're under construction, so speed is always of the essence."
This is the life of project managers everywhere, whether they are building shopping centers or coordinating a big mailing campaign. If a piece of the puzzle is missing, it could throw off the whole project.
Products like e-Builder are tailor-made for construction, but there are similar products for other industries, including law, science, and finance. There are also more general add-on collaboration tools available with most business software suites such as Microsoft Office's Microsoft Project and Corel's Word Perfect Suite. Lotus Notes' Sametime Server is an offline collaboration and meeting software solution with chat, whiteboarding, and applications-sharing capabilities for in-house usage.
At the most basic level, team members can collaborate on something as simple as a client memo, allowing them to communicate changes as they are made and compare versions of the same document. More advanced tools track documents created using multiple applications, and allow managers to define rights for each user: One team member may only have viewing privileges, while another can approve or reject changes. Furthermore, this allows for the creation of detailed project plans, which gives the team quick status updates. As one item is completed and signed off on, its status in the project plan automatically changes from "pending" to "complete."
Of course, the key to using any of these tools is some sort of electronic connection between team members. And everyone has to be dedicated to using the tool, because one person's resistance can greatly reduce its overall efficiency.
After completing six major projects using e-Builder to keep track of contracts, status up-dates, problems, changes and approvals, Keubler Builders still runs the old non-networked method at the same time as the e-Builder system. Chandler doesn't see that changing anytime soon.
"We didn't get as much cooperation from some of the parties as we were expecting," he says. "They were worried about putting their drawings on the Internet, and who was seeing them."
Chandler says, though, that since the electronic signatures law was enacted this past summer, he has seen more architects warming up to the idea. "It's still an issue for the architects," he says, "but as electronic signatures become more accepted, it will be easier to convince them that their drawings are just as protected as when hard copies are sent through the mail."
Bandwidth is also an issue. Even when the architects are willing to post their blueprints on the Internet, the data files for those images are very large. Many of the sub-contractors Keubler Builders works with are small businesses that are accessing the Internet through dial-up connections -- some at speeds as slow as 14.4, according to Chandler. Downloading a document created with a word processor can be painful at that rate. Downloading a massive graphics file is impossible.
"Until they can all get reliable high speed connections, it's going to be hard to get everybody excited about it," he says.
While Keubler Builders has not fully been able to eliminate the paper trail or shipping costs, Chandler says the collaboration tool has already paid for itself. "We signed on to E-Builder to show customers that we have our act together and that we are using the latest resources to manage our projects," he says. "Our clients like being tied electronically to us and the architects so they can instantly see the status of any issue."
And because of the close connection with client, architect, and subcontractors, Chandler says it also helps people take responsibility for any holdups. "Previously when working on a project, there was no way to track the necessary tasks or documents," he says. "Now if a change has to be made and the submittal is sent to the architect for review, we can look at the Web page and see that the architect has it. It sort of prods people along when they know that everybody on the project can see exactly what the status of where things are being held up."
Business-to-business application for the commercial construction industry. Team Builder 5.0 coordinates and allows access to project data using a Web browser. Price dependent on what options are chosen.
Elite Information Group Inc.
Web-based project management solution with optional time and billing capabilities. $20 per month or $200 a year per user with fee discounts for 20 or more employees.
TeamOn Inc. is a Web-based application that takes desktop applications and documents and makes them Web accessible. Users can create dedicated online offices to collaborate and share information with workgroups and partners. Clients and vendors can be added to workgroups without having their own TeamOn account. $10 per user per month with additional upgrade fees.
Lotus Sametime Server
Lotus Development Corp. Real-time collaboration and meeting software solution with chat, whiteboarding and applications-sharing capabilities.