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By Chris Bachler
April 25, 2016
Since its inception, the construction industry has been a fragmented enterprise, as firm executives try to organize and guide project managers, general contractors, architects, engineers, and a host of vendors in a complicated supply chain. Due to the diversity of job sites, the comings and goings of a variety of subcontractors, and the need to delegate duties to a cross-spectrum of employees and laborers, maintaining strong collaboration between the various interested parties during a construction project can be a minefield of miscommunication, unheard requests, and misinformed decisions. Without adequate and effective collaboration, projects can become bogged down in complicated workflows that lead to considerable waste, lost revenue, and even lawsuits.
One of the main factors negatively affecting the collaboration process is the lack of a definitive strategy. As noted in the article "The Importance of Collaboration in Construction Industry from Contractors' Perspective," published in Procedia, a journal of the social and behavioral science, there isn't a single, clear-cut best practice to guide the collaboration process between subcontractors and general contractors.
In light of this glaring lack of guidance in this crucial aspect of the construction industry, many firms have attempted to create individualized patches of workarounds and minor fixes in an attempt to streamline this part of the job. Unfortunately, since everyone is using their own methods and strategies to try and overcome this innate obstacle of the construction industry, the variety of attempted remedies for the lack of collaboration only exacerbates the problem.
Despite the lack of a concrete guide for collaborative best practices, many industry experts consider the prevalence of fragmentation to be a main contributor for the lack of collaboration. The high degree of siloed divisions in the construction industry means one of the primary goals for any firm, regardless of size, is to remove all the artificial barriers and unnecessary hindrances that lead to isolated workflows.
Many construction firms section off the various aspects of the division of labor, simply because that's the way it's always been done. For some older generations, it could be the only way they know how to conduct business, while younger generations might be worried about rocking the boat or wanting to carry on the traditions of the previous owners. However, without taking strides to defragment operations, construction firms are unable to truly benefit from the full power of seamless collaboration.
As Construction Industry Council Chief Executive Graham Watts noted in The Guardian, too often, clients will first call an architect, who then consult with engineers and contact the appropriate building services and structural engineers. Only after a considerable amount of time will the general contractor––who delegates the actual work to a variety of subcontractors––get involved. With the plans and blueprints going through so many different hands, it raises the possibility of a lack of collaboration and a fragmentation of the workflow. This diminishes the chances for innovation and can lead to the team building a low-quality structure. Furthermore, anything gained at one job can be immediately lost at the end of the work.
"A particular project may see some innovation that is a better way of working that could benefit the whole industry, but that team disintegrates at the end of the project and that innovation is lost," said Watt.
In an industry that typically follows a compartmentalized and sequential workflow, where directions are passed down from one sector to the next and the only communication happens at the hand off, having a more integrated collaborative process creates an interdisciplinary team that can work together from the first step to the last.
Ultimately, more collaboration leads to innovative practices, as field teams can relay messages to an engineer about an onsite problem and the accountant can allocate the appropriate resources accordingly––all within a few minutes. This provides that crucial competitive edge for construction firms looking to reduce project timelines, increase capacity, and scale operations.
Just as important as the intra-organizational distribution of information is the inter-organizational relay of messages. Since construction firms typically work with outside parties and vendors at a considerably higher rate than most other industries, executives and managers must be able to keep track of all the correspondence and invoices. In addition, without careful record keeping of the collaboration between this plethora of business associates could lead to the very real possibility of legal woes.
Construction companies, probably more than any other major industry, understand the importance of having the right tools for the job. Just like constructing a building, creating a culture of efficient, streamlined and effective collaboration requires a tool capable of handling this task. In the past, architects would have their blueprints, project managers would have a copy, and field teams at the job site had their own version, while the accountants and other people back at the office used spreadsheets and data stored in on-premise servers to calculate costs. Each party could add their own notes and suggestions to their individual documents, but unless someone took the time to proactively share these ideas, nobody else on the job would have any idea about these potentially game-changing possibilities buried in the margins.
Fortunately, with a cloud-based project management solution, construction firms can store all of this crucial information in a one place. This allows any person involved on the project to upload pictures, notes, change orders, RFIs and more––giving the team members real time access to the data. By storing all this information in an easily accessible format, everyone from the CEO of the construction firm to the finishing carpenter can sustain an integrated and robust collaborative effort to complete the job according to the precise specifications. However, despite the ease of collaboration offered by a cloud-based construction software solution, project managers can still protect sensitive client and company data by restricting users' access according to their role on the job.
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