Digitizing Project Workflow: How To Collaborate In The 21st Century

This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of IFMA’s FMJ Magazine.

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Imagine a project’s Facilities Manager sitting in the office sifting through emails when they open an unread message. It reads, “The construction drawings for your new office location have just been issued for final review by your architect and are being sent out to the engineering consultants to provide the final engineering calculations.”

The email included a list of equipment to be calculated but, as the Facilities Manager is reviewing the list, they suddenly realize that their COO had just sent a note about a new security system. It was an all-staff email and includes instructions on the operation of the new system and referred any question to the IT department. The FM suddenly realizes that the new office has been designed with the old system and is, therefore, out of date before it was even built.

Fear and frustration set in after realizing they just issued a set of drawings for a new 50,000-square-foot facility that now needs to be redone. The IT department knew about the system, but their review meeting got pushed back to next week. What’s worse is that this system requires readers and sensors that need to be embedded into walls and conduit for power that needed runs back to the panel. This means coordination with IT, electrical, lighting, security and back-up systems, not to mention the external consultants, are needed.

The connections and the number of disciplines involve a significant amount of coordination, considering the change orders, extra costs, and the delays.

This situation is all too common and becoming more common as facility managers are struggling to manage and coordinate vast amounts of information, often with improvements and lots of change that take place in real time, during the process. The traditional system is proving more of a hindrance than a help. How does one manage and coordinate such large amounts of information?

Considering a Web of Aspects

Projects are becoming more complex and many more experts are involved. The above scenario is just one example of what can happen. Because there are so many complex aspects that need to be considered, successfully completing a project on a timely, on-budget manner is a challenge. The amount of communication, interaction and coordination becomes exponential and the traditional process of iterating through each phase of schematic design, design development and construc­tion documentation does not always help to serve the project well when schedules are getting shorter. Projects now require more coordination and communication among professionals from a variety of rap­idly increasing disciplines that need to be integrated.

Technology can help to solve that problem and, today, it is required to do a job well as a different thinking in order to be successful. While many members of a team know how to use various technological tools, not all members are on the same level of expertise. Various members may not be using the same format, process or methodology.

The Solution

As the number of experts and large amounts of information steadily increase, there are a few tools that facilitate collab­oration for real time documentation such as Revit and BlueBeam and real time communication such as Slack and Zoom. There are traditional tools such as email and texting that are used in conjunction with these methods.

Not everyone on the team will be as proficient or have the same standards. Even with the same tools, their process and their methodology can be different. This is especially true for coordination among larger teams and between project manag­ers, designers, consultants and Facilities Managers.

To coordinate across all parties, teams using building information modeling (BIM) documentation tools, like Revit and Bluebeam, need to take extra steps to de­fine the expectation and process for shar­ing information. The industry has long had standards and conventions for document­ing projects, but there is no consistent method for using new tools.

In most cases Facilities Managers and consultants are not proficient with these tools, but their expertise is required to execute these projects.

One solution is to bring a team together during the initial set-up phase and define the expectation and communication pro­cess. Each organization should have an expert setting up a standard and process and training internal teams. One firm can take the lead or multiple firms should get together and agree on the process. The technology-proficient members of the team need to educate others about the process for designing and managing within the platform.

Everyone on the team needs to be a part of the process and engage in technolo­gy, otherwise the system will slow to the lowest common denominator. Outdated and inefficient methods increase cost and time to completion as well as add unnec­essary confusion. If no one gets comfort­able with newer forms of technology then people are forced to use older, slower and riskier methods (riskier, because there are multiple copies and one may get caught using outdated information). Those who are forced to copy documents, create new documents, then wait for the document to be sent back with comments are only slowing things down. This increases the time and communication spent, causes a capabilities gap by adding extra steps and costs, and poses a risk to tracking in­formation.

Every party in­volved in a project — project managers, designers, consul­tants, Facilities Managers— should use tools that en­able documentation and its information. These tools can be shared and coor­dinated daily with a variety of team members. Models can be updated daily with new informa­tion and everything is much more accu­rate and seamless. Accuracy will be much better, more detailed and quicker decisions can be made effectively.

Tools for efficient, real-time communi­cation such as Slack and Zoom have rev­olutionized the ability to collaborate on complex projects and they should be used by the entire team throughout the project lifecycle.

The benefits of using these tools are sig­nificant and offer increased performance for large teams. Using tools for BIM doc­umentation and real-time communication enables team members to do a variety of things. Using Revit, individuals can create, edit, and explore a 3D model of the build­ing, simultaneously work within the same model, modify work and identify conflicts, and view renderings down to mere inches to increase precision. BlueBleam allows in­dividuals to work in both text and sketch formats, work online with multiple users, view and edit PDFs, coordinate among multiple parties, solve immediate prob­lems, and eliminate lag times between parties.

There are also benefits to using tools for real-time communication between team members. Slack allows users to create private, project-based group chats, share documents and problem solve as a group. Zoom allows for video conferencing al­lowing for efficient group-discussions that accommodate everyone’s schedules in real-time. With these or similar tools in place, individuals can involve themselves in larger numbers of teams to coordinate and update information.

At the outset of the project, all team members should provide a brief on the support systems and coordination required for their specific scope. This information must get to the architect and engi­neer for project scope inclusion.

Putting the Solution into Action

The world is in a period of rapid change. Facilities Managers, consultants, project managers, and designers should not only be aware of what tools are now available but take advantage of the 21st century technologies that are revolutionizing capabilities and processes. As new team members are brought on to projects, colleagues can help bring them into the process and onboard them with these tools and engage in consistent communication.

At the industry level, there are opportunities for bringing processes into the 21st century by encouraging the use of tools for BIM documentation and real-time communication such as trainings and work­shops at industry conferences or dedicated Slack channel for facilities managers and others who are learning these tools.

Technology is not an automatic fix for inefficient processes. There is still a human element to teamwork and a need for clear expectations around how the team will function. At the outset of a project, teams will need to define systems process expectations around the tools they use and clearly communicate the purpose and expectations of using these tools and create consistency among each team member’s use.

Another element based on culture is having the relationships in place to effectively hold each other accountable for using the tools consistently to contribute to the goals a team is aiming for.

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