Project Management on the Web (Part II)

Even with the recent shakeout in the dot-com world, the Internet remains a great communication tool. Whether that communication is with clients, employees or the entire team, a builder can increase efficiency by integrating applications that utilize th...

December 01, 2001

Even with the recent shakeout in the dot-com world, the Internet remains a great communication tool. Whether that communication is with clients, employees or the entire team, a builder can increase efficiency by integrating applications that utilize the Internet.

A virtual private network (VPN) is one such application. It is a secure network of computers linked by the Internet. Think of it as extending a cable from your office to all parties with whom you want to communicate during a project. But instead of stringing all that cable, you use the Internet. Special hardware and software enable a VPN and create the speed and security necessary for success. One study by a Wall Street research firm projects that 70% of all businesses will use a VPN for 90% of their information and communication needs in the near future.

The benefit of putting information on a VPN, an intranet or an extranet is that a builder’s entire team can share the same information. The consistency ensures efficiency and provides accountability.

Whether purchasing a self-administered program or leasing a program, consider how information will be handled. There are two main methods of entry: One is to work inside the program on the Web, and the other is to work outside the program and publish, or post, the information to the Web.

When working on the Web, a builder handles the information only once but might have to use an unfamiliar format to present it. Publishing to the Web means that builders can stay with familiar programs but requires that extra step of posting the information on the Web site. This usually is fairly simple. For example, a change order created in a Microsoft Word or Excel document can be placed on the site through a predetermined path and with a couple of mouse clicks.

The published document will not be truly interactive and therefore will not provide the same collaborative effect as “working on the Web.” The collaborative design process used by many architectural/engineering firms would not be available if all parties couldn’t work on the Web.

Some programs combine publishing to the Web and working on the Web. For instance, a project schedule from Microsoft Project or Primavera can be published to the Web site, and comments or questions can be logged on using a form that is part of the site. Until we have true interactivity between programs, this seems to be the best solution.

Problems and the Future

As with any new technology, problems need to be resolved before project management Web sites become standard. One of the biggest problems is that there are many types of programs and each has a different language. For this communication model to work, all these programs must be able to talk to each other. One possible solution is called the Object Model. In this method, all relevant information is stored in an object. For example, an “exterior wall object” would contain the drawing or design of the section, the specifications, the takeoff and material list, and the definition of how that section is assembled. All information pertinent to the object is stored within the object. Working on a project then involves assembling the objects.

Another solution is finding a common language that allows disparate programs to talk to one another. This would involve an interface, or protocol, that would make one program’s method of presenting information readable by another program. Such a language is being developed. A group of leading software providers has gotten behind a new protocol named the eXtensible Markup Language (XML). If this protocol becomes standard, it would go a long way toward easing communication among different programs and would reduce the effort needed for effective communication.

Another problem is that success is directly related to the number of team members using the site. It is your job as team leader to get all team members and subcontractors to participate. Team members will become involved if they are shown the benefits and ease of use. Many trades will say they are not using computers at all, let alone the Internet. Someone in their family or office probably can get them started. If not, they might need your help and guidance. Technology changes so quickly that the life of an office computer system is only about 11/2 to two years. An up-and-coming trade contractor would be a good recipient of your old system. You could offer to pay the trade’s online charges for the duration of the job. An investment of $19.95 per month would be worth it to have your entire team online. Once trades have used your online communication system, they will be hooked.

As XML or some other protocol becomes an acceptable model and more trades and team members get online, online communication systems will become more and more acceptable. As the
critical mass gets larger, the systems will develop more power and reduce costs. The future lies with direct, open communication among all


Selecting a Program: Where to Start

I. Survey yourself.

    A. What are your needs?
    1. What do you hope to accomplish?

    2. What is missing in your current communication and purchasing systems?

    3. What can you afford?

B. How do you communicate now?

    1. How many of your trade contractors and vendors are online?

    2. Can you reach them during work hours, or are you spending the evening making phone calls?

    3. Do you have written systems?

C. What are your growth goals?

    1. Do you have a business plan?

    2. Where do you see your company in two years? Five years?

    3. Is your company local, regional, national, multinational?

D. What is your budget/resources?

    1. How do you plan to finance the site?

    2. Do you have an IT staff?

II. Develop a request for proposal.

    A. “Wish list”
    1. List in order of importance what you want.

    2. Which current systems or procedures are you willing to change, and which ones will you not give up?

B. Budget

    1. What can you afford for the software, the hardware and the training?

    2. Will this become part of operating expenses or a job expense?

    3. Can you afford a one-time expense or monthly payments better?

III. Evaluate and purchase.

    A. Review your needs again. After viewing some programs, you might find that your needs and desires have changed.

    B. Look at your return on investment (ROI).

    1. Examine real costs for information distribution regarding personnel time, copying, producing and distributing.

    2. Calculate for multiple revisions; most information gets revised many times.

    3. Focus on applications that lead to revenue generation and cost savings.

IV. Implementation

    A. Set a reasonable time frame and stick to it.
    1. Pinpoint key personnel and spread the duties around.

    2. Focus on getting whole applications going; avoid having too many partial applications.

B. Training

    1. Train yourself, your staff and “business partners.”

C. Support

    1. A support program can be one of your best investments.

    2. Look at support as an insurance policy.

    3. View it as your IT partner.

D. Input data.

    1. Delegate personnel to get the data into the program.

    2. Remember, the program is only as good as the data within it.

E. Maintenance

    1. Set up a review schedule.

    2. Delegate sections to key personnel.

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