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Intelligent, well-informed experts may say the construction industry is less efficient than others because it has been slow to incorporate productivity-raising technologies. But innovations in smartphones, tablets and project management tools indicate that construction has become as tech-forward as any industry, at least as far as computers and software go.

This is the first article in a series to examine the ways construction is dropping its slow-to-change habits to lead the pack. What’s more, new technologies are enabling cultural changes that promise to make the industry more productive in the face of higher demands upon its players.

An example is the changes in the ways design and construction teams manage markups. Ten years ago, very few people in the industry would have expected to give up their pen-and-paper redlining methods. Now there are technology companies whose sole existence is devoted to electronic markups. Among those technology companies, some are looking for a way to communicate and collaborate that’s even faster and more efficient than simply using technology to replicate the pen-and-paper markup method.

How can construction technology drive cultural shifts? For example, construction companies used project information management software as a way to beat the other guy when the buyer went to court over a disputed claim. The rule was, “He who has the best information, wins.” That expression may still be true, but construction companies often are using technology to collaborate more successfully. Instead of capturing information for the purpose of winning arguments that will arise in the future, companies are managing information to prevent conflicts in the first place. It’s a cultural shift made possible by new technologies. It’s a case of technology changing behavior for the better.

What’s driving this change?

The tsunami of information to be managed by architects, engineers, contractors, subcontractors, consultants and owners is driving the tech industry to come up with better ways to manage information. The McKinsey Global Institute says email management consumes 28 percent of the average knowledge worker’s week. People need ways to file email; find it again; and associate it with action items, submittals, requests for information, markups and other forms of project information. Companies need ways to find email generated by people who are no longer with the firm. Those email management technologies are available today.

BIM is another contributor to information overload. When BIM first came out, proponents forecasted that designers would issue fewer drawings. They said everything was in the model, and would be viewed in that context. What’s the reality? The number of PDF sheets generated from the model has exploded. It’s a big job to manage all those sheet sets. The right software helps.

Digital cameras are another generator of project information to be managed electronically. In olden times, visits to the site would be cause for a dozen photos. Now there’s little impediment to taking thousands of pictures and loading all of them on the server.

Of course, the names assigned to these pictures by the camera do not help us manage them. The filename “DSC50677” is not very informative. Software can help users manage those image files quickly and effectively.

Overload contributes to solutions

This overload of project information, by motivating the development of software to manage it, is creating a better industry. Years ago, an executive at a major construction company told a collaboration software sales rep, “We don’t collaborate with subs. We tell them what to do.” This is what is called “push planning.” The people at the top of the chain of command push initiatives down the chain.

Today, however, it’s common to see companies take a different approach, called “pull planning” or “lean construction.” It’s driven by the notion that people doing the work are more informed and able to plan than those further up the chain of command.

There's never been a more exciting time to be in design and construction. The return on change has been profound. Value is rising. Budgets are more predictable despite projects becoming more complex. Coming articles in this series will look at trends that illustrate construction’s change in attitude toward productivity-boosting technologies and the cultural shifts they’re impacting.
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