Have you heard the term “online collaboration?” Have you wondered how you can get started as a construction professional without spending a lot of money and resources?
To tell us all about online collaboration for construction projects, I had a great conversation with Paul Wilkinson, a London UK-based construction PR and marketing specialist.
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This is the 20th episode of the Construction Industry Podcast. On a weekly basis I gladly take the time from my job as a project manager for Remontech (where we install construction cameras throughout the world) to work on this podcast project. I have learned so much from my guests since we started this podcast in August of 2011, and I hope you have too. Drop me a line on the comment box below and let me know what you think of the show.
I hope you have been enjoying it as much as I have.
- Basecamp: Project Management Software, Online Collaboration
- LiquidPlanner: Online Project Management
- Build It Live
- HP ePrint & Share
- Memolane.com use example by Paul Wilkinson
- Dipity – Find, Create, and Embed Interactive Timelines
- Paul Wilkinson’s Website
- Paul Wilkinson on Twitter
If you’d rather read the featured segment of this episode, click “show” for a complete transcription:[spoiler]Cesar Abeid: Good morning, Paul. How are you?
Paul Wilkinson: I’m well. How are you?
Cesar Abeid: I’m good. I guess it’s good evening for you, isn’t it?
Paul Wilkinson: Oh, it’s mid-afternoon.
Cesar Abeid: Mid-afternoon. Well, thanks again for being on the podcast. You were the first guest and this is going to be our 20th episode so I’m very excited and the show has grown a lot since then and I still get a lot of hits and downloads on our first conversation so thank you again for being on the show.
Paul Wilkinson: No problem.
Cesar Abeid: So Paul, just before we started recording here, we were talking about your work in IT, in construction. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and then how – we’re going to eventually talk about collaboration tools here so maybe set up the stage here so we can delve into that.
Paul Wilkinson: I started my career working for two professional services organizations, Halcrow Group and what was then called Tarmac now better known in the UK as Carillion. Both of these were multidisciplinary organizations, therefore involved on projects where they had to exchange information with people from other companies.
Over a time, email arrived. That sort of smoothed things a little bit and then became a bit of an unmanageable monster and around about the end of the 1990s, we began to see the emergence of web-based tools, which also provided an opportunity for people to collaborate probably at a slightly more structured way than email.
However, sometimes, these were tools which didn’t fit easily with the corporate IT department. They had their own legitimate concerns about security and about managing their network traffic efficiently. And in some cases, they would prefer if you used one of their systems, maybe Microsoft SharePoint for example, rather than go to some other third party provided system.
Certainly in the late 90s, early 2000s, we saw an explosion in the number of organizations who were providing web-based collaboration tools and ultimately, I ended up working for one of the UK providers in that space and we found during our sales process, that in some cases, it was a lot easier to deal with the people actually involved in delivering projects and the project managers, the construction managers, architect, engineers and others, then dealing with the corporate IT department.
In some cases, the corporate IT department saw us as a threat to their empire by bringing in systems that in their eyes might compromise their integrity or impose unnecessary traffic burdens on them, but that rarely proved to be the case. But it’s still just a thing to bear in mind even today when it comes to trying to sell alternatives internally perhaps to the IT department about how you might want to collaborate.
Cesar Abeid: Well, a good example here I think that I see is – as you know, we install cameras and the camera feed and the videos, they could be considered a collaboration tool as well because both parties can pull up a camera feed and discuss things about the project while looking at it from a distance. But as you know too, to be able to view these feeds, you need to install plugins in your browser and half the time, it’s OK and it’s doable but some corporations is just – there’s a lot of red tape.
Paul Wilkinson: I mean some organizations with the laptops and the desktop machines that they provide to their employees, they lock down the tool sets, so that you would need the cooperation of the IT department to install a plugin to a browser.
Cesar Abeid: Yes, yes.
Paul Wilkinson: If you’re working using some of the web-based tools, typically you would need to install a viewing tool to enable you to view the drawings, the plans and elevations of a project.
Cesar Abeid: Yes.
Paul Wilkinson: And to make comments or markup on that drawing and that would usually be some kind of ActiveX plugin.
Cesar Abeid: Yes.
Paul Wilkinson: And of course that would need the – as I say, the cooperation of somebody from the IT department to let that be loaded. If it’s a well-known plugin, that’s not normally a big issue but if it’s something from a new company, then there can be some red tape that you need to negotiate.
Cesar Abeid: Yes. One thing that we had to do for one client was to lend them a laptop and lend them a wireless internet router, like a connection. So separate from their internal networks so they can actually view the cameras without bypassing the corporate network and by using our own laptop.
Paul Wilkinson: Yes. I have been involved in a project where the company provided a web-based collaboration system to a government client who is incredibly security-conscious and they made sure that there was no compromise to their network by never connecting their laptop to it and running their laptop through a completely separate internet connection. So there was fresh air around that connection and they only used that laptop for that particular project to access a particular web-based environment. Maybe that’s an extreme example but certainly it meant that with no connection ever made to their in-house network, there was never any issue about compromising the security.
Cesar Abeid: Yes. I’m glad I’m not the only one doing that. OK. So in a way having this computer that’s disconnected from the network, the corporate network, but still connected to the internet, it’s almost like an equivalent of people having their smartphones in their pocket, isn’t it?
Paul Wilkinson: Yes. I mean we’re seeing a gradual emergence now of smartphones and tablets becoming more frequently used than laptops. The purchase of smartphones and tablets overtook laptops two years ago. The day to day use of the tablets and smartphones hasn’t yet overtaken laptops but it will do so sometime in the next four or five years according to some predictions I’ve read.
Cesar Abeid: And what’s your experience in trying to coral like the use of these devices within an IT atmosphere, like in a corporation like that? Because people can share things from their iPhones or BlackBerrys, from within their cubicles for example, right?
Paul Wilkinson: Yes.
Cesar Abeid: I don’t know. It seems like there are a lot of firewalls for the corporate network because of these kinds of concerns but when you bring a little device like that, it’s independent. How is that seen by the IT world?
Paul Wilkinson: Well, I think they see it as a – on the one hand, they can see it as a threat. People bringing their own devices to work have been a threat for a long time. People were and still are very – can be very cagey, very, very cautious about people bringing their own USB sticks, for example.
Cesar Abeid: Yes.
Paul Wilkinson: In case there is a virus on one of those which is then transferred into the network. The same USB stick or any other kind of pluggable USB device could potentially also be used to copy information from a corporate network and take it elsewhere and the minute you take information elsewhere, it is outside the control of that organization. Much as when you actually email something to be honest because as soon as you email something to somebody else, it is outside of your control.
So you have those threats but there is also the opportunity here. You do have with mobile devices the opportunity to enable people to capture data in the field. So if they’re out of the office, they’re onsite, they’re visiting a project, they could for example see an issue onsite, take a photograph of that issue and share it immediately with their colleagues on the project through simple online share. It could be through Facebook. It could be through tools like Flickr or Twitter but it means that they have the opportunity to communicate an onsite issue within seconds to somebody else who might be working with them on a project.
Cesar Abeid: Yes, I did that all the time. I use a tool. You probably heard of it, called Evernote.
Paul Wilkinson: Yes.
Cesar Abeid: And I liked it because when you take a picture, let’s say I take a picture of a drawing sometimes when I’m on a site trailer, of a detail and the drawing will have text on it and Evernote actually recognizes that text. So later on, I can do searches and the picture will come up. It’s very …
Paul Wilkinson: And you can have Evernote on your mobile device as well.
Cesar Abeid: Yes.
Paul Wilkinson: So you can share your Evernote account across multiple devices and always be able to see what you stored across any of those devices. You don’t just have to view the one device where you originally captured the image or took the photograph.
Cesar Abeid: Right, and I think that’s the beauty of it. As soon as I take that picture with my iPhone, I know a few seconds later, it’s going to be available on my desktop. And if I’m sharing that Evernote account with anybody else, they will be able to see it immediately. It almost seems as a step. I’m going to tweet this or share it on Facebook or …
Paul Wilkinson: Yes. I mean I’ve worked in the collaboration space for a decade or more now and we’ve taught a lot in that sector about sharing documents. We have the opportunity with the tools available to us now to be sharing documents using Dropbox and all the online storage spaces. Some of which are free, some of which are paid for and they come in some cases with gigabytes of storage space and you can invite other people to share, to view documents that you shared in those spaces.
Google Docs is another example. You could decide to create some of the information you want using Google Docs and then share that with a group of other users so that you can collaborate on a document, redraft it, share it with other members of your team until you’ve reached the point in which you want to share it perhaps with the rest of the project.
Cesar Abeid: That’s good. Now Paul, as you probably know, guys like you and I, we try to – we enjoy the technology and we usually stay on top of the new tools and how to use them and we’re the first adopters and things like that. But I’m sure you know that there’s a lot of people and I’m sure a lot of listeners to the podcast who hears all these names, Dropbox, Google Docs, Evernote and it’s just too much. Right?
So I think a tool like Dropbox is a perfect way to get started in collaboration because it’s so easy to do and it looks just like a folder in your computer. So maybe let’s talk a little bit about Dropbox as a way to get people started. What do you think?
Paul Wilkinson: Yes. I’m fine with that.
Cesar Abeid: So can you give us like just a short description of what it is and how to use it?
Paul Wilkinson: Well, Dropbox is – in a way, it is just that simple, online folder where you can upload something from your own computer, your own laptop or desktop to storage in the cloud and this could be used perhaps to back up your own system.
So you have a cloud-based copy in case something happens to your own machine or it can, in the context of collaboration, be used to share information with other members of your project team and those items can be drawings. They can be documents, specifications, that kind of thing, notes of meetings or they can be photographs or videos. Really there is little limit in what Dropbox enables you to do.
Cesar Abeid: One example, the way that we use here at Remontech – like I work with my dad as you might remember and so let’s say if we are writing a quote or proposal for a new project and it’s a collaboration between him and I. So he usually does the first draft and he comes up with the numbers and then he saves it to a folder that is a Dropbox folder in his computer that I share. So as soon as it’s there, he either calls me or sends me a note or I can just see it on my screen that there’s a new document, right?
So I go in there and I go over it and I edit it and then I send him back another note saying, “OK, this is my revision,” and then he reviews it again. And so after three or four revisions, OK, we have the proposal ready and there was no email exchange. There are no multiple versions of that file. It was just one file that was on that shared folder and I think that’s really powerful and it saves a lot of paper trail, right?
Paul Wilkinson: Yes, it does. I mean I think there can be an issue occasionally if you try to share a document with a group of people but you can end up then perhaps with versions being updated at different points in time and this is where occasionally Dropbox needs a bit of discipline among the users to agree how they’re going to manage the different versions, so version control is something which perhaps needs just to be thought about in using something like Dropbox.
Cesar Abeid: Yes, that’s a good point and Dropbox is mostly free.
Paul Wilkinson: You get two gigabytes of space on a free Dropbox account, which for many small projects will be ample. For those that require more, the basics account, if I remember rightly, the Pro 50 gives you 50 gigabytes and that’s around $10 a month.
Cesar Abeid: Yes.
Paul Wilkinson: Which for that amount of space, that amount of storage space is pretty much a good deal particularly where you might also be using some of that Dropbox space as backup to ensure that you’ve got a complete archive separate to anything that’s stored on your own laptops for security or archive type purposes for example.
Cesar Abeid: One thing I like about Dropbox is because it synchronizes a local folder with the cloud. If they ever go out of business, in theory, we would have a local backup of all this data, correct?
Paul Wilkinson: That’s right.
Cesar Abeid: Now you mentioned the version control when we have multiple people collaborating. Do you know of any other tool that’s perhaps more advanced and paid that would do a better job at that?
Paul Wilkinson: Well, I think you could look at some of the – there are some quite low-priced collaboration platforms that have been developed for use on construction projects. These can be the sort of fairly simple plan room type tools or you can sort of gradually move up the sort of scale of functionality to include tools which bring a bit more construction-focused process management into it. So that you’ve got the opportunity to manage transmittals, maybe change orders and things like that.
They will often have much more versatility when it comes to version control because they will appreciate that it’s important, that an accurate and secure log is kept of who did what and when and that is what these collaboration platforms are good at doing.
Cesar Abeid: OK. Like there has been a lot of online project management collaboration tools in the last few years that came out. Are you familiar with any of them, like Basecamp or LiquidPlanner, one of those …
Paul Wilkinson: I’ve sort of tinkered around with Basecamp and tools like that. One of the issues that you have with some of the free or low cost project management tools is that many of them are extremely good at managing traditional office type documents, so Word or Excel spreadsheets. But not always so good at managing engineering drawings, pad drawings and other types of files that might be typically produced within a construction project team and the forms of collaboration can be quite different certainly with a Word document.
You can easily track changes using the controls built into Word but with a drawing, there can be different types of comments, that you may have text, comments. You may have people who decide to mark up graphically by sketching something or moving a line or putting a bubble around something and the ability to do that kind of collaboration isn’t always there on some of the generic tools but then you have platforms like Adobe. Some of the markup tools in Adobe are quite powerful now. They’ve certainly moved forward but not everybody wants to share things in PDF format.
Cesar Abeid: Right, and then you start – people start converting to PDF, to the annotation and they need to convert back to DWG and it doesn’t work.
Paul Wilkinson: And it’s not always as easily trackable. As I say, some of the more sophisticated collaboration platforms enable you to search by texturing on comments that might have been added to drawings and you can’t always easily do that with some of the simple tools.
Cesar Abeid: So you mentioned plan room. Is that one of them?
Paul Wilkinson: There’s a sort of generic set or plan room is what I would describe as a type of …
Cesar Abeid: A type, OK. It’s not one in particular.
Paul Wilkinson: Not anyone in particular but there are a number of fairly simple collaboration, things like – Build It Live was one that I saw used, which was using iPad as a platform. We were talking about smart devices earlier and you’ve got simple ways to share things even through smart devices. With printers for example, cloud storage for drawings, Hewlett Packard, HP have their own cloud-based storage that is available for people simply wanting to share drawings through their print devices.
Cesar Abeid: Never thought about it. That makes sense.
Paul Wilkinson: Yes, I mean it was something that was launched in Copenhagen in October 2010 and they’ve progressively rolled out more functionality with their collaboration platform including some collaboration of their own with Autodesk. So there is an Autodesk plugin and it’s called ePrint and Share and you can literally share documents from your – if it’s a web-connected printer, you can share them with your project team and share them using Hewlett Packard’s own cloud storage.
Cesar Abeid: Great. I’m going to look this up. I’m going to add a link to the show notes for this. This sounds really cool. Now, do you have any experience bringing some of these innovative tools into a corporate environment? Let’s say people that are usually not used to new things or they’re used to doing things a certain way. How difficult is it to explain how to use some of these things?
Paul Wilkinson: Most of the simple collaboration tools are quite intuitive to use. They can at first sight perhaps appear a little bit daunting but once somebody has begun to use them for a short period of time, I think they quickly get used to how straightforward it is and in some respects, I suppose, how liberating it can be no longer to have to be reliant purely upon traditional sort of sequential process, which is like email.
You just have to send something. They had to open it and then you waited for a response so you had this sort of time delay process built in. With some of the tools that we have now, you have the opportunity to have real time collaboration where you’re both able to view something in real time, talk about it perhaps on the phone at the same point or have a chat session, going in parallel; and to view markup or changes almost in real time. I think that’s quite empowering because it can – and it also speeds up the process of collaboration.
Cesar Abeid: Right. Yes, I think it’s – I always encountered this criticism that the construction sector is a little bit old-fashioned and it’s hard to bring new things but I don’t think that’s necessarily our fault.
Paul Wilkinson: No, and I think there are technologies where the construction industry was ahead of the game.
Cesar Abeid: Yes, for sure.
Paul Wilkinson: And the adoption of mobile telephony, the cell phone, was largely driven I think certainly in the UK by people like contractors and architects and others who’s out of office. The out-of-office nature of their work meant that they needed to be in contact and so mobile phones were quickly adopted and that helped boost the adoption of mobile phones generally across the economy. But it was the early adopters of people who were by nature field-based perhaps or highly mobile working across multiple locations. They needed something that kept them in contact in the same way that we’ve seen tablet devices being adopted by people who liked to have access to their information while they’re on the move.
Cesar Abeid: And I think especially the first generation cell phones, they look just like your home cordless phone. You had the dial pad and you had the call button so it wasn’t a big jump for people to start using it. Yes, it’s just a phone even though the technology behind it is completely different. They didn’t know. The end user didn’t and I think that might be the secret sauce for bringing some of these tools. Like Dropbox for example, it looks just like a folder even though it’s very different and I think that’s why it’s so widely used. It’s just the learning curve is not even there.
Paul Wilkinson: Yes, and I think there are other tools which are quick to learn simply – and there’s an incentive to use them simply because they are in some cases cheap or free to use and they offer perhaps a low-cost alternative to what was previously the only way of doing things. I mean we’re talking on Skype.
Cesar Abeid: Yes.
Paul Wilkinson: Previously, we would have had to set up some kind of transatlantic telephone call with all of the issues and expense involved with that. Now Skype is so commonplace. Voice over IP is common place. It’s quite normal now for us to hold meetings using laptop interfaces and perhaps to do screen sharing.
Cesar Abeid: Yes.
Paul Wilkinson: Run a PowerPoint presentation. Run a webinar.
Cesar Abeid: Yes.
Paul Wilkinson: Using these kinds of desktop tools and my daughter uses Skype so it doesn’t take a technological know-how. These are sufficiently user-friendly that a schoolgirl can quickly find out how to use it and use it to talk to her friends at no cost.
Cesar Abeid: Yes, I’m a big fan and the webinar as you mentioned, that’s – a guy like me for example, I’m constantly trying to organize presentations to talk about my business and educate – it’s kind of a unique service that we provide so I need to educate the prospect, right?
So I usually set up a lunch-and-learn type of presentation and then I get to talk to maybe – if I’m lucky, maybe 10 people, 15 people at once and there are costs. As you can imagine, some of these things I need to fly to and stay in hotels while the webinar is a way for me to have these meetings and presentations to a worldwide audience at virtually no cost.
Paul Wilkinson: Yes, yes. You can use them more if there are also low-cost telephone conferencing services. We don’t always have the versatility of voice over IP but I’ve certainly used voice. We have in the UK a company called PowWowNow.
Cesar Abeid: OK.
Paul Wilkinson: Which enables simple voice teleconference calls and you can have not just two people but three or four all ringing in to share the conference call and you can talk about a website for example during the course of the meeting and I’ll be viewing the same website. And that’s a simple way of collaborating in real time.
Cesar Abeid: Right. Yes, I’ve used GoToMeeting, GoToWebinar which is also – I think it’s similar to that and you can share your webcam.
Paul Wilkinson: Citrix.
Cesar Abeid: Citrix, yes.
Paul Wilkinson: Yes, Citrix-based. That’s right.
Cesar Abeid: Cool. Now Paul, you also mentioned before our call using blog as a project diary, using a blog.
Paul Wilkinson: I’ve been a blogger for six, seven years now and one of the things that’s – a blog is essentially a bit like a personal diary and one of the opportunities that I’ve seen occasionally and I think should be used much more frequently is the opportunity for perhaps a project manager to run a project blog which would be in effect a diary of what was going on a particular project.
I saw one recently which was created by someone who is managing a highway project in Devon down near Weymouth near the South Coast of England and he ran a project blog for the duration of the scheme which included an archaeological dig and did a ground investigation works.
Some of the articles were about how they were safeguarding local wildlife right away through to towards the end of the project when they were putting the white lines on the road and readying the highway for public opening and this – whilst it doesn’t sound a particularly exciting thing, it had a lot of local engagements with the local community.
A local community can often be very curious about what’s happening on that project site nearby and a blog could be a powerful way of helping the local community understand what’s going on, how long things take, some of the achievements of the project team, some of the technical challenges. So it could be very much part of the public relations process for a project.
It could also be used for internal communication as a way of sharing issues. It doesn’t have to be a public-facing blog. It could be a blog that was only open to members of the project team but again is a way of having a sequence of articles. Maybe illustrate it with photographs or videos because a blog platform typically allows easy embedding of those things into it so that you’ve got a record of what has gone and the commenting tools obviously then allow some kind of conversation to take place.
Cesar Abeid: I’m a big fan of documenting the history of construction projects. As you can imagine, we set up cameras and we take pictures and I think there is – people who work on projects, they tend to look at them as their children, right?
Paul Wilkinson: Yes.
Cesar Abeid: It’s from conceptualizing this new building all the way to cutting the ribbon and they’re proud of it.
Paul Wilkinson: Yes. I mean one of the great things also is that you have the opportunity with the way that some of the tools now share different types of files. So that a blog can be used to share photographs, video, slides, links to other websites and things like that. You can also find online sort of timeline tools. Have you come across Dipity?
Cesar Abeid: No, I haven’t.
Paul Wilkinson: Dipity, D-I-P-I-TY, and there’s another one called Memory Lane.
Cesar Abeid: OK.
Paul Wilkinson: Both of these create timelines and you can populate those timelines with data from RSS feeds but they could also be from blog posts, photograph feeds, from Flickr. It could be tweets from Twitter.
Cesar Abeid: OK.
Paul Wilkinson: And they arrange them in date order, time order, so that you can have a visual display of the life history of a project.
Cesar Abeid: Wow. So let’s say I can create a hash tag on Twitter for that project and I can create a Flickr set for that project and I can create a blog for that project and then these tools would …
Paul Wilkinson: Allow you to selectively search by that hash tag or keyword and it would populate the timeline with the images or blog posts or tweets that were flagged up by the search terms that you’ve used.
Cesar Abeid: That is so cool. I’m definitely going to look into that and I’m going to add a link to these services on the show notes for these two because we’re using all these tools and it seems fragmented sometimes especially social networks like Twitter and stuff. You send out a tweet. You feel like it’s gone after a few hours and to have a tool like that, it’s able to collect and save those things in a meaningful, visual way …
Paul Wilkinson: Yes, and sometimes you may still need to separately archive things off. As you say, some tweets can be very transient.
Cesar Abeid: Yes.
Paul Wilkinson: But there are other places which are a little bit more permanent and offer different ways of displaying information. I mean in the construction sector for example, a company like yours may be working in several locations. It may have projects across lots of states, even across international boundaries.
So the ability perhaps to map those projects could be useful. So if you’re taking photographs for example and you have a camera which records the GPS location, not only do you have the time and date stamp of that photograph but you’ve got where it was and you could have those photographs displayed on a map.
Cesar Abeid: Yes.
Paul Wilkinson: As another way of displaying that information perhaps as part of your marketing to show all the locations where you’re currently working.
Cesar Abeid: Yes. We have a map on the website but it’s basically just text and pins right on the maps showing where we’ve worked but this is more of an organic kind of seamless way of doing that. You can just take pictures.
Paul Wilkinson: Yes. And on tools like Flickr, you can add the location to the set of photographs that you’ve got. You can add it to individual photos or to complete sets and so that when somebody views a map – and you can include perhaps the map on your website so that people can view it. That when they view the map, they can see dots where your projects are and when they go to look at those dots, they can also see the photographs that are associated with those dots.
Cesar Abeid: Great idea. That’s very good. OK. Well Paul, it’s running a little longer here. I think we’re having too much fun. But if listeners want to get in touch with you and learn more about you, where should they go?
Paul Wilkinson: I have a website which is at pwcom.co.uk and PW is Paul Wilkinson obviously. I tweet as EEPaul so you can find me on Twitter that way but certainly my main websites have links to my blogs and to various other places where you might find me online.
Cesar Abeid: Perfect. Great. Well, Paul, thank you again. You’ve been there at the beginning and now episode 20. I wanted to bring you back at some point and this is, I think, a perfect point. So thank you again for participating. And can I count on you again for maybe episode 30 or 40?
Paul Wilkinson: I’ll be more than happy to, Cesar.
Cesar Abeid: All right. Thank you.
Paul Wilkinson: Thank you.[/spoiler]
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