Lessons for a Small Practitioner from Very Large International Project Control
by Edward Flaherty, International ASLA


In 1998 in Portland, Oregon, at an ASLA national conference roundtable I chaired entitled ProjectProcess21, Joe Brown explained EDAW’s vision of an international office without walls. This article is about the software needed to control projects in offices without walls.

Project control is control of project information. Whether you have a small, medium, or very large project, the issues of project control are the same. A very large project has more time and space complexities, but all projects must have an order and structure that are logical and easy to understand in order for them to be useful, reliable, and complete.

Project control is ultimately and practically about Web collaboration and information control. Perhaps it all started with a digital pipe design software that was modified to an all-in-one architectural design software, AutoCAD. When programs like Landmark and Sketchup became available, they were significant because they were written by people who know the work of architecture and landscape architecture. The resulting interface and workings became immensely usable for us in practice.

I think we are experiencing something similar in project documentation control now. The products have not been developed specifically by people who know “backwards and forwards” the practical purpose of the tools. Rather they put the software together because the market is there for it. There will be a ”next-generation” of project control software rivaling, in smooth user interface, the Sketchup innovations in architectural software.

In the meantime, there are some valuable lessons to be learned from the organization and hierarchies of products and services such as those supplied by Aconex, an online document management and collaboration system that manages project information in areas of construction, government and infrastructure, and energy and resources. Aconex is currently the service provider of choice for nearly 50 international projects managed by my employer, the Tourism Development and Investment Company in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. This article will use the Aconex tool to focus on project information issues, problems, and solutions for projects of all scales.

Aconex Vision and Features

Aconex aims to become the industry standard for managing the challenges of critical timelines, multiple participants, and dispersed teams in construction, government and infrastructure, and energy and resources projects. Aconex markets itself as a product that allows clients to securely and efficiently manage project information in one central location, accessible from anywhere at any time, letting participants in a project save time, reduce costs, and control risk.

The key Aconex features help to focus attention on generic, across-the-board issues that need to be addressed on any scale project.

1. SSL Data encryption: protects project information from outside, accidental, and malicious tampering.
2. Only an Internet browser is required on user computers: provides a simple user interface front end to which everyone is accustomed.
3. No storage limit: accommodates as many gigabytes or terabytes as a project might need.
4. Worldwide servers: allows quick access, 24/7 uptime, and adequate bandwidth.
5. You own information: provides ownership for project information.
6. Data is private: restricts who can read the data.
7. Pricing varies for each project: provides prices according to size, duration, and complexity of project, which become project metrics.
8. Accessibility of project information: handles drawings, tenders, contracts, reports, schedules and cost plans for correspondence items including email, RFIs, site instructions, variation requests, document transmittals, and progress claims so that all project information is seamless, in the same container, and easily accessible.
9. All documents are stored in their native file format: provides a unique and easy solution to that pesky file format issue that arises on every project.
10. User friendliness: manages workflows and tender documents easily on the system, even for the most complex processes.
11. Has 450 file types integrated: provides inclusiveness as part of user friendliness.
12. Project information control training: provides training for every participant, regardless of when they join the project, at no additional fee;
13. 24/7 client support: provides user assistance at any time.
14. Gatekeeper of information: allows the organization administrator to be the responsible gate keeper for all information.
15. Online document viewer: allows users to immediate access to any document without overburdening the system.
16. Collaboration technology: allows collaborators to redline reports and drawings in a trackable and protected manner.
17. Online document management: provides easy management of successive versions and revisions to maintain historical integrity.

Flaherty Fig. 1
Figure 1. Five key new mail configurables

On any project, there is a wide range of communications between project collaborators. In Figures 1 and 2—Aconex screen grabs—I have focused on five:

1. Type
2. To and cc
3. Attributes
4. Response Required
5. Subject

These may seem trivial, but they are the heart of a serviceable information control setup. And they repeat. This makes them suitable for template structure. Please see the figures below as you read these.

1. Type - List the types of communications such as informal, submittals, RFI, instruction, etc.

2. To and cc - Cross reference full contact details for each person authorized on the system, including company and position on the project.

3. Attributes - This is a search function that can be either useless or a power tool. Three levels of attributes usually give best control. Think of them as domains. First level attributes are the largest and they might be project geographical in nature. Second level may be professional discipline in nature and need to be addressed carefully. They must be set up at the outset and revisited so that history can be searched through multiple filters. The more complex a project, the more important is this tool.

4. Response Required - This should not be abused.

5. Subject - This should not duplicate any of the attributes. Rather, it should be a detailed refinement within the attribute domains. Again this needs to be revisited so that history can be searched through multiple filters.

Flaherty Fig. 2
Figure 2. Five key new mail configurables (area of detail)

On every project those five items need the control of a gate-keeper -- a person who approves all collaborators, adjudicates disagreements regarding the attributes, and resolves any issues. The gate-keeper should be one person only so that focus and clarity are not compromised.

Where Aconex (Project Information Control) Fails 

In the mid-1980s, I worked as a Field Project Manager on a very large international project on the Red Sea coast in Saudi Arabia (http://www.parsons.com/Media%20Library/0102_Yanbu.pdf). A legion of local office secretaries prepared all text documents on IBM Selectric typewriters and all project information was in hard copy. This new town of 200,000 required air conditioned warehouses to store these documents. The distribution lists were critically followed. It was still “old school.”

Recently, in the United Arab Emirates, I worked on two very large projects, Atlantis the Palm Jumeirah (http://www.atlantisthepalm.com), and Qasr Al Sarab (http://qasralsarab.anantara.com/). Both had outsourced project information control to dedicated digital project information control companies. Both projects had problems in the reliability and dependability of the information control.

Those problems can be categorized into these general headings:

1. Old school luddites: These are people who still doubt the digital dependability of new systems and undermine their efforts with that outlook.
2. Old school construction hands: While people realize that real-time decisions in the field are key to finishing construction projects on time and on budget, the digital technology does not have the tools to facilitate their use under intense field conditions (e.g. fast moving construction and extreme weather, both of which are regular in the United Arab Emirates).
3. Lack of understanding of how and why to use: Instructions on the importance and reason for use have to be central as each new employee is inducted onto the team. Without this foundation, the system is weakened.
4. Overly ambitious documentation: Some people copy the world on everything; and believe that every little communication must be documented. Often others ignore the system because of such excessive, abusive uses.
5. Lack of a champion: An absolutely critical component is a person, at a very high level, to champion the system, both encouraging and enforcing the appropriate use. Without this champion on the team, the system becomes a neglected and derelict tool, with no value to the project process.


I have little doubt that we are moving closer and closer to a truly scaleable project information control solution, just as desktop publisher, desktop multimedia, and Sketchup-type software products have simplified so many of our workplace tasks. Our awareness of and involvement in these project information control developments will move the processes forward more quickly.

Edward Flaherty, International ASLA, MSc in GISc from Birkbeck College, University of London, is always interested in computer collaboration, multi-media. He can be reached at: eflaherty@mac.com.

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