The challenge of data requires a new approach to document management. The answer could be a project information management system that integrates document management with email systems and other software used to deliver projects. By Paul Daynes

Document management systems bring discipline to file management and project delivery processes. Engineering and construction companies employ document management to prevent team members from overwriting each other’s work, enforce adherence to file naming conventions, and ensure everyone works with the most up-to-date files. On average, large engineering firms manage as little as 30 percent of their files using document management systems. That metric means 70 percent of the firm’s project information resides outside the document management system in locations such as file and email servers. As a result, document management systems become yet another information silo to be integrated into larger project delivery processes, whether sharing files, responding to request for information, or processing submittals, for example.

One way to overcome the challenges of siloed information and disconnected workflows is to implement a project information management system that embraces all information sources, including the document management system. Such an environment eliminates gaps between different information sources and enables consistent workflows across projects. Such a system enables casual users of document management systems to check files out of and into the system from the same project information management interface they use to access files on the local area network or a cloud server.

Further, when project management and document management systems are used in concert, users do not have to learn a new process to share files, collaborate with team members inside and outside the company, and manage contract administration. Their workflows become seamless, without jumping between applications. As a result, users are more prone to use the document management system, reliability of information improves, and the system’s value to the firm rises.

One platform among many

Document management systems are vital to security and risk reduction, but their impact, by necessity, is limited.

While a document management system might manage tens of thousands of engineering drawings on a large, complex project, more and more of the data that is relevant to a project — email messages, image files, reports, RFIs, submittals, field reports, and superseded files exported from the system — resides on network file and email servers, as well as cloud-based file storage products, disconnected from the document management system. On the very largest projects, there can be terabytes of project-related data distributed across these other repositories.

The quantity of project information is only going to grow. The engineering and construction sector has seen a dramatic increase in the amount of project information being generated. Virtual construction techniques enabled by building information modelling and other technological advancements now require more collaboration by more team members from the earliest stages of a project. More collaboration means more exchanges of information. A document management solution provides a robust platform for work-in-progress engineering document management, but getting project documents into the hands of the extended team, with the requisite accountability provided by an audit trail is still often an arduous and time-consuming process.

The challenge, then, is to integrate document management processes with other project delivery processes, and to do so without compromising the system’s strengths.

Information silos carry risks

When project information exists in silos, team members must access numerous systems to get the information they need, which can consume time, obscure transparency, and create opportunities for information to slip through the cracks that exist between systems. For example, information checked out from the document management system may be sent to another team member via FTP or Dropbox, but those file transfer systems will not log who has been sent what, when. That information is siloed in the logs of the individuals who sent the files, if it is logged at all.

Although document management systems offer features to collaborate with external project team partners, usability and cost issues prevent them from being broadly adopted. To share documents with the extended team, firms often adopt FTP or a cloud storage system such as Dropbox or Box. Such file sharing leads to additional challenges. For instance, all parties must log in to a new system to send and retrieve files. More troublesome, the firm has no way to ensure that each team member is working with the most current document.

Documents can be difficult to find

The information buried in project documents can be critical for answering questions and avoiding problems. But locating the right document — which may be a design drawing, commentary in an email, a PDF, or any other kind of file — is sometimes next to impossible. Employees need to conduct multiple keyword searches in different file management systems in the hopes of finding the exact document they need. Given the high volumes of data in today’s complex projects, such searches can consume hours, even days to collate the required information.

Because document management systems do a very good job policing file access, many employees resist using them because of the speed bumps those systems add to workflows. They may find the requirements associated with checking in and checking out documents too arduous, and adopt habits that circumvent these procedures, such as filing documents locally instead of checking them back into the document management system. Such shortcuts undermine the strengths of the system.

In light of these challenges, how can a company increase usage of its document management system?

Single point of access

To solve the problem of disparate data sources, a project information management system provides single-screen access to all project information, regardless of its file format or where it exists on the network or document management system.

To accomplish these tasks, the project information management application should provide:

Access to files held in the document management system.

Strict mapping and enforcement of permissions, whether those of the document management system or of the corporate network.

Integration with security and document check-in/check-out statuses.

Ease of use such that users can pull files from the document management system without special training.

A document viewer that displays the most commonly used files, so users won’t need to license and open separate authoring applications.

Seamless transitions from the document management files to common workflows such as those for file transfers, transmittals, submittals, RFIs, punch lists, and more.

A comprehensive project information management system, when simple to use, promotes standardised workflows for file access, collaboration, tracking of action items, submittals management, and many other common processes. Included among these processes is document management system access.

Users do not have to learn two ways of working — one for the document management system and one for the larger project information management system. Instead, the larger system’s workflows include the most-used functions of the document management system, which can be employed without special training, opening the document management system’s benefits to more workers. Power users of the document management system can easily segue into it with a right-click of the mouse.

Simplify workflows

Engineering and architectural firms work with a greater number of outside consultants, designers and contractors, as well as significantly greater volumes of data, much of it contained in email messages. These challenges require solutions that exceed the functionality of existing document management systems. But even in the face of these challenges, it is possible, and practical, for companies to raise productivity and reduce risk. The key is to use a project information management system that integrates their use of best-in-class document management systems with their email systems and other software used to deliver projects.

By easing the rigours of document management and making it more accessible, adoption rises, risk declines, and the document management system fulfils more of its promise for the organisation employing it.

About the author

Paul Daynes is responsible for Newforma operations in the UK and Northern Europe. He has over 35 years’ experience of the work processes and systems required to execute and operate mid-large scale construction projects efficiently in the Oil & Gas, Process, Power and AEC-BIM construction markets.

Previous companies Paul has worked within include AVEVA, AceCad, Autodesk, Intergraph and Bentley, either directly or as a VAR.

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