Reinventing Collaboration: An Adobe Perspective

The September 15th edition of the AECBytes email newsletter it featured a very good article from Patrick Aragon from Adobe. Entitled Reinventing Collaboration across Internal and External Project Teams, the article focused on findings from collaboration research conducted by Harris Interactive (on behalf of Adobe). The research concentrated on how Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) professionals collaborate digitally. The research was undertaken using an online survey undertaken during April of 2006.

From the perspective of my own research the most significant finding from the article is that 72% of respondents collaborated outside their office location. This is a clear indication that the concept of a consolidated ‘office space’ where all design/construction activity takes place is eroding (or perhaps never existed). As a consequence the value of centralised, firewalled project databases or physical documentation repositories is brought into question because if project information cannot be accessed when and where it is needed what immediate value does it hold to the process? Of course these repositories are required for long-term reference and legal purposes but in the interests of moving a project forward it would appear participants are limited to the project knowledge they can personally recollect or store in a mobile device (be it laptop, phone or briefcase).

The other interesting finding was the collaboration file format breakdown as it illustrated the overwhelming majority of exchanged data is by and large straightforward text, numeric and image data stored in Word, Excel and jpeg formats respectively. The other very significant format used by participants is PDF which typically contains textual data but is capable of transferring any printable information (from pixel-based image to vector-based plan) making it difficult to classify. What all these formats have in common is that they are not semantically rich or typically considered part of a greater Building Information Model. In fact from the study it would appear that only approximately 21% of participants use some form of 3-dimensional computer model as a means of collaboration whilst 2-dimensional CAD representation is slightly higher at approximately 38%. These findings highlight the following issues of relevance to my thesis:

1. Given the emergence of Writable-Web tools like blogging, image sharing and the so-called Google Office (and equivalents) what is the future for the bulk of AEC collaboration?

2. Considering the majority of AEC collaboration takes place in formats not suited for integration with the Building Information Model does this validate the need for a looser, broader concept for dealing with design project information in an intelligent manner?

The future role of the Writeable-Web in AEC collaboration

The underlying motivation behind adoption of blogging and online photo-sharing is that these tools make very simple the publishing, consumption and feedback processes. Prior to these tools sharing information over the Internet took place primarily via email. Whilst email has the capability to ‘just work’ it is not as useful for sharing complex or time-sensitive data and requires recipients to be explicitly stated when the message is created. Consequently these issues add collaboration barriers and potentially limit the target audience.

Considering the bulk of AEC collaboration takes place in formats that are already compatible with these emerging Writable-Web services it is not unrealistic to suggest that the majority of AEC collaboration could one day take place within this arena and not be limited to isolated and proprietary files spread across participants’ various storage devices. This would dramatically change the collaboration landscape as the goal would cease to be getting discrete packets of data from A to B and instead focus on the means by which this fluid information could be efficiently directed, harnessed and monitored.

It is also important to note the increasing use of online blogging and photo-sharing tools, alongside the evolution of Web-based ‘Office’ applications and comparatively neutral formats like PDF have begun to loosen the tight grip a few software vendors have over the ownership and use of people’s data. The net effect of these Writable-Web tools is that they help in reducing the once difficult task of online collaboration, allowing participants to focus more time on the conveyed message or other pressing tasks. These open and ubiquitous data formats also ensure that in the long-term project data is not lost through software version incompatibilities or change in software vendor. This is a significant factor to consider when comparing a typical building life-cycle against the average lifespan of a software product and the more general rate of I.T. change within the AEC industry.

There are several issues to overcome before this idea can become reality. The most important is digitally representing the project team structure within this Writable-Web environment. Point to point transfer of data using tools like email manually ensures agreed upon management and communication structures are maintained. For reasons of confidentiality and consistency all project data cannot be made readable by all parties, that is just an invitation for confusion and disagreement. Likewise publishing content on the Web and locking access to a specific set of recipients significantly limits the potential usefulness of the information. What is required is an access system that balances these two requirements in a way that is both receptive to project requirements and conducive to strong collaboration.

The Building Information Model and AEC Collaboration

What is evident from the Harris Interactive/Adobe research is that basic 3-dimensional or complex Building Information Models are not widely used as a source of information within collaborative AEC environments. Arguably BIM is potentially the richest source of information within a project but that depends on its ability to consume these disparate sources of information.

Conclusive statements on the use of BIM in project collaboration cannot be drawn because it is difficult from the information presented to identify time-based usage trends. An interesting followup study to the one undertaken would be to look at the use of collaboration file formats over a period of time. What may become apparent from further study is a rapid decline in 2D CAD use or a rise in 3D model adoption which would indicate an increase in BIM adoption. This may indicate that BIM is gaining acceptance within the industry and in the long-term may satisfy more collaboration needs.

However based on the results presented it would appear that the role of Building Information Model as a collaborative tool is very limited no matter what the context. BIM as a concept is attempting to consolidate the various information streams into a concise, powerful and easily navigable model. In doing so BIM aims to increase project consistency and reduce the manual information monitoring and searching loads placed on current project participants. Unfortunately if BIM is failing to meet the collaboration needs of design participants, which from this study seems to indicate an emphasis on relatively basic information sources, then its value within the AEC design process is significantly limited. As Patrick Aragon states, “collaboration is intimately linked with communication--and to success” and if BIM cannot be a meaningful participant in this process then something is required to meet the very real information management challenges it was intended to address.