(Illustration by Guy Lawrence for ENR)

Web-based project collaboration software has come of age. Although many first-generation products vanished with the dot-com bust, a core of vendors and users continued to refine the tools, experiment and learn how to best use them. They have learned a lot and barriers to adoption now are really starting to fall as greater availability to broadband Internet access lets people work easily with databases through Web browsers from anywhere.

“The train of Web-based planning and control is starting to leave the station,” says Saied Kartam, Denver, Colo.-based CH2M Hill’s southwest manager for project controls and global technology leader for planning and scheduling. “It is going to be a major differentiating factor,” he says. “If clients don’t see Web-based capability in your planning and controls, they won’t select you.”

Bigger is Better. Orange County, Calif., wastewater job, at $2.5 billion, is a fit for online tools. (Photo courtesy of Orange County Sanitation Team)

Adoption still is far from universal, and it probably will remain so. Even enthusiasts are quick to say Web-based project collaboration is not for every job. But the tools have found sweet spots on high-value, long-duration work that stresses collaboration. Kartam cites California’s Orange County Sanitation District’s 20-year, 146-project, $2.5-billion system overhaul. It uses Web-collaboration tools of several Primavera products. CH2M Hill is a joint venture partner in charge of project controls.

Survey data confirm that pattern of use, with concentrations at the higher end of the contractor revenue and project complexity scale. The Construction Financial Management Association’s biannual Information Technology Survey, released earlier this year, shows significantly higher use among general, highway and specialty contractors with the highest revenue, but it also shows activity in smaller firms (see chart).


Meanwhile, the results of a survey of owners conducted by the Fails Management Institute, Raleigh, N.C., for the Construction Management Association of America, which is about to be released, suggest that industry interest may be influenced by owners’ dissatisfaction with current practices. In the owners survey, communications and collaboration were the areas cited most often as needing improvement. Of 125 respondents, 80% said they believe project collaboration software could help. Many of the issues that Web-based tools address crop up again and again as needing improvement. For example, “More effective communications,” was the top choice of 62% of the owners, when they were asked to rank a list of changes that could improve project delivery.

The tools vary with the packages of vendors such as Buzzsaw from Autodesk, Constructware, Meridian Project Systems and Primavera, to name the largest. Clients may run their own systems, but applications, support and data hosting are often provided by a third party. All seek improved efficiency by speeding information to decision makers.

Pure Web-based systems offer access to applications through a browser interface. Other collaboration products require small, application-specific programs to be installed on all participating machines.


“You can definitely see the value of the tools in getting decisions made very fast,” says Phil Go, chief information officer at Barton Malow Co., Southfield, Mich. “Distance is not an issue. They can log onto their portal and see where the bottleneck is. That is huge, that availability of information.”

Uncorking bottlenecks is an advantage, but veteran users caution that it takes a while to set up jobs and establish routines. And it takes time to train people to follow them, without which the systems may only add a costly layer of confusion. That is one reason they say the tools mostly are used on big, long-term jobs with lots of run-in time.

Mandate to Collaborate


Users also stress that the systems do not merely enable collaboration, they demand it. “Previously, each party had their own tools, and they didn’t work together,“ says Kartam. With collaboration, though, the systems of all participants can not only work together, they must, and the project culture has to support that.

Tom Garrett, CIO at Birmingham, Ala.-based contractor Brasfield & Gorrie L.L.C. says pure Web-based systems are the easiest to deploy because you merely e-mail participants a Web address to bring them in and, typically, a third party maintains the...