Mobility and collaboration tools went from nice-to-have to a must-have technology in 2013, as more owners expected contractors to deploy the smartest use of produtivity tools on jobs and jobsites.

This year, more companies  — especially contractors and general contractors — opened their wallets to investments in mobility and collaboration tools that help them communicate more quickly on a project, and share documents across far-flung project teams.

Research and surveys of contractors and subcontractors highlighted the shift. For example, McGraw Hill Construction found that mobility tools such as tablets and cloud services are yielding investment benefits for contractors and specialty contractors.  But for many of the 300 contractors surveyed —58% general contractors, 42% specialty contractors—significant gaps need to be addressed to leverage the tools for a better return on investment.

Asked to rank the greatest benefits of mobile tools, contractors put at the top of the list better team collaboration (76%) and improved productivity (68%). Bottom-line benefits, such as shorter project schedules, lower project costs and increases in project ROI, also were significant for those that are tracking the benefits, the research noted.

However, only about half (51%) are tracking information flow at all, and only 20% are tracking the flow of their information outside their own firms. There is a significant need to help industry understand and improve the flow of information, the survey results added.

The survey found that access to data and information—and security of that data—ranked among the most important drivers of investment in information mobility.

ENR looked at the advance of technology security systems on jobsites throughout the year, such as our March 11 cover story about RFID worker security systems in use for work on the 500-acre Olympic Park project ahead of the 2012 London Olympics. Throughout the life of the project, each of the 9,000 workers on site carried a security pass embedded with their credentials, OSHA certifications, ethnicity, gender—even their home zip code.

"More construction projects are borrowing a page from the security industry and building new-age devices that solve many real construction problems while pushing the envelope of innovation," ENR reported in the story. "Is it worth the investment? Yes, if done right and designed for the scale and needs of your project, experts say."

Still, only 37% of those surveyed in McGraw Hill Construction's mobility research study reported that workers are able to access data from outside the jobsite trailer. Contractors said gathering and analyzing real-time jobsite data are their most important goals.

The takeaway there? Only that it's still early yet in the construction industry's embrace of mobility. Speaking at Bentley Systems annual "Year in Infrastructure" event in London in October, Greg Bentley, CEO, said more firms are looking at the "B" in BIM to mean "better decisions and better-performing assets" and at the "IM" in BIM to mean "information mobility" as much as "information modeling."

Shopping Sprees and BIM-in-the-Cloud

Firms that offer software as a service, and products that support collaboration among project teams, had a very good year in 2013, including Textura, a provider of cloud-based software for payment systems focused on construction clients. The Deerfield, Ill.-based company floated an initial public offering in June to a friendly reception that helped underscore the construction industry's increasing appetite for tools that help them conduct business as much in the field as they do with the back office.

Since opening at $24 in June, Textura (NYSE: TXTR) shares have been hovering in the mid-$30 price range, or higher. Flush with cash and focused on an expansion strategy, Textura went shopping. In November, the firm announced a $35-million acquisition of LATISTA, a maker of mobile field management software for construction project collaboration.

In announcing the acquisition, LATISTA cited research from a 2012 McGraw Hill Construction survey, which showed that "94% of general contractors with greater than $10 million in annual revenue will adopt tablet usage in the field by 2015 – with 97% of them already having adopted some type of mobile technology. Subcontractors are also adopting mobile at a rapid pace, with 91% of subcontractors expected to adopt mobile technologies by 2015." The acquisition closed on Dec. 2.

The LATISTA acquisition followed Viewpoint Software's purchase of collaboration software-specialist firm 4Project Ltd. As ENR reported in February, the Portland, Ore.-based Viewpoint aims to integrate its enterprise-grade business-management software for contractors with project management services and collaborative BIM with the purchase of the U.K.-based 4Project's cloud hosting assets. Viewpoint's business tools are offered via either internet software-as-a-service (SaaS) delivery or on-premise provisioning.

Collaboration apps also topped survey results when ENR asked readers of the ENRFutureTech newsletter to let us know which apps they recommend for jobsite collaboration, and why. The results showed an increasing sophistication with the use of project data in the field. For example, the survey showed that more project teams are deploying Web services with their smart devices to work with smaller slices of data from a larger building information model file in the field. From the data captured on jobsites, they are developing new work processes that save time and money. It's early yet, survey respondents later explained, but data mobility is one of many trends to watch in 2014 and beyond.

Imagining The Future of Construction

Today's advances in technology in construction, including BIM-in-the-Cloud collaboration, and more tools in the field to access and share project data, point to a future of construction that is increasingly automated—if reader's imaginations are any guide. After ENR invited readers to submit their vision of the future of construction with science fiction entries, hundreds of readers sent submissions. The results can be reviewed on ENR's Construction Science Fiction landing page.

As ENR noted in publishing the results of "Imagining Construction's Future," almost all cutting-edge industry innovations are built on the last string of innovations that proved out and paid off. This year's adoption of collaboration and mobility tools played their part in creating that future.