Design and construction professionals are seeing a rapid expansion in the hardware, software and services available for collecting and sharing information with distributed teams. The market has exploded with a wide range of effective tools and systems for gathering digital data, exchanging files, synchronizing changes in master project databases and collaborating virtually in real time—but not everyone is buying in.

Some firms are jumping at opportunities to invent new work practices built around collaboration technology, but others are still hanging back, citing business pressures that crush their appetite for change.

"The firms we work with—and some are very progressive and tech-friendly construction firms—are struggling through things as basic as generational shifts and retirements sucking out their experience, internal communication issues and a volatile business climate," says Josh Carney, president of Carney Engineering Group, York, Pa. No matter how promising the technology, he thinks adoption will be slow in most companies because they cannot afford to disrupt existing practices, although new firms that don't have legacy baggage have a better chance of succeeding. "We're all pushing hard, but I've become very realistic about the pace at which I push [innovations] through." He says the rapid advances in collaboration technology are "good news for visionary firms, but I really think it will take a seismic shift in the industry to go beyond that."

Nevertheless, some visionaries are strongly engaging with new tools for collaboration. "Advancements in hardware and software today make collaboration possible, in terms of people and process," says Rosana Wong, executive director of Yau Lee Holdings Ltd., Hong Kong. Her vertically integrated construction group has 23,000 housing units under construction in Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore. It is deploying mobile human-resources apps, laser scanners and drones and is coordinating building information data using Trimble products, including a 5D scheduling-and-estimating tool, Vico, to create a virtual project world before, during and after construction.

"Virtualization and utilization of technologies throughout the entire process is the way forward to a lean, sustainable future," says Wong. "It will ultimately enhance our ecosystem as a whole."

Martin Fischer, director of Stanford University's Center for Integrated Facility Engineering, says he is impressed by how quickly mobile applications, including drones, laser scanning and mobile technologies, have proliferated across many types of projects and companies. "I'm amazed, for example, by how many companies are experimenting with augmented reality—a technology that many thought of as science fiction just a year or two ago," Fischer says.

Dan Kieny, chief information officer at Black & Veatch, Overland Park, Kan., says the combination of tools that are "collaborative in nature"—including model creation and analysis tools, mobile devices, smartphones and tablets—"allows for constant connectivity and creates a dynamic that enables teams to drive toward better solutions, faster." Additionally, many of those tools are adding useful features, such as versioning control, and streamlining previous antiquated processes of document revision, he says.

At one end of the collaboration technology spectrum is a proliferation of dedicated collaboration rooms for use in making decisions based on virtual project data. One vendor, RIB Software AG, Stuttgart, Germany, is expanding its 5D iTWO software—an integration of 3D BIM, quantity takeoff and estimating tools—with an offer of access to a high-tech, fully supported collaboration laboratory in Guangzhou, China. The collaboration lab has been purpose-built to help project teams achieve highly refined virtual designs before tendering and executing projects. The lab idea has caught the fancy of at least 10 RIB customer firms, including Kimly Construction, Singapore; Beijing Jianyi Investment and Construction Group; MT Højgaard; the University of Hong Kong and Georgia Tech University—all of which are planning or building collaboration labs of their own with RIB's technology and expertise.

Niels Wingesø Falk, vice president of processes at construction and civil engineering firm MT Højgaard, Copenhagen, says intense competition in the European market has led his firm to look for project partners and seek efficiencies by achieving a high level of virtual design development before tendering and by building its own collaboration lab. "[A lab] is a place that is safe for collaboration, where the process is built into the room with the tools, systems, facilitators and experts," he says. "Conference rooms are for arguing. Collaboration rooms are for agreeing on decisions."

One mind-blowing addition to the collaboration toolbox is a screen-sharing tool from Bluescape, a joint venture of Haworth, a furniture company, and Obscura Digital, a developer of large-screen interactive displays. The system offers a subscription to a persistent—that is, always synchronized—cloud-based platform for real-time collaboration to create, interact with and share content on an infinite desktop using iPads and laptops or, at the high end, on proprietary, 84-in., multi-touch screens with dedicated controllers. The infinite desktop space is accessed by simply swiping along. Multiple screens can be linked for a large display. A Bluescape spokesman says most customers get a three screen configuration, although as many as 18 have been joined into an interactive wall, so far.