Improving Digital Construction Workflows with a Common Data Environment

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In a recent report from the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, digitalization is described as a source of disruption in construction and a key to the industry improving productivity and profitability for the long term. Visit any job site today and that trend is obvious, as technologies such as 3D modeling, digital design mark-up and the shift from paper to electronic files are improving collaboration, communication and record keeping processes. These innovations are streamlining many phases of construction work, from design to fabrication and construction to project closeout. 

As they become information driven digital businesses, however, companies that participate in the construction value chain are also encountering a new reality: the need to effectively store, access and manipulate massive amounts of data and content. On any given project, there are many contributors –architects, engineers, general contractors, specialty contractors and inspectors– all creating and sharing gigabytes of data. And whether it’s specifications, estimates, plans, models, images or videos, in today’s fast-paced, just-in-time construction environment, project teams need to access files at any time from anywhere. That isn’t always easy.

The benefits of all this new technology don’t come without some new potential complications. For instance, electronic files and plans are easier to create and share than paper records. But when content is being created and edited in multiple locations (often in real time), team members are more likely to miss the most recent information, leading to the use of outdated plans or specifications on the job site or in the fab shop. The result can be work that needs to be redone, slowing project schedules and driving up costs.

In addition, access to digital files and information depends on connectivity that can often be spotty on jobsites. Many sites are spread over large operational zones, with metal structures and basements – all of which can hinder WiFi and cellular connectivity. Imagine a contractor trying to access a critical file stored in the cloud who suddenly loses Wi-Fi access while on the jobsite; they have to stop what they are doing to search for a better signal in order to see the content. Now imagine if it’s not just one individual, but everyone on a jobsite doing that multiple times per day. That’s not going to be great for an already tight project schedule.

The ease of sharing that comes with digital workflows can also lead to information overload and the increased risk of security or compliance failures. Project managers can be overwhelmed by the amount of information they need to process. And content that isn’t properly secured could be accessed by the wrong employees or partners, or worse, by malicious actors outside the organization. This can raise serious liability and regulatory issues.

In an effort to boost security, many companies rely on virtual private networks (VPNs) for file sharing access to remote servers. VPNs, however, are notoriously complex, suffer from performance and scalability issues, and aren’t always easy for users to manage. These drawbacks, and the associated maintenance costs, can put a strain on IT teams and project budgets.

One way for disparate construction project teams to address digital workflow issues is to implement a Common Data Environment (CDE). A CDE provides a central repository for project content, making it easier to store and access design files, change orders, billing records, markups and other important information. Ideally, a CDE provides both cloud-based storage and automated syncing with on-premise storage. It can help project participants safely and reliably access the most current information, even when connectivity is sub par. A unified project archive becomes a single source of truth.

A CDE should provide strong governance that keeps information safe and ensures content can only be accessed by those who should have it. It should provide a single point of access for all project content types and integrate with the most commonly used industry applications and workflows. And by making it easy for users to securely share content on the jobsite without the cost or friction of a VPN, a CDE minimizes the potential that some users, out of convenience or frustration, will turn to consumer grade file sharing services. That, in turn, lowers the potential for security vulnerabilities and compliance violations.

A CDE breaks down data silos and improves digital workflow in several ways:

  1. Better Access Control: The right CDE will ensure that all files are organized using a similar structure across projects, including access management configurations. For example, using a standard folder hierarchy, a project manager can make adjustments in real time to allow or restrict access by certain types of contractors or fabricators to relevant content as the project progresses.
  2. Robust Security: In addition to more granular access controls, the right CDE can provide more robust security capabilities like end-to-end encryption, detailed audit reporting, and real-time alerts when unusual access patterns are detected. These controls are critical to preventing content from falling into the wrong hands, unauthorized users from making changes, or data loss from a damaged or stolen jobsite server.
  3. Critical Integrations: It’s easier to implement an effective and seamless digital workflow when users can rely on familiar applications. Integrations with the most popular construction applications are one of the most important aspects of a CDE, enabling everyone on the project team to access the project content they need, from the app of their choice.
  4. Minimized Rework: Access to new content and to the latest versions of existing files is essential to avoiding any time spent on work that doesn’t conform to the latest plans and specs. Syncing flies to the cloud with internet connected devices and automatically updating on-site repositories ensures that field workers always have the right content, jobs stay on track and work doesn’t need to be redone.
  5. Accelerated Project Conclusions: The project closeout process can be time consuming, as emails, file servers, paper documents, and consumer file sharing solutions need to be searched for all of the required docs. The right CDE can make it much easier to organize and search for closeout documents, providing subcontractors and other project participants with secure links to upload required documents to specific folders. 

As the McKinsey study pointed out, even as the construction industry’s move toward digitalization accelerates, there is still room to do much more. “Digital technologies can enable better collaboration, greater control of the value chain, and a shift toward more data-driven decision making,” the report notes. As construction firms become true digital businesses, establishing a Common Data Environment can pay tremendous dividends when it comes to strengthening project efficiency, productivity and cost control.


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