5 Problems With Online Collaboration and Document Management Tools in Construction Industry


Online Collaboration and Document Management Cloud solutions for construction industry are everywhere these days.

Here are three lists of Apps and Cloud tools for Document Control and Inspections that are on the market at the moment:

7 Cloud-based collaborative solutions for construction industry

9 Apps for inspections on Site

7 More Apps for inspections on site

Also, a quick look on Paul Wilkinson’s Extranet Evolution will probably tell you this is a booming and very dynamic market at the moment.

However, there are still some major obstacles that , in my opinion hold this market back .

Here’s a list of all these problems that probably show that the products and the industry haven’t matured yet (which is normal considering the “age” of this market):

1. Partial Collaboration means…No Collaboration

The most common scenario in a construction project is when a Client or Project Manager is using an online SaS tool and he is then actually forcing the Contractor(s) to use this tool for submitting construction documents, design drawings or any other contractual documentation (correspondence, RFIs, claims, warnings, payments etc).

However, the Contractor has many internal documents that cannot be stored in a tool that obviously doesn’t control.

Result: there have to be 2 systems.

One for all the documents that have to go to the Client for approval (or information) and one for all the documents that the Contractor is managing (including the ones that go to the Client).

Finally, the same documents have to be uploaded twice on 2 (sometimes even 3 if there are more parties involved…) different databases which causes:
– waste of time and resources
– people on site don’t know where to refer to (sometimes the Client doesn’t give sufficient number of User Accounts for his tool because usually – every additional user costs money and as a standard practice only the Contractor’s Doc.Controllers are given few accounts just to submit documents)
– mistakes while duplicating the entries (yes…people do mistakes when they have to do the same task twice)
– and obviously at the end of the day the fancy collaboration tool is only serving the Client or basically the stakeholder who has paid for it which in reality means…no collaboration overall!

Things could also get a lot worse if there are several designers who may use different tools for uploading design documents/drawings.


2. Need For Speed

Having a fancy online tool that takes ages to load documents or perform a search query is like having a Ferrari without tyres= useless and impractical…

Network speed is a big issue in many projects. Especially for isolated and remote construction projects. But to be honest this is becoming less of a problem.

The other major issue is loading speeds from the cloud that should also be minimized.

YouTube has become so successful because videos load almost instantly and there is a lot of -behind the scenes- work by Google to achieve that.

What’s the point if it takes 10 minutes over 3G, 4G or even WiFi to load a single drawing or upload a photo?

It’s a major factor that companies who build SaS tools should take into account and continuously improve over time.


3. Changes halfway through the lifecycle of a Project

Scenario: A Client has just awarded a new project to a Contractor and all the tendering documents have been submitted and managed through Tool A. The project starts and is going well. After some months, the Client decides to change the system/tool (for any reason) and immigrate all the data to Tool B.

Result: waste of time and resources, mess, confusion, delays, frustration etc

The Document Management System of a project has to be established since the tendering phase of a project.

There is absolutely nothing wrong on changing systems and evolving to something better. But we shouldn’t expect people and organizations to be able to adopt that easily. It sounds strange but these are big changes for the people in a project. In other industries, when things like that change, there are many months and sometimes years of transition periods which in construction industry is probably out of discussion. It’s in human nature not to trust easily any new tools on the job (especially in construction industry) so these things should be planned well in advance.

Apart from this, it is also a big waste of resources if planned and implemented poorly and it would probably create more problems and confusion than what it would solve.


4. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” , Leonardo Da Vinci

Nature, Life and… Engineers don’t like complex things. They want reliable, fast and simple solutions. If they cannot find quickly the information they need, they will finally find another way around. Because they have to.

The other way around is usually called “Windows Explorer/Network Shared Drive” , E-mail, Phone call, pen/paper or WeTransfer-type solutions.

Old fashioned you said?

No! Just simple and reliable…

It doesn’t really matter if a Project or a company is using the most amazing tool in the market. If people haven’t spent time (before the project starts) to set it up, organize it and adjust it to the needs of the specific project/organization (and also keep on organizing and maintaining it) then nobody will ever use it in the real world when the clock in a project is ticking and things have to be done…ASAP. And this is something that even Senior Management in construction industry should also understand and not expect any new tool to work automatically from day 1 becasue we…just bought it! We need to put (and keep) resources on that tool, to make it work for our benefit.

5. Windows ’95

I find it extremely dissatisfying when in 2014 there are still solutions in the market that remind me of Windows 95: ugly and so visually old-fashioned …!

I am not saying companies should hire Johnny Ive to make their products more aesthetically pleasing (although that could help too…) but it’s really hurting my eyes when I see solutions that resemble MS Access Databases of a college student in the mid 90’s…

Facebook, Apple and Google are not where they are because they provided solutions that only work and solve problems, but they also made them look pretty. In a market that didn’t even exist 10-15 years ago and it now becomes very competitive and dynamic, things like beautiful design and visually pleasing solutions could make all the difference.

There is no doubt we will see some amazing solutions coming out within the next years (some are probably already out there…) but in my opinion the market and…most importantly the industry haven’t matured yet.

We are getting there!

So, what’s your opinion?

Is there something that really annoys you with today’s online Collaboration or Document Control Software Tools for construction industry?
What would you really like to see that you haven’t seen up to now  in the available tools?



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  • Paul Wilkinson

    Hi Pavlos (Paul)
    This cropped up while I was in the US last week, and I read it with interest. We talked about some of these issues when we met up in London earlier this year, and I’ve provided a detailed commentary on your points on ExtranetEvolution.com (thanks for the link, by the way). – see http://www.extranetevolution.com/2014/08/five-problems-with-saas-construction-collaboration/

    As you might expect, I don’t agree 100% with all of your points. In particular, it is, I think, wrong to blame the technologies for the poor attitudes towards information sharing of project team members. I have worked on projects which have had a positive attitude to collaboration (one contractor project director even mandated the collaboration platform and insisted that emails trying to bypass the system would not be recognised, so that everything was recorded: a single version of the truth), though I accept the industry has a long way to go before such approaches are common. This is one area where Constructing Excellence is trying to change behaviours, and it is also an area where I think BIM will force greater collaboration.

    In ExtranetEvolution over the past few months, I have written several times about mobile-first and social media-savvy approaches to collaboration. Like you, I find some of the existing platforms somewhat ‘tired’ and outdated, and I have long decried the need for email notifications as the default mechanism for alerting people – real-time collaboration is going to be increasingly important and is hampered by email, so let’s hope the new generation of tools, incorporating chat, VOIP, SMS and similar tools, comes soon.

    Best wishes – Paul

  • PIN

    Hi Paul,
    Many thanks for your comment and your reply-post on my thoughts. I appreciate that.
    I am really glad you don’t agree 100% so that we can fire up a useful debate!

    I think we finally both agree that every tool depends a lot on the people who build it, the people who set it up in the beginning and the people who manage and administer it after all in the project.

    To come back to my 5 points:

    1. I don’t think that we could ever avoid dual (or even triple) systems and I fully agree with you that this is more like how construction industry works. I am just really annoyed when (as a Contractor) I am forced to use a tool that I don’t like and it’s not helping me at all. But I guess we have to live with it… Bottom Line: Collaboration in this industry is Client-driven.

    2. Speed, as we both agreed, becomes less of a problem. But again, in my (relatively short) experience, I have used tools the last 2-3 years that took them up to 10-15 seconds to perform a simple search query. I know I may sound extremely pedantic and that with a perfect network and a very fast machine this may reduced, but in construction industry the conditions are never perfect (especially on the field).

    3. To be honest the “halfway changes” was something I faced many times while working in the Middle East. This was always coming from the Client. And believe me: there is nothing more annoying for someone who has spent a serious amount of his time to set up a system and the related procedures…

    4. I think the trend in the whole SaaS industry globally (and not only in construction) is to provide a tool that needs 0 hours of training. This basically means a very minimal and simple tool. A very welcome approach…

    5. I am really glad you agreed with me on that. It is an issue indeed.

    There is definitely room for improvement in the future and we will all be here to see it!
    Thanks again!

  • Bill Parker

    Hi Pavlos,

    I have to comment about your first point, It looks like you are describing the ‘clown car’ of document management systems, or how not to design a system.

    Seems to me that I, as the developer or project manager, am paying for a system to enhance the security and efficiency of my project processes and information flow, I am not obliged to, or even try to provide an ‘internal’ management system for you, as a sub-contractor, to run your business on or to integrate everybody else on the project’s ‘home-brew’ management systems.

    My ‘forcing’ you to take the time to upload docs, rather than print, fold, address and post your documents is, I have to hope, covered by the fees that I am paying you to participate on my project. What you need to do internally with the documents is entirely up to you, if that is a burden then fix your internal systems.

    So if I enable you to upload from you desktop, notify you of all changes and update you automatically, provide secure access to documents, enable standard processes, warn you about overdue activities, provide managed review tools, etc, etc…. but I don’t bother to integrate your internal system then there is NO COLLABORATION… sorry I can’t see that.

  • PIN

    Thanks for your comment Bill.
    I understand your point of view and it’s really adding value to the discussion because it’s from the “other side”, the Client/Project Manager/Developer (if I understand correctly).

    Before I say anything else, I am just copying a definition from the Oxford Dictionary:

    “Collaboration: The action of working with someone to produce something”

    What you describe is basically the contractual point of view and that’s absolutely fine. Nobody can actually argue The contract.

    However, nowadays big and complex projects need a lot of teamwork and if everybody is just sitting on his contractual obligations nothing would have ever been built. We all know that, I believe.

    You say that if the Client is actually paying the Contractor to use his system then why that should be a problem after all? It’s not really a problem. I would probably call it an obstacle.

    But I think it’s a shame to call something like that “collaboration” because this is basically a tool to accommodate the needs of only one party. That’s not really teamwork, is it?
    Let’s call it “Documents Repository” or “Electronic Archive” or whatever…

    In my opinion the problem starts from the way construction industry works. It’s probably the only industry where the Client not only asks for a “product” but (many times) instructs you how to “produce” it and then continuously checks if you are doing ok. And that’s fine because he is paying.

    However, there is little to no freedom for the development of a process/system that could probably make things easier, faster and simpler for both. That’s real collaboration and team work.

    What I describe is probably a utopia but I’ve seen it work in other industries and I am always jealous when I see other amazing real “collaboration” tools and then come back on site being forced to use a tool that has points 3,4 and always 5 of my article above…
    Thanks again for your comment.

  • Ritesh Tripathi

    Hi Paul,

    I am writing to seek your views on an innovation that possibly address the 5 pain points you have mentioned in your excellent article.

    We have developed tools with the aim to eliminate this data entry aspect in the document control applications.

    Most of the data that we enter into the collaborative system is already also inside the drawings and documents [say in title blocks or other locations] and if we can extract them – we don’t need to data entry.

    The tool works as follows:

    1. The contractor may transfer the data to the Owner by any method – Email [to project email box], FTP or Direct upload to project portal etc. The data may be of any format including the scanned TIFF/PDF files.

    2. The system identify the images, their title blocks, locates the relevant data to be extracted from various locations inside the drawings [Title blocks, Tables for BOM’s etc]

    3. If there are issues between characters as [0(zero)] & [‘O’ Uppercase Letter], if highlights the expected erroneous characters to the document controller for him/her to give validation and user might click on correct characters or type it.

    4. After the human verification – the data entry and transactions [workflow or letter of transmittal etc] is performed.

    On actual project in Mining industry in Australia – reduction of 92.3% effort in Data Entry & Zero Data entry errors.

    Now let me make my remarks on the 5 pain points as mentioned by you:

    “Partial Collaboration means…No Collaboration”

    It will be a reality forever that there will be more than 1 system at work in a project – especially when most of the contractors & consultants will have their own internal systems for creation, internal reviews and release of data & its their enterprise standard.

    You have correctly said that in most cases – the collaboration tool is ‘enforced’ by the owner of the project and there is a very significant reluctance towards this on account of repeated data entry [from internal systems to collaborative system ] as well as errors in this data transfer/transition process.

    Now – if you just have to focus on ensuring that you submit the correct data to the client via email / FTP etc and the client system is web-based and all your submissions as well as decisions as given by client to you are accessible to you via internet [using authentication] then you are not required to perform data entry into the client system. Data entry in the client system is automated with almost zero probability of incorrect data with no duplicate data entry requirements.

    We believe that this can almost eliminate the issue associated with incomplete collaboration.

    Now let me take the above further,

    “”2. Need For Speed” ”
    If you are sending the data via emails or FTP or simply uploading it on a portal [ where you don’t have to wait for the completion of the upload and then perform the transaction in the said system] the following will happen:

    The most time consuming aspect is data transfer [which is almost a pure bandwidth issue] and if you are not looking at the data transfer rate [which you have to if you have to perform an action after it uploads] – then the severity of the issue is drastically reduced and so is the pain / frustration associated with it.

    So the above utility can also reduce the pain associated with point # 2.

    “3. Changes halfway through the lifecycle of a Project” – if you have the ability to ‘read’ the drawings and the process of data entry is automated [ with a small configuration change] – the data entry, data migration part associated with the change is a minor issue. The stuff associated with the human reaction to the change is something that takes more time.

    So the above methodology can almost eliminate effort associated the data migration / data entry. Further – if you are from the contractor organization – who has only to send the data to the owner and you don’t have to operate the system – i am sure you don’t bother as to how many times the owner changes his system as long as your interface for data submission remains same.

    “4. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” , Leonardo Da Vinci”

    Solution as above – where you only have to transfer the data – may be by Email / FTP etc – is something that is aligned to your existing way of working and no special training is what is needed. That was for the submissions from your to Owner.

    For the data – as what is sent by the Owner to you – you receive the emails – that contain the complete content that is sent to you by owner. If the file sizes are large that email attachment limit – they can get converted into links with anonymous download capabilities. You download and save – i hope that a tool as above will also address it.

    “5. Windows ’95″ – if your interface with the other organization is only via tools that are used to – say Email / FTP – i guess you will not bother about the UI of the other application. Having said so – i accept your point that any enterprise standard application should also have an intuitive and self explanatory UI.

    Do you believe that a tool as above – with the characteristics as follows:

    A. Contractor can email/FTP pr upload
    B. No manual data entry is required. With Automated data entry – manual data errors are close to ZERO.
    C. Is completely web-based and allows the contractor to view all the transactions made by the contractor with Owner and vice-versa,

    can significantly reduce the pain points as what you have mentioned in your excellent article.

    What are your views on the above?

    Best Regards

    Ritesh Tripathi

  • PIN

    Hi Ritesh, thanks for your comment.
    It’s really great that you have managed to build a solution for the industry. I would be interested to see more on that. Do you have a link or website that you could maybe share ?

    To be completely honest with you I am not the biggest fan of submitting documents through email even though it sounds pretty simple and it could actually work in projects with limited capabilities. However, the idea of submitting the documents without actually having to manually enter the metadata is always welcomed and it is almost offered by many of the big players in the market but still I am not sure how your tool is doing that and in what extend

    The email submissions is a really handy option but it could be a bit dangerous if it’s the only way of exchanging documents.

    On the other hand, I do like the simplicity of the FTP which needs almost no training.

    To be honest with you both ways look a bit outdated but I have said many times that as long as something works and it works well, there is no reason of complicating things just to be fancier!

    As I said previously, let us know if you can share with us a more detailed presentation of the tool to have a look and discuss more about it!

    Thanks again for your r comment.

  • http://www.nissiinfotech.com/infraconsoft-software.htm Nivethitha

    Modification of the information can be controlled by the authorization level of the one login

  • http://www.webbasedinventory.com/ Jeni

    SaS model software should be work in all model OS. It should not be platform dependent.

  • Dirk Clapham


    I have been involved in this field for seventeen years here in Australia implementing project collaboration tools on major projects. Some projects with more than 800 internal members and 120 plus subcontractors plus designers.

    The biggest issue I have found during my time is the lack of understanding around process. Most people are working in a silo and have no idea about the process lifecycle. Successful collaboration is understanding the process and configuring the tool to enhance the outcome.

    We work on a number of major Design/Construct infrastructure projects as Head Contractor with projects exceeding $1Billion. Most of these projects involve a typical 4 phase design review process (Concept, Design Development, Final Design, Certification and finally Issue for Construction (IFC) with multiple designers across disciplines and a number of milestone gates.
    A large number of construction people are not aware that this process can take many months to complete from conceptual design through to IFC. In many cases we have projects with 450 plus design packages and 100 plus drawings in each package over multiple interactions that are automated via distribution creating thousands of design documents.
    It is not until you have diagrammed the full processes with responsibilities and days assigned to tasks that the team realise that drawings will not be ready tomorrow and they expected. My advice is to diagram all processes as swim lane workflows assigning time to each action before you even look at construction collaboration.

    The situation you described with multiple systems is a common issue. Most of our projects run on our preferred platform and our clients run something different. The Client would like us to use their platform for all collaboration but most are not suitable for large design development tasks and is also hosted and administrated by their resources.

    From a contractual position we would not be happy to collaborate with our subcontractors and suppliers regarding commercial discussions on a system the client had administration control over and therefore a forced to run two systems.

    If you can sell a benefit to all the individual stakeholders you will have more success with construction collaboration in you organisation.