Futuristic-sounding tech developments regularly make the news. In comparison, “going paperless” can seem very 1990s. But paper is still used daily in the construction industry, so technological developments that help reduce reliance on it are imperative.
Projects that are over schedule and over budget are so common in the construction industry that they are practically business as usual. According to a June 2016 report by global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, “Large projects across asset classes typically take 20 percent longer to finish than scheduled and are up to 80 percent over budget.” A decline in productivity, accompanied by low profits for construction firms, are also noted. The same report suggests technology-related “big ideas” that the construction industry should adopt, among them the use of digital collaboration tools, with the goal of going paperless.
How does going paperless manage to rank alongside cutting-edge, and sometimes glamorous, tech trends like the Internet of Things and geolocation? The answer is: because paper-based systems are still costing the industry countless millions of dollars each year. Paper has been around for a long time and it is the basis for almost all of the industry’s existing systems, so many construction industry personnel question whether completely changing those systems can result in efficiency gains. But paper-based systems have fatal flaws—and digital solutions can go a long way toward addressing those flaws.
A line on a form that isn’t filled in…a page missing from a packet…an entire binder, perhaps, that isn’t on the shelf: these scenarios are all too familiar. Often, they’re compounded by other “missing” items: calculations that don’t get performed, unsigned paperwork and photographic evidence that is no longer attached to the documentation it is supposed to support. All of these situations can slow the resolution of claims, change orders, etc.
Having a preset electronic process and document set—especially one that has been customized by the team to be project- or company-specific—is a good way to overcome the problem of missing or incomplete paperwork. Forms that use conditional, “if-then” logic enable personnel to fill out documents correctly and completely by prompting them for responses that fall within certain parameters. Files created in different applications (such as photo files, signatures or calculation sheets) are easily stored together.
With paper-based systems, stakeholders often get left out of the loop when documents are circulated. Expenses such as courier services can be involved with moving documents, too. When desktop computer workstations came into common use, cc’ing all team members became easier, but licensing fees often prevented key players from accessing important files. A software-as-a-service (SaaS) delivery method, on the other hand, allows all team members to have access to the data, greatly enhancing its completeness.
Even if paper documents could be completely accurate, their relay does not happen in real time, which creates an inherently slower rate of progress. Traditionally, offices have had to employ layers of administrators and office personnel to organize and store data; those employees then had to turn the data back around in the form of new reports and documents. There’s a reason, after all, that these management layers were called “paper pushers.” All of the efforts at collecting, organizing and repackaging information led to enormous amounts of rework, snowballing errors, and substantial overhead costs.
By using tablets or mobile phones to access cloud-based documents, these problems are dramatically reduced. Personnel can view and edit all files associated with a project, either from the office or in the field. They can do so even when an internet connection is unavailable. Once a connection has been restored, data syncs via the cloud.
Electronic updates, which happen instantaneously, also lead to clearer chronological organization of documents. Many software solutions offer date- and time-stamps, workflow and role-based permission settings and protection against alteration by non-authorized users. These controls make it clear what version of a document is most recent and establish a chain of custody that keeps progress on track. The flexibility of SaaS-based documentation also streamlines the schedule: follow-up reports can be quickly and seamlessly attached to preceding ones, for example, eliminating the need to sift through multiple files.
Customized electronic forms provide cumulative advantages. They are flexible enough to be adapted to each new project, yet there is no need to “reinvent the wheel” each time. This represents savings in both time and money.
Furthermore, when using paper-based systems, the loss of historical performance data or analytics can mean that lessons learned on one project don’t carry over to the next one. With digital solutions, contracts, forms, calculations, procurement information and more can be carried over from project to project, improving efficiency each time.
Ultimately, the digitization of information sharing underlies most other gains. When important decisions rest upon paper documentation—which is slow to move from place to place, hard to duplicate, and not always easy to access when and where it’s needed—the entire decision-making process can get bogged down. Using technological tools to eliminate these steps becomes invaluable.