Perhaps the most useful and exciting, yet technologically complex and challenging e-commerce application is the application service provider (ASP). This software package, which resides on the Internet, facilitates project management collaboration among architects, engineers, general contractors, and all subcontractors on a project-by-project basis. Team members use the same database on the Internet for project-specific communications. You can transfer files, drawings, materials lists, specifications, meeting minutes, schedules, and the whole project file from one project team member to another.

The format for this database is called an “extranet.” It is accessible through the Internet, but only to those involved in the project via registration and passwords. Unlike files kept on your own computer, extranet files are centralized and accessible on the Internet ASP. Theorized benefits include greater efficiency, productivity, and clearer communication with fewer processing delays. Initially discussed in the November 2000 issue of Electrical Contractor, this ASP had a mixed review of its benefit/burden ratio to subcontractors. This column emphasizes its benefits.

How can contractors capitalize on the opportunities collaborative ASPs offer? First, they need to get online. Our informal survey, plus information from other sources, shows that between 20 and 25 percent of contractors are not online. Tom Clavelle, executive vice president of Engelberth Construction in Colchester, Vt., said, “We may have to facilitate subcontractor online use by providing them with the hookup, perhaps even with a computer.” Since small contractors have limited time or money to invest in equipment and training, this initial step might be the biggest hurdle.

Once online, however, ASPs and users advise taking it one step at a time. Clavelle advised, “It’s better to walk than to jump in and lose people by not addressing issues.”

As Mike Luciani, Viecon Business Unit of Bentley Systems, Inc., (www.bentley.com) said, “The smaller contractor can use the software package for a specific project and then stop. They can sign on and off at will with a monthly fee or pay-as-you-go process on each project.” According to Luciani, several firms use the Bentley Viecon System in pilot projects. He recommends regarding the whole process as a food chain: As larger contractors use the software, it will filter down to the smaller ones.

In an interesting process reversal, Jeff Perry of Briggs Electric in Irvine, Calif., describes his motivation for his company to implement the Constructware (www.constructware.com) package. Believing that this new technology would benefit his company, he purchased one license for one project manager about a year ago and asked him to try it out and evaluate the program. But nothing much happened.

Eventually, Perry decided to make a stronger effort to promote wider company adoption. He recently purchased about a dozen licenses and two days’ worth of training for company employees. His first goal is to develop company familiarity with the product, as he plans to use it internally for some time. He acknowledges that it is probably a bit unusual for a subcontractor to take this step, but his intuition tells him e-commerce is here to stay.

He believes that, with project managers trained for extranet collaboration, Briggs Electric will be well-positioned to assist a general contractor with this kind of project management collaboration and, at the same time, retain rights to their data.

Engelberth Construction is the kind of general contractor Perry is envisioning. For more than two years, Engelberth has been using Constructware. At this point, project management collaboration has involved mostly owners, architects, and designers. Clavelle said Engelberth highly values concentrating on internal aspects of the process before involving subcontractors. However, this next year, he plans to bring some subcontractors on board.

In addition to helping them get online, if they are not already there, Clavelle is considering early payments as incentives to participate. For the subcontractors, the process must be made easy and they must see a reason for using it. One benefit, Clavelle pointed out, is the electrical contractor’s ability to access information at home. “I’m excited about project management collaboration,” he said. “It will provide answers to go forward, and the industry will change for the better.”

Electrical contractors can refer to the aforementioned Web sites. They can even turn to www.electric-find.com, which invites them to “become a Web-savvy electrical contractor.” In addition to accessing information for the electrical industry, contractors can learn to set up their own Web site, which will serve as their business card in the 21st century. This option will be explored further in a forthcoming column.

Selecting a dot.com ASP involves analyzing who will survive this early venture start-up phase. Helping electrical contractors and others deal with this question is John Jurewicz, project manager and technology specialist with McClier Corp., a Chicago-based international design/build firm. Jurewicz, an American Institute of Architects (AIA) member, has set up a Web site, www.asptip.com, to help potential users evaluate project management collaboration systems and gain valuable self-education. His specific procedures are detailed on the Web site and information can be reused.

“Given the impact of startup costs, lack of ability to easily import/export data and training, it would be unwise to drop everything and migrate to a single solution, especially when the tools are not fully tested and functioning,” he said. “The largest ASP enterprise users...admit to problems in participation and most of all, subcontractor participation.”

Over the long term, contractors will probably go with the proven technology suppliers in the industry who have a history of delivering solutions that enable them to consistently deliver projects meeting or exceeding their clients’ expectations.”

Echoing similar sentiments is Steve Setzer, director of marketing communications at Constructware. Electrical contractors can learn about project collaboration systems without making a large initial investment, he said, by deploying a system on one pilot project first. The key is to assign a project manager who is reasonably comfortable with technology, make sure the on-site team gets proper training, and hold the vendor accountable for after-sale service and support, he said. After a few real-world experiences, the firm is in a much better situation to evaluate the real benefits of these systems, and the best vendor for their situation.

One benefit that does not receive a lot of attention, according to Setzer, is the internal collaboration and process improvements that happen within a company when they transition to an effective centralized system. “It probably takes a year to get to that point, but once they realize how much more effectively they communicate internally, they won’t want to turn back.”

Jurewicz concluded by saying, “Don’t be afraid to pilot test and keep an eye on who the leaders are. Becoming savvy at dealing with multiple vendors will make you stronger as an ultimate player in this wild game of evolving services. The key is to take an incremental approach. Work various pilot projects and expand your initiative as it improves value.”

TAGLIAFERRE, is proprietor of the C-E-C Group in Springfield, Va. He can be reached at (703) 321-9268, or by e-mail at lewtag@aol.com. GREENWOOD has been a lecturer with the University of Maine’s Department of Sociology for 13 years. She can be reached at susanfg@maine.edu or (207) 581-2394.