Getting on the Same (Digital) Page: Collaborative software explained from users’ perspectives

Shutterstock / IC0 Maker / Golden Sikorka
Shutterstock / IC0 Maker / Golden Sikorka
Published On
Nov 15, 2021

Software has so many applications. A variety of software programs help construction workers facilitate daily tasks, such as project and tool management, BIM, estimating, payroll and more. However, collaborative software is getting a lot of attention as projects become more complex and involve more participants. Here, users describe their experiences with collaborative applications.

What is the definition of collaborative software as it applies to electrical contractors?

Tauhira Ali, executive director of innovation at NECA, said that in a shared environment, collaborative software allows contractors to increase transparency and group efficacy.

“This software may be collaborative within a specific contractor’s organization, such as accounting or time-tracking software that’s used by many individuals and departments within a company,” she said. “Collaborative software can also be leveraged across different stakeholders in a project who are representatives of multiple companies. A great example of this is BIM [building information modeling] software or project management software that is used by a general contractor and multiple specialty contractors, including electrical contractors.

“Collaborative software is typically cloud or web-based. This gives multiple users access to shared information in real time,” Ali said.

How are companies uniquely employing collaborative software?

“Projects are the most successful when the communication among all teams is consistent and effective from start to finish. Collaborative software is a great tool to help teams achieve the consistent and effective communication that drives project success,” said Todd Grossweiler, executive vice president at Allison-Smith Co., an electrical contractor in Smyrna, Ga. “Collaborative software allows simultaneous access to and usage of shared content. Using a sports analogy, project management software is an individual sport, and collaborative software is a team sport.”

Grossweiler said his team uses collaborative software to share documents (presentations, proposals, labor projections, etc.) and schedules. Information such as project documents (specifications, plans, RFIs, etc.) can be shared with the field team leaders. They also participate in the different software platforms that GCs use on projects (BIM 360, Plan Grid and Procore).

“Over the recent history of construction, it seems like schedules have been accelerated, documentation requirements have increased, and changes are almost guaranteed to occur. Using collaborative software allows transparency amongst the team members and can help to minimize the risk of failures caused by things slipping through the cracks or deadlines being missed.

“It’s hard to quantify the impact of the differences, but we are clearly better when we communicate more effectively,” he said. “It helps improve our safety, our quality, and our production.”

Grossweiler advises ECs to start with talking to peers and trade partners to see if and what they are using before talking to representatives and requesting demos from software companies.

Shutterstock / Golden Sikorka
Shutterstock / Golden Sikorka

Once a software has been chosen, start by picking a small test group to prove the software’s effectiveness and work out any bugs prior to company-wide adoption. This small group can then serve as champions for the new software and can help make adoption easier.

“A variety of training is available, from free to paid. The ease of implementation will depend on how much a company tries to implement at one time. Most companies have probably at least participated in the use of some kind of collaborative software on a project basis, so transitioning to an internal company solution will likely be easier,” Grossweiler said.

Oklahoma Electrical Supply Co. (OESCO), Oklahoma City, Okla., typically uses collaborative software for file sharing, document control, tracking open change orders and RFIs, daily reports and safety records. For estimating, workers performed parallel estimates on the old system and Accubid Pro until they were comfortable with converting completely.

“We can see every RFI, drawing, document, submittals and submittal review comments, etc., from all trades and the construction manager (CM) in real time,” said Tim Sardis, manager of construction at OESCO. “And collaborative software, especially within a specific company, can be tailored to meet specific needs. We can split out large project estimates among several of our individuals and then merge the efforts together. This saves time and prevents mistakes.”

Access is gained through the CM to use collaborative software per job requirements. The information is provided immediately to all members of the project team with iPads, laptops or other handheld devices. Sardis said the CM usually sets up training, and OESCO falls in line with other trades to use the software as directed. The learning curve is usually minimal, but they do train their estimators in-house.

“PlanGrid and Building Connected are what we have used most for project management. We also use Revit and Navisworks for BIM modeling, which is also collaborative and used by all trades on the projects required to perform BIM,” Sardis said. “We use Accubid Pro and Change Order, which is collaborative within our company, but not amongst other trades. Bluebeam Revu we also use collaboratively within our company, and sometimes with other outside companies. We share our files often with OneDrive, which can also be considered collaborative.”

“We also use a Trimble field robot to perform layout. This unit is also collaborative because it uses the cloud to store files; therefore, the Trimble unit can be used in the field with updated models from the home office or other remote location. This guarantees that our field personnel are always using the most up to date model,” Sardis said.

Electrical contractors at VEC Inc., Girard, Ohio, have been using collaborative software since 2015.

“We employ an in-house IT team and a .NET programmer who work together to create and integrate custom internal collaboration software,” said Christian Mahoney, IT manager.

VEC’s IT team integrates other third-party software with the internal one, which allows them to leverage automated functionality across the collaborative platforms. This makes it easy for multiple employees to access and manipulate a single file simultaneously, without the need to maintain a revision log.

“We use collaborative software on multiple devices: iPads, business laptops and cellphones. This gives us the ability to access and process information from virtually anywhere and anytime using a secure login,” Mahoney said.

“We have found project management software is more rigid in its workflow process than collaborative software. At VEC, we develop our own in-house collaboration and integration software. With them, we can customize collaboration software to optimize workflow and employee efficiency,” he said.

The VEC team trains employees after the programs are tested and implemented.

“Collaborative software is sometimes difficult to implement. Bringing different operating systems and platforms together is a trial-and-error process and can be time-consuming, but the positive results are well worth the effort,” he said. “Our previously cumbersome payroll and financial workflow processes and project-management tasks are radically streamlined by collaborative software, and duplication of data entry is almost nonexistent.”

Mahoney recommends using an in-house collaborative software development approach to allow customization to match your specific current and possible future needs more closely.

What are the primary benefits collaborative software offers contractors?

“It helps improve communication and productivity. With a shared environment, communications can be more streamlined and reliable overall. Centralizing data allows for a single source of truth. This is a huge benefit for company record-keeping,” Ali said.

How does collaborative software differ from project management software?

“Project management software can be collaborative or used on an individual basis,” Ali said. “Most organizations look for a project-management software that is compatible with other platforms already in use. Sometimes this is not possible, which leads to our industry’s growing pain point of software that doesn’t integrate easily.”

How difficult is it to train users and implement?

“This is a great question and answers vary widely,” she said. “The main factors to consider when implementing new software are employee training and adoption. The software should be solving a problem or streamlining a process. Once a new software solution is in place, training employees on proper usage is crucial. Since everyone learns in different ways, there should be multiple methods used to teach employees about system features. It also helps to offer incentives to ‘gamify’ or motivate the learning process.”

How widely is it used by electrical contractors?

“Many electrical contractors use collaborative software. Since companies vary in size, their needs differ as well. Some will have collaborative environments for internal communications and project management only, and others will have collaborative environments for all systems,” Ali said.

What reasons might an owner/manager of a contractor firm resist acquiring and using the technology?

According to Ali, taking on a new software is a huge investment for a company, because it’s a dedication of time and budget.

“Considering the longevity of a potential software is very important—it’s best not to have something that could be obsolete or ineffective after a few years of adoption. Make sure the system fits well with the company with the new software addition. Researching the company’s needs and communicating with appointed champions can really help with the process of acquiring new software or technology,” she said.

Using collaborative software in the field enables contractors to easily share documents between those working in the office and on the job site, communicate among teams and much more.

About the Author

Jeff Griffin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Griffin, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at up-front@cox.net.

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