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Controlled collaboration

Efficient project management can have a real impact on the profitability of a job. Colin Barnes of Collabor8online how low cost online collaboration and project management tools can make all the difference

When everything goes right in a project itís rarely considered worthy of comment but when things go wrong the fan can get very busy redistributing the ordure. Errors can also be very costly with retentions from main contractors and disputes with sub-contractors and clients, as well as the additional site time to rectify incorrect work. And among the main causes of errors are working with the wrong documents, inefficient time management and poor task co-ordination.

Taking document management as an example itís ironic that, given the potential benefits of information technology, sharing more information electronically can increase the risk of errors. When documents such as drawings, briefs and specifications are distributed to several people by email, for instance, the responses come back in a haphazard fashion from several directions.

At any one time, therefore, there could be several Ďversions of the truthí with nobody being entirely sure which document is the most recent. The result is that somebody then needs to spend a lot of time checking all the different versions, bringing the changes into a single document. This document is then redistributed and quite often people will then disagree with each otherís revisions, so another round of changes occurs.

On larger projects with many hundreds of documents flying around it is clearly worth the client or main contractor investing in an expensive web-based document management system that is accessed by all parties. But where an electrical contractor needs to share information amongst a few people in the company and, perhaps, selected sub-contractors, such a huge investment is simply not viable.

However, thanks to major advances in web-based technologies there is an alternative that wonít break the bank on even a very small project Ė in fact costs can be as low as £25 per month. These collaboration technologies make it very clear which are the most recent documents, show a full audit trail of any revisions and also incorporate calendars and task lists to create a full project management system. Crucially, the whole process is very intuitive and requires no special IT skills, training, software or hardware.

As document management is often one of the most challenging areas itís worth looking at how this side of the system works first.

With online collaboration all of the documents relating to a particular project are posted to a central web-based site. Team members can then view or edit documents from any computer with a web browser, depending on the level of authority they have been allocated by the administrator. These permissions can range from which projects a person is able to access to whether they can edit documents or just view them.

People with permission to edit can then create revised versions Ė in the same place but with an automatically generated version number clearly showing which version is which. After all revisions are completed, the project administrator publishes the final versions for everyone to work with.

The system can be used with any kind of document - specifications, drawings, prices, variations or application details, even images or videos. You can also create folders and sub-folders to organise each project in any way that suits.

Just as importantly, the system can be used to share selected documents with clients, which canít fail to create a good impression.

Task and time management

Once the whole team is accessing project information in a central location it makes sense to bring in other functions that will help with task and time management. For example, separate calendars can be created for a whole project, part of a project - for individuals or for teams. These can also be linked with tasks (a Ďto doí list) and target dates, so that each person has a clear view of what is expected of them. Administrators and managers retain an overview of all calendars and tasks and who should be doing what by when. Calendars can also be synchronised with popular office calendars such as Microsoft Outlook.

Given the potential cost of getting it wrong itís certainly worth investing a few pounds a month in technologies that will help you get it right. And the fact that streamlined project management will also boost productivity and increase profitability, this is an investment that will more than pay its way.

Further information can be found at www.collabor8online.co.uk