Let’s Get Mobile and Social in Construction…or ‘Mocial’

We came across Paul Wilkinson’s blog Extranet Evolution when searching for high quality content on construction technology. To our happy surprise, soon after we found Paul’s blog, he wrote about our first major feature coverage in ENR. So we reached out, had a few great conversations, and a friendship was born. Paul has a loyal following in his UK home base, but his insight and expertise in construction technology make this a blog everyone in construction should be reading. So to that end, Paul has written a guest post just for our readers. Thank you Paul!

Let’s Get Mobile and Social in Construction…or ‘Mocial’
By Paul Wilkinson

It’s about 15 years since I first encountered what we now describe as Software-as-a-Service document sharing applications for the construction industry. 1999 was also the year when the term Web 2.0 was first used to describe dialogue and the use of user-generated content, and what we now commonly describe as “social media” (a fact that, of course, I picked up from Wikipedia).

At the peak of the turn-of-the-century dot.com boom 15 years ago, it seemed that anyone with a half-decent idea about sharing information online might become an overnight internet sensation. However, commercial reality (thankfully) intervened and while a host of construction e-marketplace startups died expensive lingering deaths, other providers, offering more efficient construction document collaboration, proved more likely to survive.

Yet I still felt that all they were doing was centralizing electronic file sharing while largely replicating existing industry communication processes. Yes, it cut print, paper and mail, and was a bit quicker as a result, but did it genuinely help people collaborate?

To me, collaboration is a human process: two or more people share information and ideas, and work together to deliver an outcome that none of the participants could have delivered on their own. Sharing comments and markups may have seemed quite radical but it was still a somewhat slow and asynchronous process.

15 years later

Roll forward to 2014, and we are no longer dependent on desktop web browsers; we can access information on laptops, convertibles, tablets, ‘phablets’ and smartphones – why, we can even wear our IT now! And our interaction possibilities have exploded beyond email-type interactions. Now, we can emulate human conversations (chat), enable them (VOIP), and use voice recognition. People having online conversations in real-time is today’s reality, and yet many of the c. 2000 AD providers are caught in a time-warp.

Excel-style document registers are as dull as ditchwater to the new entrants to the construction professions (thankfully, BIM may – eventually – make these a thing of the past). Today’s new professionals are digital natives. They are intuitively at ease with IT, they increasingly want information in real-time, and they are frustrated when old-style interfaces, contracts, workflows and project timescales slow things down. How do you add value for your client if innovation is stifled by old-style approaches and technologies?

Let’s get ‘mocial’

I mentioned FieldLens in a UK presentation I did recently (see also this post). It is one of a handful of AEC-oriented service businesses which could capitalize upon social media or mobile (or both – I dubbed it ‘mocial‘) approaches to communicating and sharing information.

The explosion in use of mobile technologies, particularly since the advent of smartphones and tablets (Apple’s iPad was first launched in October 2010), has, I think, also stimulated increased use of cloud-based services and growing demand for real-time communication. This challenges existing vendors of what I now see as increasingly conventional – even old-fashioned? – SaaS construction collaboration platforms. Providing centralized repositories for documents and drawings, plus workflow management and other capabilities, they captured the traditional paper and email-based methodologies circa 2000 often with response and reporting timescales to match. Some have, of course, responded by creating their own mobile field applications, but their core systems still tend to reflect the one-to-one or one-to-few and asynchronous nature of most AEC project processes.

Companies such as Fieldlens challenge the incumbents. They offer a simpler, more intuitive, more mobile, open and real-time approach that reflects contemporary technology use. Their apps appeal to web-savvy “Gen Y” AEC professionals frustrated by the slow, closed and non-collaborative nature of conventional platforms and processes. With BIM also providing some much-needed industry disruption, could we yet see the dramatic improvements in the quality and speed of collaboration within the AEC industry demanded when I started out on my extranet evolution in the last century?

Paul Wilkinson is a PR, marketing and construction information technology specialist with
extensive experience of the UK architecture, engineering and construction and ICT markets (among others). His blog Extranet Evolution focuses on construction collaboration technologies.