December 2009

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Construction Engineering Communication and Collaboration
Some ideas about how web technologies might affect communication and collaboration in the design, construction and service of commercial buildings.

  Bob MacKie

Bob MacKie
C3
Customer Communication Consulting

Communication and Collaboration

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Fax MachineIt does not seem that long ago that the fax was the latest cool tool for communication. However, relatively recently, I cancelled the phone line for my fax machine. I was not using it anymore, all I was getting on it was ads for promotional items and the phone line was ridiculously expensive. I have been scanning drawings and illustrations and emailing photos for some time. Anything that does not fit on my flatbed scanner, I ship. (I must admit that I still drive to the library to pick up a book; but that’s because I like libraries and I like books. After a hard day at the laptop screen, it’s nice to settle down with a book before I watch a downloaded movie.)

Communication technologies have changed and evolved a great deal over the years. Some technologies have longer lives than others. Mail will probably be with us for many years to come but use is declining. I would not want to be working for a newspaper or magazine these days.

MeetingEven collaboration has changed over the years. It used to be that when working on a project; to attend a meeting or conference; you got in your car, then a plane, then another car, then a hotel, then you had your meeting (at which the participant’s average contribution was the reciprocal of the number of participants at the meeting and if there were more than three people involved everybody could not see the drawings at the same time), then you reversed the process to go home. Now people are meeting online, participants are multitasking with side chats or dealing with other issues online while topics not pertinent to them are being discussed, everyone can see the drawings . . . and photos . . . and video . . . and web links. When the meeting is over, participants close their laptop, walk into another room and have dinner at home.

TelephoneNew and different tools help communication and collaboration to change; but most importantly, the users have to change. Twas ever thus; imagine a business man who took the time to draft a letter or telegram to a colleague or customer; to have to get used to dealing in real time . . . on the telephone. Although there were huge advantages to getting feedback and answers to questions right away; the telephone must have been daunting at first to some. I can see the parallels with the situation today. There would have been early technology adopters willing to pay big bucks for early telephone prototypes and put up with poor service. Then they would have to deal with the fact that many of their customers and colleagues did not have telephones or had them but didn’t like to use them. After all, telephones were new. It seems odd now, but people had to learn how to use telephones.

What do you say when you pick up? (Social protocol)

Can others hear my conversation? (Security protocol)

Finally the attitude - “If he wants my business he will damn well come and see me or write a letter. I am too busy to deal with this new stuff!” (Customer protocol)

Nice Tools but who is using them?
There are some slick tools out there. Probably more than you thought. Have a look at this mind map of the Best Online Collaboration Tools of 2009. On second thought, maybe don’t bother; it loads slowly and there are so many it is hard to fit on one page and still be able to make out the fine print. There are plenty of tools and more coming. Google is currently testing Google Wave. It’s all the rage amongst the geeks, and for good reason. Some say it could replace email. Replace email . . . I just got the contacts in my Outlook organized and synched with my IPod . . . is there no end to this!  No, there isn’t.

Adoption of these changes is more about people than technology. I was listening to an interview with a bestselling author that likes to write longhand and use a typewriter. He, of course, being a bestselling author, has that option. I also understand he is a workaholic that hardly ever stops writing.

As far as adopting these tools go, I am lucky. I like this stuff so I spend lots of time, maybe too much time, checking out all the new tools. I am a little unusual in that regard for a man that saw one of the first telex machines being displayed at Bell in his early twenties. I am an early adopter and apparently a statistical anomaly. My children are digital natives. They don’t need to adopt these tools, they grew up with them.

When people talk about Web2.0, they are really talking about a social phenomenon. It is not about technology, it is about being willing to use the technological tools to publish your pictures on the net, to put up your restaurant review, to answer someone’s question on a forum, in general to participate socially on the web. For anyone that wants to see how researchers are classifying folks on the web, have a look at the book “Groundswell” by Forrester Research or click here for a quick synopsis of their classification.
The answer to the question is lots of people are using these tools. Facebook has more than 300 million active users.

But that’s got little to do with the construction business right? Facebook is how you keep in touch with friends.

That is for the most part true. Forrester just came out with a study on “State Of US Workforce Technology”. The Executive Summary states:

“Gen Y is four times more likely to visit a social networking site at home than they are to use one for work purposes. But if they are unable to bring their Social Computing habits and sensibility to work, Gen Yers can at least use their personal mobile phones to text to stay in touch with friends and communicate with colleagues. In fact, mobility is the defining difference of Gen Y at work: They are much more likely than their older colleagues to use smartphones for work purposes.”

CatNet Systems So the young folks use their smartphones for work and I assume that is for more than making phone calls, although I am not prepared to pay Forrester US$1749 to find out exactly what they are doing with them.

However, 300 million people using Facebook is a lot of people, period. The reason a GenY is four times more likely to visit a social networking site at home than at work is because social networking sites are social and spending too much time on Facebook is frowned on at work. It is the same as making too many personal phone calls. However, people are using the web, posting comments, sharing ideas, likes and dislikes and 70% are outside of the US. This is a worldwide phenomenon. It is also not only the gen Y/echo baby boomer/younger folk – the fastest growing demographic on Facebook is those 35 years old and older.

There is a huge business connection however and not just for business to consumer businesses. The communication may be primarily social on Facebook and MySpace sites but that is what they were set up for. Once businesses catch on to this and there are more business oriented sites people will use them to communicate, coordinate and solve problems. Linked In, which is a much more business oriented site, passed 50 million users in October. That is a lot of people too. Half are from the US; 11 million are from Europe and India. With 3 million users, India is the fastest-growing country as of 2009. (Source Wikipedia Nov 23, 2009.)

There is a shortage of good business sites that appeal to communities of practice in a business environment. For example, HVAC controls people go to AutomatedBuildings.com to find out what is happening in the industry, but where do they go when they want to post something themselves. Imagine you have a job problem or question in front of you that you need an answer to. Your buddy at the next desk is out. You don’t want to ask your boss. You can’t contact your supplier rep. You have tried the supplier’s web site but you are really looking for whether somebody has tried a different solution. If there was a web site for HVAC controls people with a forum; you could post your question and get an answer. There are a number of companies that are doing this right now. Dell is one. Their customers and users are a large part of their customer support.

If you are not convinced watch this. Still not convinced?  This one pertains to business.

These sites can be excellent communication and problem solving tools. I will keep you posted on this. I should have more news next month on community of practice software.

So What?
Technology have always been changing – trains to planes; mail to telegraph to telephone to fax to email to Wave. (I will come back to Wave). Businesses change too or at least they do if the folks in them decide to change.

So what is the big deal?

This is not a crisis; it is an opportunity. Take the time to have a look.

For software, there are companies like Aconex that specialize in collaborative technology for construction firms; also known as document sharing. Here is a huge job they were involved in near Abu Dhabi. Google “Online Document Management Construction” for a wealth of software. You can also go to Capterra; look in the left column; tick “Collaboration Management” and then click on “filter now” and you will have a list of 50 different software packages. No shortage of software to choose from.

Are you an expert from afar? Large companies with experts from afar can take advantage of these tools provided the expert from afar is willing to do so. Time management does not have to mean typing on your laptop on a plane with your elbows tight to your sides while hoping the person in front doesn’t put their seat back. (Bob’s addendum to Murphy ’s Law – airplane application – the probability of the person in front of you putting their seat back is directly related to the sum of how important the document is plus how late you are to submit it.) Also, sitting in your car on a Sunday afternoon driving to Lower Podunk so that you will be on time for the Monday morning meeting is not time management.

See that twenty something kid Tweeting his/her friends via his/her cell phone . . . they are digital natives. They will feel quite comfortable in a virtual meeting or contributing in a webinar. Learn to use the technology. A web cam costs $50.

Green buildings are from green companies? How many internal company meetings do you drive to . . . so you can sit and listen . . . do you get to see the drawings? I saw a neat sign the other day “Fight terrorism – ride a bike”. Whether you care more about cost of gas or cost to planet; it makes sense to web commute and collaborate.

I will wrap up here with another tool that is coming along that seems to nicely combine communication and collaboration called Google Wave. It is simple to use but not easy to explain. Probably the best explanations are the videos that are out on YouTube. You can find the links on my site. Rosy is a Google Wave add on that does translation in real time. Again it is best to see the video and imagine what that might be able to do for your business someday where you and your customer or client do not use the same language.

Invitations to use Google wave are hard to come by right now; but if you do get one . . . Wave me at robertbmackie@googlewave.com. I am only waving with a few folks right now because Wave is in beta testing and outside emails are not yet integrated.

Also I have to use my Google Chrome browser because Dimdim, which is a free video enabled web meeting site I like to use, balks at the Google Chrome add-in window on the Internet Explorer 8 browser working with Windows 7 operating system. However, Dimdim assures me that glitch will be sorted out by next week. Isn’t this stuff fun! Actually, it can be. Of course there will be glitches and frustrations along the way, similar to that tough telephone adaptation your father or Grandfather had to go through . . . you however will be required to adapt more quickly.

Last minute add on. I just received some Google Wave invitations. If you are interested in having one, drop me an email. I just sent one to Ken Sinclair. Maybe we can set up a Wave on Customer Collaboration for Engineers or the HVAC Controls industry or both. See you online!

DarwinismsA Quotation, a Colloquialism and Amusement:

“It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” - Darwin (2009 is the bicentenary of Darwin's birth)

“Adapt or die.” – Colloquial form of the quotation above.

Amusement – If you haven’t seen the web site “The Darwin Awards” - in their words - “Honoring those who improve the species...by accidentally removing themselves from it!” it is worth a look.

How C3 can Help
C3 can help the people within your business adapt to, become familiar with, adopt and use Web2.0. It is a major change in communication and collaboration . . . one that can possibly improve your customer relations.

There are lots of possibilities . . . contact me and we can discuss pragmatic possibilities.

Thanks for your time,
Bob, C3, Salt Spring Island

November Automated Buildings.com Interview with Bob

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