XML Enables Real Time Collaboration
The ideal flow of communication on a construction project would be something like this:
Project information is sent, in real-time, from the Subcontractor (SC) to the General Contractor (GC) on the job site. The GC consolidates the information, and sends it back to the project office, where it is processed, stored, and then sent to the project owner. The project owner can then access the project information in an easy-to-understand format, such as a dashboard or a report. Project data is only entered once and propagates instantaneously through the system and between each project collaborators, even though they may each be using a different system. There is no loss of data, no data needs to be re-entered and each collaborator is on the same page, using real-time data to make decisions.
Until relatively recently, the ideal scenario described above would have seemed impossible, but the introduction of Extensible Markup Language (XML) - a computer language that allows the transmission of information regardless of the software involved - to the construction industry has made the ideal scenario a reality.
On traditional construction projects, the GC, the SC and the Owner often use different software systems. Furthermore, each stakeholder may be using multiple systems internally – one system for financials, another for operations and so on. This approach creates silos of information, with RFIs, change orders and other project information stored in each system. As a result, large projects end up having multiple versions of documents in multiple systems, and every time a change is made, each data file needs to be updated and/or problems occur.
Quite often, this situation leads to poor relations between the GC and the Owner. The Owner may feel that the contractor is withholding crucial pieces of information, and the GC often struggles to keep all the systems updated. Even in situations where a GC uses an integrated system with financials and operations running on the same database, the other project collaborators still have trouble accessing project information. The inherent inefficiency in traditional methods is staggering; for large companies performing large projects, it can seem as though more resources are spent on managing computer systems and the flow information than on managing the project itself.
XML and XML adapters remove the inherent complexity of traditional system arrangements and allow seamless exchange of information between systems. XML has floated around in the business world for a while, but has started to gain traction in the construction industry. In a nutshell, XML is a system agnostic computer language that doesn’t care what information is being transmitted or what system is going to use it; XML tags information so different computer systems can read and exchange it.
In the construction world, this means that irrespective of the systems in place, a GC can send information to a project owner and the project owner can send information back, in real-time, with no loss of data and no need for data reentry. XML overcomes terminology hurdles as well – a GC’s invoice becomes an owner’s contractor request for payment. Both databases are updated at the same time, and each project collaborator can make decisions with the most up-to-date information.
The business implications of XML are substantial, and a few savvy contractors are already leveraging XML to their advantage, strengthening relationships with project owners and providing better customer service. Employees who previously performed low-value data entry tasks can be re-assigned to more value added tasks that increase company productivity and improve employee morale. In the long run, the most successful companies maximize resources; XML helps companies save time, energy and money.
Yet another advantage of XML is that it helps incorporate a diverse set of applications such as Building Information Modeling (BIM), into the enterprise. Using XML, a BIM application can be integrated into the financial/project management computer system, so that information from the 3D model can be used in job costing, general ledger, material procurement and forecasting. As a project continues to develop, updated information can be sent back to the model and represented in 3D form, making BIM more relevant to day-to-day business operations and to the industry as a whole.
XML adapters can also be used to incorporate other applications, including (but not limited to) online payment software, planrooms for drawings/specs, and documents scanning solutions. With the right technical expertise, almost any kind of application can be incorporated into the system using XML, bringing the prospect of a one-stop, total software solution that manages all aspects of a construction industry project a little bit closer.