Electronic Project Information Tracking: Do You Have the Access You Need?
Electronic project information tracking promises savings in time, money, accuracy and other aspects of project management. To take full advantage of this development, designers must not only become familiar with the software, but must also get access to the necessary project information.
As projects become increasingly complex, the need to effectively manage schedules and budgets is more important than ever. Traditionally, design firms, contractors and owner representatives have struggled to accurately assess how certain developments will affect project schedules and budgets. Electronic project information tracking software now enables project participants to use cloud-based storage systems to manage all contracts and project-related documents. This benefits all parties by increasing project efficiencies, allowing for real-time collaboration, and reducing the chance for errors and omissions by providing everyone with up-to-date construction documents.
Designers can also use electronic project information tracking to mitigate delay claims, which can be especially costly as they rely heavily on experts, have complex fact patterns and require analysis of a large number of documents. Of course, as is the case with all new trends in project management, this one brings a new set of risks.
The Benefits of Taking It All Online
Electronic project information tracking programs offer a cost-effective way to track all information in a manner that frees up your time and other resources so you can focus on designing and building the project. There’s no longer a need to perform mundane data entry and you can use key-word searches to locate documents.
These programs are typically web-based and fully hosted by the software provider, meaning that you don’t need to have specific software installed on your computer. All you need is an internet connection and a modest level of training that most software suppliers are happy to provide. Some providers, like Sage and e-Builder, have developed their own apps that you can download to a mobile device.
Once the system is up and running, all project documents, such as contracts; specifications; meeting minutes; site visit reports; submittals, including shop drawings, RFIs and change orders; and operation and maintenance (O&M) manuals can be accurately stored. The program also creates a log of everyone who reviews, sends, or receives each document, along with the actions each person takes. You can also run real-time reports to track RFI turnaround and submittal processing times, and determine which tasks are outstanding and need additional resources.
Some programs also allow you to upload not only CAD drawings, but also photos and videos—electronic media that can help you respond to an RFI. Procore, for example, allows you to use an iPad in the field to respond to an RFI. You can take photos at the site, mark up and highlight them, and attach them to your emailed response. Your response is automatically embedded in the plans and updated in the RFI tracking log. This process is not only efficient, but it also generates a real-time set of as-built drawings as the project evolves.
The portability of electronic project information tracking is another bonus. Think of the impact this could have if you were providing construction observation services on a large highway or pipeline project that required excessive travel time. You could observe miles of roadway or pipeline while reviewing the current status of RFIs and change orders from a tablet or other mobile device. You wouldn’t have to go back to the job trailer and recreate your observations from memory or field notes.
You can turn over all project documents to the client at project close-out, or at various phases throughout the project, and the client can load the information into its O&M system. This creates a cost-effective way to transfer data and information that will help the client operate and maintain complex facilities like hospitals, stadiums or sewage treatment plants.
In addition to saving time and money on projects, electronic information tracking programs can provide a tremendous amount of support in a claim scenario. The reasons why a schedule slipped or a budget was exceeded are no longer a mystery. Parties cannot hide behind a complex web of documents and the threat of dueling delay experts at trial.
Instead, team members can generate reports to track RFI response times and to determine which items are overdue and who needs to act. Some programs, like EADOCS, let you generate a relationship diagram that depicts the cause of a schedule slip or cost overrun by linking it to specific submittals or delayed responses. This type of graphic representation could save all project participants hundreds of thousands of dollars in expert costs and attorneys’ fees if a case ends up in litigation. These systems create a level of transparency that’s not available through traditional means of project information tracking.
The Devil’s in the Details
No new aspect of project management comes without its challenges. The biggest complaint from design professionals is that they no longer have the same level of control over the submittal process, e.g., they don’t have a complete record of the actual PDF drawings that are the subject of an RFI. This complaint is generally lodged on contractor-led design build projects or when a construction manager or owner representative is managing the electronic project document system. In particular, some design professionals report that they aren’t receiving proper logs of incoming and outgoing communications. Most systems provide an email record of whatever response was provided. However, what’s missing in some cases is the PDF drawing that forms part of the RFI or architect’s supplemental instructions (ASI). Some designers report that they don’t receive copies of these documents in any of the confirmation emails. This perceived shortcoming requires the user to download the attachment, create an independent record outside of the document management system, and clearly describe the PDF document that forms part of the RFI. For most systems, the solution to this problem lies in obtaining the proper permission levels.
Some A/Es have expressed concern that the administrator of the system might be able to alter documents once submitted and logged into the system. Whether documents can be altered depends in large part on the particular software capabilities and user privileges, but many of the systems try to mitigate this possibility with read-only features. EADOCS states that once a document is submitted, it is deemed “read only” and cannot be altered or edited. In addition, most systems create an electronic trail that shows who viewed a document and when, and if any changes were made. Also, everything logged into the system is discoverable in litigation.
Many design professionals have disciplined documentation practices and are used to storing and maintaining project documents. If you’re not the super user with the highest level of privileges, then you have a legitimate concern about who will maintain the documents following project completion, and whether your documents could possibly be deleted or lost by a third party who’s responsible for managing the system after project close-out. Once the project is completed, you may no longer have system access.
Some design firms have pointed out that building information modeling (BIM) can increase liability risk for design professionals when used in conjunction with electronic project information tracking systems. The ConsensusDocs® 301 BIM Addendum creates a host of contractual obligations for the designer that encompass everything from coordination and system maintenance to training. The collaborative nature of many tracking systems allows participants to alter and update documents in a way that could conflict with the designer’s contractual obligations in managing BIM.
Some design firms have pointed out that building information modeling (BIM) can increase liability risk for design professionals when used in conjunction with electronic project information tracking systems."
Managing to Mitigate the Risks
There are a number of steps you can take to make the most of electronic project information tracking while also lowering your exposure to a new set of risks:
Do your homework. Find out early in the contract negotiation phase if your firm will be required to participate in an electronic project information tracking system. If so, find out which product will be used, and let your client know if you have particular experience or concerns with any of
these systems. If there’s one you’re more comfortable with, by all means let your client know. If you’re required to use an unfamiliar system, educate yourself by researching the vendor’s website, viewing YouTube videos, reading online forums about other user experiences, and contact the vendor’s customer support team to ask questions.
Be sure to ask your colleagues about their experiences with similar programs. Some electronic project information tracking systems require users to operate and think differently. Design professionals who fail to become properly trained on these systems may experience a high level of frustration and a steep learning curve. For example, EADOCS does not track or store email while Procore’s system incorporates email.
If you’re not in charge of system access, then discuss your privileges and permission levels with the program’s administrator. Ask to see the permission settings so you can determine the scope of information that’s available and find out if your permission settings include everything you need to perform your services and manage potential liability exposures. If you’re a prime consultant but not the program administrator, consider asking for permission that allows you to have a full log of all correspondence and documentation, and the ability to run reports to view submittal response times and track project delays. If there’s a delay claim brewing, having this information could help you head it off. If your permission is restricted, consider addressing the issue in your contract and disclaiming liability for any inconsistencies that occur as a result of having your permission restricted more than is normal. Depending on your level of access, consider a variety of additional safeguards in your client contract, such as a limitation of liability, a waiver of consequential damages, a waiver of claims and an indemnity from your client. You should discuss specific contract language with competent legal counsel and your insurance broker.
If you don’t get access to actual PDF documents that are integral to performing your services, then you need to: (1)demand access and explain why access is important; (2) not take the project; or (3) determine how to modify your document retention practices to protect in the event of litigation, such as creating detailed document descriptions in submittal responses. Also, consider negotiating your own copy of project documents on a thumb drive, CD or external hard drive at project close-out.
Be extra diligent in reviewing your contractual obligations. It should be clear that you are not accepting any responsibility for construction means and methods nor for any other parties over which you have no control.
If you’re the prime designer using BIM, you might consider a BIM management plan in which a review committee consisting of a chairperson and a lead for each discipline—general contractor, subcontractors, design professionals and even the owner—routinely meets to address changes to the construction documents in order to obtain buy in from each affected discipline, and to make sure the appropriate parties are providing the proper amount of review. By doing this, the parties can focus on delivering the project on time and within budget while not getting mired in liability issues. A committee structure that includes the owner can also help manage the owner’s expectations when unforeseen permitting or code compliance issues increase the budget or prolong the schedule. For owners who have little experience dealing with permitting authorities or fire marshal inspections that can result in design changes that no A/E could have foreseen, this type of inclusion can be very educational and help direct frustration away from the design professional.
Finally, be aware of the additional time you might spend double-checking changes that others might make to the construction documents. Your bid should account for additional review that could result from using an electronic project information tracking system—especially if you’re recommending or participating in a BIM review committee. Electronic project information tracking systems offer myriad efficiencies by promoting real-time collaboration and keeping all parties informed at each critical phase of design and construction. The systems’ built-in transparency can effectively neutralize questionable delay claims and help prevent innocent parties from being named as defendants in a lawsuit. Proper planning, system access and permission levels, in conjunction with solid risk management practices, can help you excel in this environment.
Originally published in Communiqué, A Practice Management Newsletter, published by the Design Professional unit of XL Catlin
The information contained herein is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. For legal advice, seek the services of a competent attorney. Any descriptions of insurance provisions are general overviews only.
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