This got me thinking about e-commerce. Businesses are being encouraged to embrace IT to provide a better, cheaper service. The "e" factor can help you do this. It can handle all the stuff that doesn't add value. Materials can be ordered directly from catalogues, accounts departments can be automatically advised of the requisition, the website can be used to monitor delivery, automatically confirm receipt and trigger payment. This is fairly typical of what's being implemented by the early adopters. Unfortunately, this isn't the wow-factor that clients are after. They see most improvements as benefiting the supply side, and quite frankly, believe that the supply side should have done them already. What they really want to see is IT adding value to their own operations.
For example: why can't designs be developed with all parties using one platform and one communication application, so that clients get an asset management register that shows every item and component used in their project? Or a register that clearly indicates all the associated attributes on operations and maintenance?
The benefit to clients is that they can then use the building in such a way as to ensure its optimum performance. When their needs change, they want to be able to work out quickly how the facility needs to be adapted, without extensive surveys and deliberations.
So does this mean that if we embrace e-business to its full potential then all clients will be happy? I wish. As with my email example earlier, there is always a downside. E-business can only support business processes. If they are the wrong processes, it will mean we are doing the wrong thing more efficiently. As a cash-rich, time-poor society, what really makes the difference is communication and collaboration. If one party tries to implement a system without the rest of the team being involved or benefiting, it will fail. If we are prepared to involve everyone in a project early on, we can benefit from their knowledge and experience on issues of buildability, whole-life performance and value for money.
I know one contractor who has reverted to faxes on site to cut down the size of its email inbox
We don't need e-commerce to do this. We need teams, chains and clusters who are prepared to work together over time in an open and honest way to develop the right business processes. When that's done, those processes can be IT-enabled. But the trust must come first, as e-business will give transparency to all communications.
Another downside is that e-business won't give immediate cost savings. It will take considerable investment by all parties to sort out the right business processes, software interfaces and protocols. Having done that, you will then need to review and improve them in operation. Everyone affected by the implementation of the system will have to be trained in its use and given a share of its benefits.
So, you won't get the real benefit from the first project, but the more you put into getting the processes right and changing the culture, the quicker the payback. But you don't want to be climbing the same learning curve on every project – hence the need to work as integrated teams over a series of projects.
Zara Lamont is the chief executive of the Confederation of Construction Clients.