Imagine if construction could develop a computer-generated picture of an evolving project, an auditable bank of information about its management. Disputes could be largely avoided. Stop imagining.
Some readers may recall the case of a man who was executed in the USA and whose body was cut into extremely fine slices from head to toe. Each slice was photographed and stored on computer, giving medical researchers an extraordinary insight into the make-up of the human body.

Well, why can't we do something similar in construction? Not at the end of the project but during it. As soon as the client has given the go-ahead, the project team could begin building up a computerised picture of its progress.

In other words, we could generate an evolving model of the project's development by accumulating the various inputs from the client's representative, members of the professional team, construction managers, main contractors, specialist contractors and suppliers. The input would, presumably, have to consist of both physical data and alphanumeric data (for example, specifications, quantities and so on).

Such a model would be multi-layered, so that one could peel the layers away to reveal the innermost contents of the evolving project. It would mean that many disputes could be avoided and if one did occur, their provenance or cause could be established more easily.

Apart from anything else, the requirement to input data would impose a healthy discipline on all project participants. The technology could – assuming the software was available – highlight problems arising, for example, from failure to co-ordinate and integrate design interfaces. This would certainly be an effective tool in the hands of project managers. Most disputes occur because of a failure of management.

So, is the technology available that will develop a picture of an evolving project with the action relayed in slices from day one? I sought advice from a contact in the technical domain, Maurice Tidy from Fulcrum Integration Consultancy. Fulcrum has computerised visualisation techniques coming out of its ears.

I asked a simple question: "Do we have the technology to develop a picture of an evolving project using computer-generated visual techniques that require all participants to input their activities in relation to the construction process?" There was a momentary silence. After all, this was a rather long question. But Tidy was feigning surprise. "Where have you been all this time?" He answered. "Of course, the technology is available and it is demonstrable on numerous major projects." I was genuinely surprised, but asked: "Why is it not being more widely used then – and why haven't I heard about it?" Tidy thought the answer was to do with perceived cost or simply a lack of awareness of the existence of such technology. Or a lack of appreciation and comprehension.

But I believe the answer is rather more sinister. We don't want to be exposed. Contractual and vested interest defensiveness remain top of the industry's agenda. It is better that nefarious practices are kept hidden. It is better that the client doesn't know what is going on. It is better that I – as a consultant or project manager – can resort to various excuses to deny requests for extensions of time when I am solely at fault.

"You don't deserve an extension of time. You didn't have enough labour on site at the critical point. The problem is down to you, not me." Passing the buck can be terribly useful.

The trouble with technology is that it introduces transparency into the construction process. Everybody is able to see what is going on. Management deficiencies, tendering malpractice and payment abuse could all come to the surface. We can't have that.

But think of the good it would do. It would make the process much more efficient. Just imagine, for example, an adjudicator having to deal with claims and counter-claims.

All he would need to do is retrospectively remove computerised slices of project activity until he discovered where the problems emanated from.

I feel a revolution coming. Sir John Egan was adamant on revitalising the construction process by a greater application of existing technology. In fact, the European Commission recently set up a working party to examine the uses of IT in the construction industry. This was within the context of its work on improving the competitiveness of the European construction industry.

Back to Tidy: "Teamwork and true partnering can only benefit from the greater application of technology. Furthermore, the industry will be able to build up an auditable bank of information about the management of projects that will be invaluable. Such a bank would also enable insurers to have a clearer picture of construction risks." Is there a conspiracy to keep out the full potential of available technology? I have a sneaking suspicion that there is. It could, for example, affect the business of lawyers.

Perish the thought.

A slice of the action

  • Technology is available that can generate an evolving model of a project’s development
  • Using this technology brings a transparency that may expose poor practice