After a bad experience with collaboration software, Hammerson staff were disinclined to try again. But a mixture of stick, administered by the managers, and carrot, provided by the software itself, has finally convinced them. Stephen Kennett reports

When project intranets arrived on the scene a decade ago they were expected to revolutionise big schemes. The idea that all the design and construction information for a scheme would be immediately accessible to everyone in the team, no matter what the time or location, promised huge benefits. And, after a slow start, the industry seems to have come to the conclusion that collaboration tools work. But it’s taken a while to win some over and property company Hammerson is one high-profile example.

Despite its reputation as a large retail and office developer, Hammerson’s success at getting the technology to deliver had been patchy. “We’ve been through the process of a system not working before and it’s incredibly painful in terms of cost and effort,” says Neil Arckless, project manager with Hammerson. “You can’t underestimate people’s inclination to avoid using it. They are resistant to using new technology; it’s a behavioural thing.”

But two pioneering projects that are under way in Leeds and Sheffield forced the firm to rethink. They are both city-centre urban regeneration projects, both move away from the company’s successful shopping centre model and into large-scale mixed-use schemes and both have multiple architectural practices working on the design.

The £800m Eastgate scheme in Leeds involves six practices, including the Jerde Partnership, which is based in Los Angeles. “We knew if we were going to have projects of this scale with up to half-a-dozen architects working on each, we couldn’t rely on email for all the communication. We needed a system in place,” says Arckless.

Most professionals in the industry acknowledge that clients have to be the driving force for collaboration tools to really work. So Hammerson’s problems on previous schemes were not so much to do with the technology, but how it was implemented. “We had the technology in place, but no way to police it,” says Ryan Perryman, business systems manager at Hammerson.

The company called in Gleeds Collaboration Services to help it change this. Jasper Singh, a consultant at Gleeds, says: “One of the things we found time and time again in the past was that clients would buy some technology and give it to the project team, but three months down the line no one would be using it. They reverted back to paper, faxes and email.”

The underlying technology used by Gleeds is BIW’s collaboration platform. Hammerson could have gone straight to BIW and bought the software, but it didn’t want a repeat of its previous experience. “We had to get it right first time,” says Arckless. “We’re spending around £1m a month on design and a project this size is like a ship: once it starts going in the wrong direction, it’s very difficult to turn around.”

About six months was spent setting up and testing the system. This began with establishing the rules and procedures which everyone would have to follow, including the naming convention for documents, the file formats for uploading information and even the design of the title block on drawings. As Gleeds’ director Peter Dampier puts it, “unless it’s a structured store of information it’s just a skip of information on the internet”.

But it was the “soft issues” that were seen as essential to getting the project to work. Workshops were organised to explain to everyone why it was needed and hear out grumbles anyone might have. “It’s 20% about the technology and 80% about getting people to use it and getting the processes right,” says Dampier. Getting old practices to work under the new regime proved a challenge. One structural engineer on the team, for example, used his train journey home to write comments on hard copies of drawings. “Things like this can jeopardise the use of the system, but simply by getting an assistant to upload the marks the following morning makes it work,” says Dampier.

Two weeks were then spent before the first scheme went live working on a dummy project to enable everyone to familiarise themselves with the tool and working environment. But with the system up and running it was still felt that a stick was needed to ensure people didn’t slip back into their old ways.

Key performance indicators continually gauge how the tool is being used. For the Sevenstone project in Sheffield, a £600m regeneration at the heart of the city, which includes a 24,155m2 John Lewis department store, the tool is still largely being used for document sharing, so monthly reports are generated on who has been logging on to the system, when and what for. Or not, as the case may be. A “wall of shame” is generated of everyone who has a user name and password but hasn’t logged on to the system. At the end of the month those on the “wall” are asked to explain why they aren’t using the system.

At the start Arckless says he would send emails about the project back unanswered, to make sure people got the message that the only way to get a reply was to use the system.

We’re spending around £1m a month on design and a project this size is like a ship: once it starts going in the wrong direction it’s very difficult to turn around.

Neil Arckless, Hammerson

The next phase will continue to gather information on things such as the number of documents rejected for having the wrong naming format, but it will also be extended to areas such as the length of time needed to approve drawings and submit revisions and changing the status of drawings.

The number of users on the projects is expected to peak at around 300. Sheffield now has around 160 users with 3,000 documents, while Leeds, which has been running for four months, has closer to 100 users and 1,000 documents.

Gleeds has carried out a number of surveys to evaluate what people think of the system. The main gripe has been over speed. This has been a longstanding complaint with collaboration tools from designers, particularly the amount of time it takes to upload drawings onto the system. “The system is totally reliant on the IT infrastructure in the office that is being used,” says Singh.

“A lot of companies still see email as the main reason for having telecoms, the internet is still seen as secondary and they don’t dedicate enough bandwidth to it.” But armed with the feedback Gleeds is now giving advice to the supply chain on how speed can be improved.

Between Eastgate and Sevenstone, the time taken to set up the system has been reduced and is likely to fall further on subsequent projects.

There is still some debate about how early the system should be implemented.

“When we’re at the masterplanning stage it’s a very small team of around six so it is less of an issue but there is still the advantage that you will have that depository of information for later,” says Arckless.

The next stage is to trial online tendering.

But although collaborative working tools might cut the cost of couriers, the expense of investing in the technology and training staff will not be paid back in immediate project cost savings. According to Arckless it is too early yet to be able to say what cost savings might have been made and it will be difficult to quantify. The architects probably save nothing, he admits.

However, the company has got what it wanted – people using the system and benefiting from having all the information they need at their fingertips, which gives obvious advantages such as the most recent drawing is always being worked off.

“When we started talking about this 18 months ago, history told us at Hammerson that these things were prone to fail and so expectations were low,” says Arckless. The results so far might go some way to proving the sceptics wrong.