It may seem that project extranets are an accepted part of project best practice, but not everyone’s using them and not everyone likes them. Sonia Soltani weighs up the pros and cons

Web-based project collaboration tools have come a long way since the advent of the internet and the world-wide web. The first sign of the coming revolution was back in 1998, when the first project extranets made their appearance. At the time, the industry was well aware of the potential advantages of being able to access information at any time, but many firm decided to do nothing until they had learned from the mistakes of their competitors.

Now it seems that extranets have turned a corner. A study conducted by extranet providers suggests that 96% of firms that use collaboration tools experienced benefits. The source of this information is hardly disinterested, but its conclusions do ring true for many firms. Bouygues UK, for example, uses collaboration tools on every project it is working on in the UK. Jean-Marc Arlot, the company’s deputy managing director, explains why. “The extranet is not an optional extra. People will have to adapt to this way of working.” But is everyone as convinced as him? Building carried out an investigation to see whether project extranets have really come of age.

Time and cost savings

In spite of some strongholds of resistance, the widely acknowledged fact among the industry is that collaboration tools work. Most users agree on the main benefit of the approach: improved efficiency. Peter Dampier, head of information management services at Gleeds, says: “People live in an environment in which things are immediately available. With the extranet, they can access drawings posted the night before. Efficiency is increased and it speeds up the project.” Dampier estimates that a large retailer using collaboration tools across its projects saves about 200 man-days in a year.

Indeed, project extranets can provide an audit trail of who is (or is not) doing what within the project team. Rory Bergin, the IT director of architect HTA, which uses project extranets on half a dozen projects, says one benefit of collaboration tools is that they can make visible the shortcomings of other people in the team. “Because everyone has access to the same information,” he says, “it can expose a problem. And the time it takes people to issue information, so you can see if they are slow to do it.”

So does this time improvement translate into lower costs? The principal savings created by project extranets include travel costs, duplication of information and administrative documents. Contractor Fitzpatrick manages one-third of its £300m portfolio through collaboration tools. Nick Nieder, the company’s e-construction manager, says: “We’ve noticed that we save one-third on administration costs compared with how much the project would have cost if managed with traditional methods.”

Clients in the driving seat

Some people would shoot me for saying this, but at this stage we’ve really not seen benefits when costs are concerned

Rob Bullen, HBOS

There is a consensus among professionals that clients are the driving force behind the adoption of collaboration tools. They also might be the ones that will implement the most significant changes in the coming years. The BBC has been using project extranets for the past five years and has decided to roll out the approach across its construction framework. Lee Richardson, the broadcaster’s senior performance and contract manager, foresees further development in the role of extranets. He says: “It doesn’t have to be just a glorified filing cabinet – it can be used to develop more efficient relationship with the global supply chain.” Other options include making e-tendering more widespread.

Contractors are another group that is receptive to the possibilities of collaboration tools. Bovis Lend Lease uses extranets on almost all its projects in the UK and in Europe. Glyn Jones, one of the firm’s project managers, says, “From the contractor’s point of view that’s ideal because it’s a transparent system. It is a single source of truth to have all the information in one environment.”

The downsides

But extranets are not popular with everyone. The extranet providers’ report indicates that almost half of those surveyed are satisfied but uncommitted. The extent to which everyone within the project team benefits from collaboration tools varies depending on where you stand in the chain.

Designers tend to complain the loudest about the time-consuming process of uploading information. HTA’s Bergin thinks that in the early design stage of a project extranets are more of a hindrance than a help. He says: “It takes 30 minutes to upload a drawing, then you have to call or email the recipient to let them know the drawing is there. And if the browser doesn’t work …” Bergin adds that issuing information duplicates the architect’s own system of processing information, thereby creating a parallel system. He finds it “laborious” and says: “It sometimes feels as if it’s a filing cabinet for 2D information. A sophisticated one, but still a filing cabinet.”

Ian Flewitt, partner at structural engineer Price & Myers, agrees that despite the clear benefits brought by the Extranet, the process can be onerous, as uploading 50 drawings may take a whole day. Flewitt adds that not everyone is equal in the project team. He says: “QSs quite like it, but they don’t have to upload the information. For them it’s neat and tidy in one place.”

QSs quite like it, but they don’t have to upload the information. For them it’s neat and tidy and in one place

Ian Flewitt, Price & Myers

The industry might rejoice in cutting costs on paper and courier bills, but most people point out that the overall cost of a project doesn’t go down because of this. The inevitable expense of investing in the software and training staff to use it is rarely paid back by immediate cost savings.

HBOS adopted collaboration tools a year ago because it wanted to speed up the process of signing off contracts and drawings. This was a particular pressing issue with 120 branches to refit each year. Rob Bullen, HBOS’ development solutions manager, says: “Some people would shoot me for saying this, but at this stage we’ve really not seen benefits when costs are concerned.” However Bullen adds that the company got what it really wanted: more efficiency through an increased speed of approval and the ability to turn documents out more quickly.

How smaller projects can benefit

The widely held idea is that collaboration tools are financially workable only on large projects. But global companies such as Atkins have found out that, although extranets could certainly reap rewards for gigantic projects such as the Olympics, they could also save heaps on more modest jobs. Graham Young, corporate systems director at Atkins, says that the consultant is using collaboration tools on 20% of its projects, but that this figure is bound to increase because the company has obtained impressive benefits. He says: “On a £50,000 project, some £3000 is spent in hard copies, deliveries and time delay. With project extranets, that cost can be cut out.”

Nevertheless, extranets users should be realistic enough not to expect miraculous savings. And remember that web-based tools alone cannot be the cement for collaboration. Paul Wilkinson, chairman of the Network for Construction Collaboration Technology Providers’ market research steering group, is adamant that collaboration tools are not responsible for delivering the whole project. He says: “The extranet is a neutral platform. But people do make mistakes and it’s people themselves who’ve slowed down the process, not the management tool system.”

But what the industry really wants before it can pledge full loyalty to collaboration systems is a better interaction with existing systems and with the other members of the project team. Gleeds’ Dampier says people should be able to work on the information, not simply to have access to it. He says, “Everyone knows the information is on the system, but nothing had been highlighted to show what to do with it. It’s like having a dustbin on the middle of the table and asking people to dig around and find what they want.”

To become construction’s favourite tool, web-based collaboration should be even more high-tech and, at the same time, less impersonal. Andy Scott, the chief information officer at WSP, wishes the systems could replicate a conversation between three people who are firing questions at each other across the room. He says: “If technology could make the team more interactive with instant messaging, chat conversations, video conferencing, that would make a huge difference. It has to become more human.”

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