Schal's paperless project information management system has been such a hit at the Royal Opera House that the whole project team is now on-line.
The £220m Royal Opera House refurbishment has been appearing regularly in Building's news pages as a result of millennium deadline pressure and demanding electricians. But the Schal-construction managed project is also newsworthy for information technology reasons – it aims to become as near a paperless project as legal and contractual guidelines will allow.

Creating a paperless environment has long been an important goal of an industry struggling to cope with twice-daily postal deliveries, overflowing in-trays and space-hungry filing cabinets. In fact, Schal parent Tarmac has been developing and refining its internal project information management system since 1989.

But, at the opera house, the company has decided to extend the PIMS document-management system to the whole team. It is not just Schal, but QS Gardiner & Theobald, architect Dixon.Jones.BDP, consulting engineer Ove Arup & Partners and client ROH Development that have swapped the photocopier and file-holders for a digital scanner and PC screen.

"Everyone can e-mail anything to anyone else on the team," says IT manager Nick Fresson, the man in charge of the database of 150 000 documents and 80 000 drawing references. He believes the system has proved itself in its three years of operation and upgrades, and he is looking forward to modifying it further for future projects.

The main advantage of the document-management system is to make information electronically available to everyone on the project as soon as it arrives. The system also allows staff to track correspondence trails, an important issue in a project subject to Arts Council and National Audit Office scrutiny. Also, the team believes that PIMS helps to concentrate face-to-face or phone communication on the key issues. Finally, there are the cost and administrative advantages of reducing filing.

PIMS etiquette

The five principal companies using the PIMS system keep file databases on their own servers. The servers are linked in a wide area network, using either high-speed ISDN lines or ordinary phone lines.

Schal has drawn up a clearly defined protocol of how the system should be used, and who is responsible for each document.

For instance, when a subcontractor outside the PIMS system sends a letter or invoice to Schal with copies to the client and Ove Arup, Schal is responsible for filing and distributing it electronically. The protocol also dictates that no document can be used or referred to unless it is entered into the system.

However, Schal and the client have stopped short of demanding a totally paper-free project. "We don't really want the system to be tested in the courts, where we could get into the legal admissibility of purely electronic documents," comments communications manager Nick Barton. "If there are ever any legal complications, we don't want to be the ones responsible for destroying originals." The other consultants have also been -swayed by this argument. Both Dixon.Jones.BDP and Gardiner & Theobald have opted to keep at least one hard copy version of every document they originate . Also, Schal tolerates print-outs for use in meetings, as long as they are binned immediately afterwards.

Documents arriving by post – about 50 a day in Schal's case – are immediately scanned, an operation that takes one-and-a-half to two hours a day, which is no longer than conventional filing. Schal's administrative staff tell the system who is writing about what, then PIMS generates a reference number for each newly arrived document.

Letters are then electronically posted to individuals' mail boxes, and a message alerts them that new mail is waiting. If a person is on holiday, the system can be set up to divert mail to a colleague. Once viewed, documents either go to the archived database, or are held in an electronic "pending" file. The sender can request that a reply is received within a certain time, and PIMS sends a reminder if it is not – a slightly Big Brotherish feature, but one that Schal insists is rarely used. Drawings, however, are not available to view on-line, after an early experiment in scanning them in was dropped. This is because 15-inch screens are still considered a poor substitute for unrolling a drawing on a table, and, as Fresson says: "With 10 or 20 versions of each drawing, it would just slow down the system." Instead, users can access a detailed drawings register that advises on the date and author of any changes.

As well as using PIMS to communicate with each other, team members can use the system internally. And a Dixon.Jones.BDP staffer who happens to be visiting Schal's office, or vice versa, can use their PIMS password to call up files on a PC in the other company's office.

Gordon Cousins, the job manager for Dixon.Jones.BDP, appreciates PIMS information tracking facilities, but has found that its archive is only as good as the file referencing of the person who entered the documents. Another quibble is the unnecessary mail cluttering his mailbox: "You get lots of files on screen that normally people wouldn't bother to photocopy."

Valuable insight into working methods

Inevitably, the "open-book" system allows each of the five participants far greater insight into the working methods of the other members than would usually be the case. "There was some reluctance at the start – G&T didn't seem terribly interested," says Fresson. "But 12 months later, I got a request to install the system in their office." G&T partner Gary Faulkner now believes that the system has been "a big benefit", despite the occasional problem of servers going off-line.

And Schal points out that each of the five consultants can choose which documents to make available to the rest of the team. Restricted access can also be applied to sensitive documents, typically on financial matters.

An important function of the system, according to Schal manager Mark Jewell, is the ability to add virtual post-it notes to documents. "If a startling piece of news comes in, I can bolt on a message so that it doesn't take the client cold, or suggest what should happen next." Other advantages are only emerging as the project nears its September 1999 completion date. "The system is coming into its own as we start to do the final accounts for completed packages," Jewell adds. "It's easy to see the sequence of letters and flush out all the old issues that people haven't closed off." The Schal team is clearly happy with the cost and time savings achieved by its paperless experiment, but it is already looking forward to future PIMS refinements. According to Fresson, the next step would be a wider PIMS network communicating via Internet e-mail, possibly followed by PIMS as the basis of a project extranet. But that really is crystal ball gazing – and unlikely to happen before the middle of next year.