Construction firms don’t have to keep their employees in the dark or bury them under paperwork. They can disseminate vast quantities of information via intranets.
The pen and paper are dead. Long live the intranet. The age of holding, storing and accessing almost limitless information in cyberspace has arrived, and intranets are potentially one of its most useful manifestations. Put simply, an intranet comprises a private network of computers that uses Internet technology to allow information-sharing among employees of an organisation. It can be thought of as a small, self-contained World Wide Web, connecting employees to a vast centralised information source.

Intranets are distinct from extranets, which use similar technology to facilitate information- sharing between organisations. In construction, extranets are starting to be used extensively to control drawings and documents on a project. Suppliers such as Cephren, and BuildOnline all offer electronic project collaboration services, aiding teamworking between project consultants and subcontractors.

Extranets are already establishing themselves as a necessary part of the project team, but intranets, too, are becoming an indispensable tool. One of their more immediate benefits is a reduction in the amount of paper flying around a company, whether it be health and safety manuals or employees’ CVs. Information kept on an intranet can be anything that fulfils company needs: product details, customer databases, discussion forums, health and safety issues, IT support, personnel information, training, vacancies and company policy are all typical. But other, more obscure data can be held, such as who in the company speaks Hungarian. All this information can be accessed by employees from the PC on their desk instead of having to refer to memos pinned to a noticeboard.

Intranets are proving themselves in other ways, too. Multidisciplinary consultancy WSP’s system has achieved a significant reduction in faxed internal communications. Paperwork is further reduced by a web-based timesheet entry system that means every minute an engineer spends designing the structural steelwork on a football stadium scheme can be tracked. And this is just the beginning: the company sees its intranet knowledge management system expanding rapidly over the next year to encompass financial and technical data. “In the construction industry, people are having to constantly reinvent the wheel. Sharing of information via intranets avoids this and therefore much duplication of work,” says Andy Scott, director of IT at WSP.

At multidisciplinary engineering consultant Ove Arup & Partners, the intranet is constantly under development. Along with the usual company, technical and social information, it provides the opportunity to learn from past projects. Ove Arup employees can publish their own articles relating to their specialism, as well as personalising their home page, to show, for instance, the latest developments in the group’s Tokyo office or the latest news from structural skills or cladding groups. And it has proved very popular. Ove Arup’s intranet developer Kevin Franklin says the main home page receives several thousand visits a month and is far superior to the old ways of working because it means greater efficiency and much less paperwork. “Less paper is the obvious use of intranets, but there are also subliminal benefits, like being able to correct data easily without paying for another print run,” he says.

Like other international firms, Ove Arup is also finding the intranet improves communication between offices in far-flung locations, where time differences make communication by phone difficult. “There is now the ability for everyone to see everything at the time it suits them,” says Franklin.

Working from home is also possible, with access achieved by dialling in and completing the security procedure. Ove Arup is looking at increasing the scope of remote working, particularly using WAP mobile phone technology to access both intranet and extranet when a PC or laptop is not available.

Universal access may be the key to a successful intranet, but it may not always be possible. Laing aims to have about 75% of its sites covered, while Tarmac’s 600-odd UK sites are gradually being linked by an intranet, a process that the company says is still in an embryonic stage.

Take-up is dependent on familiarity with web technology and access to a PC, neither of which is by any means universal at present, especially on smaller sites.

Tarmac employees have access to an internal knowledge base which, among other things, includes marketing and operational procedures, health and safety, questions and answers and even updates on business initiatives. The company sees its intranet as a means of achieving full internal familiarity which, in turn, will allow employees to provide better customer service.

Responsibility for writing, editing, updating and removing information varies from company to company. At Laing, head office supplies content and updates the web site, whereas at Ove Arup, this is left to the author of the information or the Internet arm of the business.

Intranets as huge knowledge resources are only in their infancy. At the moment, to save designs sketched on a napkin, the napkin would need to be scanned in. But as technology becomes more sophisticated, it will not be long before an engineer will be able to sit in a pub with a colleague and sketch out a plan for the structural steelwork on a football stadium straight on to a palmtop. Using the forthcoming WAP technology, he or she will then be able to download the draft to the company’s intranet where it can be stored for future reference.

How BDP’s system is boosting productivity

Building Design Partnership installed an intranet nearly two years ago to serve its 1100 UK and European employees. The real cost to the practice is not the £10 000 spent primarily on software, but the time spent writing and editing content, all of which has to be in HTML, the special language of the Internet. Based on a browser used to search and read information, BDP’s intranet now covers everything that was once paper-based. This includes sites for projects, technical information, support groups, best practice, help with IT, directories and databases. The intranet is managed in a structured fashion to ensure all the data is up-to-date, relevant and present. Each section has a control editor for accuracy, relevance and upgrading. The intranet also means staff can undergo computer-based training at their desk and at their own speed. “The end result is a noticeable increase in productivity,” says chief executive Richard Saxon. As an information source, the intranet complements the firm’s extranet – which replaced the company’s previous EDI (electronic data interchange) system – and has proved to be cheaper than both in terms of telephone charges and economies of scale. Set up by US-based Cephren, the system enables project consultants to publish information on the server for access by other authorised consultants. Information can be tracked by a management system that leaves an audit trail revealing who did what and when. Running costs are low and include monthly connection charges of about £500. This compares favourably with savings made from the almost complete elimination of traditional reprographic and postage costs which, on large BDP projects, has amounted to £100 000.