Practicing ArchitectureKnowledge Communities
The language that architects, engineers and construction professionals use to describe project information and related work practices grew out of the days when everything was done on paper. We still talk about folders on our computers, for instance, as places to file information. Could that legacy nomenclature be blinding us to new possibilities?
This article presents five concepts, born in the era of paper-based project information that may actually prevent our minds from embracing the possibilities offered in this new era of digital information technology. We’ll look at the evolution of my five least-favorite information management terms in three distinct phases:
- First: Its original definition called the “paper-based definition.”
- Second: The meaning that word conveys when we move information from paper to a computer called the “digital 1.0 definition.”
- Third: The new possibilities we can realize from embracing the full potential of digital information called the “digital 2.0 definition.”
At the end, I’ll discuss technologies that make this evolution possible.
Term No. 1: “archive” is really “business records”
Paper-based definition: “To archive” information is to sequester it, out of the way, in storage. Paper files were typically shipped in boxes to an off-site location. Retrieval was manual and very time-consuming, hence seldom done.
Digital 1.0 definition: Stored files are recorded on back-up tapes or burned onto digital media, and filed in a cabinet or off-site location. Same process as before, but different (magnetic) media.
Digital 2.0 definition: Business records are kept spinning on storage disks, indexed, searchable and instantly accessible.
Term No. 2: “document type” is really an “intelligent file”
Paper-based definition: Documents were all on paper and their “type” was defined by the role they played. Quick notes to share with offices or teams were memoranda. Correspondence with clients and external team members took place via letters. Drawings on large sheets of paper were plans.
Digital 1.0 definition: First-generation digital files mimicked their paper origins, replacing letters with DOC files, memos with e-mails, drawings with DWG files, and so on. These file types were still defined by their purpose and output, because most often they would be printed or plotted.
Digital 2.0 definition: Intelligent files are complex file types which accept embedded file types such as pictures, tables, nested drawings or hyperlinks – even movies! Architects can embed specifications, material types and properties inside a drawing file, engineers can assign values and embed calculations. In order to capitalize on the new possibilities at hand, we need to start thinking of a file as being an “intelligent container” – an intelligent file– rather than a specific document type.
Term No. 3: “project folders” are really the “project repository”
Paper-based definition: A project folder originated as a manila folder that served as a single location in which to aggregate any and all information that pertained to a specific project. Hard-copy duplicates were made when information needed to be used for different purposes or by different people.
Digital 1.0 definition: Digital files are saved in an electronic folder with, not surprisingly, graphic icons that look like manila folders! As with paper-based information, digital files require correct filing for future retrieval. Typically, far too many duplicate copies of those files exist in multiple locations on the company’s computer network.
Digital 2.0 definition: The project repository embraces all project information wherever it resides, whether in drawings, documents, emails or their attachments. Using project information management (PIM) technology, people who need subsets of information from the project repository can assemble collections of project-related files in “virtual” folders. SOM has adopted a PIM solution that supports this concept of virtual folders in the form of document sets.
Term No. 4: “central filing system” is really a “global repository”
Paper-based definition: The central file was the place office librarians created to store anything and everything that came their way. Once filed, information was unlikely to ever again see the light of day, because so few people knew where the information existed, and it was hard to retrieve if you were anyone other than the librarian!
Digital 1.0 definition: To replace the central filing room, document management systems create digital vaults – highly structured electronic filing repositories – to store corporate information and control access. Users were required to follow strict filing hierarchies to allow information to be retrieved when needed. The firm’s knowledge was safely locked away!
Digital 2.0 definition: Good search trumps good filing. When you have flexible tagging and index-based search capabilities (see technology solutions below), anyone in the office can – and will – benefit from the collective knowledge of your organization by searching a global repository for whatever information they happen to need at the moment, just as they might ask a colleague, “What do you know about this challenge I’m facing?” Importantly, information is no longer restricted to those who already had knowledge of it. Instead, it benefits everyone in the organization and can be re-used to help advance the business.
Term No. 5: “document management” is really “digital asset management”
Paper-based definition: “Document management” was really about keeping track of all project documentation (e.g. drawings and specifications) through basic workflow management. Documents were worked on sequentially. People took turns revising drafts of letters and issuing updated copies of plans.
Digital 1.0 definition: Workflow engines captured the rules set to govern the linear sequencing for handling paper-based documents. However, because businesses must constantly adapt to changes in staff, priorities and external forces such as economic conditions, rules often become obsolete as quickly as they’re formulated.
Digital 2.0 definition: Databases allow information to flow between people and departments as needed, without the restrictions of a strict sequence. The term digital asset management, which until now has been relegated to the management of images and video files only, actually deserves a much larger definition. This macro definition of digital asset management encompasses all of the knowledge captured in the firm’s global repository. Use of this knowledge evolves as the business evolves.
Conclusion: making it happen, regardless of words
The move to Digital 2.0 productivity liberates knowledge for wider use. It’s made possible in part by familiar technologies, such as the Microsoft Office suite, and in part by newer technologies, such as BIM (building information modeling) systems. Another key component that is required to take full advantage of the possibilities of Digital 2.0 technology is an effective, integrated PIM (project information management) solution.
At SOM, we have standardized on the use of Newforma® Project Center software as our enterprise-wide project information management solution. Newforma specializes in PIM software for the AEC industry. Its search capabilities alone make it possible for SOM knowledge workers to pull information from business records, project repositories and global (corporate) repositories as easily as they’d use a search engine to pull a resource from the World Wide Web. Other features help architects, engineers and project managers realize many of the Digital 2.0 possibilities discussed above.
Whatever software you use, good knowledge management leads to a more successful practice for your organization, and more robust solutions for your clients. It also facilitates better collaboration, streamlines operations and improves the design and engineering of the end product. For more successful knowledge management, let’s rethink the meaning behind some of the terms we’ve adopted as we’ve evolved from paper-based processes to managing our project information as a digital asset.
Doris Pulsifer leads the Knowledge Management department at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, LLP (SOM). Her team focuses on the research, development and implementation of knowledge strategies, business processes and technology solutions that enhance and support SOM as a business. Responsibilities extend from knowledge management strategies to the development and procurement of applications and information systems, including web collaboration and social networking technologies, and project information management software.