Thursday, October 08, 2009

Technology is Cool, Collaboration is Better

When it comes to utilizing technology in the construction business, I'm a little ambivalent. On the one hand, I consider myself an early adopter of technology (for a construction guy anyways) who can't have enough Google apps and online social networking tools. On the other hand, I'm a firm believer in the Toyota Way principle of "Use only reliable, thoroughly tested technology that serves your people and processes." I'll often get all excited about some new project management software, only to be reminded that many of my project stakeholders don't have work computers or aren't too proficient at using even basic software. It's a major barrier that we must overcome in the construction industry, because there are some technology tools that could serve our people and processes well.

While this technology barrier won't be eliminated in the short-term, I still plan on utilizing technology tools whenever and wherever I can on my projects. For example, one tool in the pipeline that I'm really excited about is Google Wave. If you haven't heard anything about it yet, you can check out this long demo video here or a good assessment from a construction industry perspective here.

I really think that Wave can be a powerful means of developing project knowledge and building consensus among the project stakeholders. While I love the technology, it's the focus on collaboration that really appeals to me, not the tool itself. Even if I can never convince any project stakeholders to get on-board with Wave or other tech tools, the focus on collaboration can still be a constant part of the projects I manage.

By that, I specifically mean that I can treat project planning as a collaborative activity. If you think about it, building a project plan is nothing more than building a common base of knowledge and agreement that all project stakeholders can refer to throughout the project. The project plan is the standard by which the project will be managed, and as with any standard, the people involved with the work must lead its development. This is why Google Wave has the potential to be a powerful collaboration tool; it efficiently allows anybody we designate to contribute to the knowledge base and have a say in the project planning process, real-time and with rich multimedia communication. It's an awesome tool!

That being said, Wave is by no means the only collaboration tactic available to us. If we have folks with limited tech skills, as we often do in the construction industry, we can always fall back on more low-tech solutions. A face-to-face meeting, properly facilitated, is still an excellent approach. Regardless, the format is not what's most important; it's the end result that matters.

So, while I'm all for the construction industry shedding its Luddite past, and even though I'm tremendously excited about Google Wave, I think it's much more important for us to first start seeing collaborative project planning as a "must-have," not a "nice-to-have" element of construction management. While some folks, like proponents of the Last Planner system, have been actively promoting collaborative construction management methods for years now, a huge majority of builders still defer to the old-school "boss man" archetype. This has to change. No amount of technology will be enough if we fail to make this philosophical leap to collaborative planning.