CIC Blog: computer-aided-design-cad

| Filed in Blog, BIM, Collaboration
Is BIM an enabler for Collaboration?

Sonia Zahiroddiny
Information Modelling & Management Capability Programme (IMMCP) Delivery Team
Transport for London


Prior to the introduction of the personal computer, documentation (including drawings) within the construction industry were mainly paper based, these were managed manually and archived in a warehouse. As computers and technology became part of everyday life and the launch of the World Wide Web, the industry moved to electronic documents and drawings as well as electronic means of managing them; traditional methods were replaced by Computer Aided Design (CAD).

However, CAD had issues too; CAD was supposed to be a computer design tool to be utilised by engineers and promised to increase the quality of design and improve the management and communications through better documentation. Instead, CAD was utilised as an electronic drawing board, which meant technologists where needed to produce drawings, unfortunately most had limited knowledge of the engineering behind it.

As construction is very much project-based and since projects are highly reliant upon updated information; exchange of information, which I believe is the least mature form of communication, is regarded central to the industry. Therefore, the concept of a centralised repository for sharing and managing project’s electronic documentation so called, Electronic Document Management Systems (EDMS) or Extranets became popular. But after a while EDMS were integrated with e-mail to automate workflows and notify project participants of tasks and activities which resulted in vast amount of e-mails (some unimportant and unnecessary) being sent around.

Now with the emerging use of Building Information Modelling (BIM), the industry is moving towards a centralised repository with object based models. The intelligence of models and centralisation way of managing these models will alter the existing communication mechanisms and will enhance the ways in which project participants are currently working as a team.  But is BIM, as a technology and as a process, an enabler for collaboration?

Since the 90’s there has been many efforts (i.e. governmental reports published by Sir Latham and Sir Egan) to drive efficiency improvements in the industry. One of these improvements is in the area of collaboration. I’ve observed that collaboration, in some cases even coordination and cooperation, are often used to describe team work.  If you ask anyone in the industry what collaboration is, I’m certain you’ll get similar answers. But if you ask them ‘how’ they collaborate, they will more than likely say “we share information”! But does sharing information alone mean project teams are collaborating? Or are they just making project team members aware of their activities? You’re probably asking yourself, “what is the difference, after all collaboration, coordination and cooperation all mean the same thing, don’t they”?

The answer is: No they don’t!

In Computer Sciences, Collaboration requires:

Strategic planning – clearly defining who/when/where/what and how

Culture - where everyone is happy to share information, there is more engagement, knowledge sharing and innovative thinking

Trust – foundation of collaboration and collaborative working

Tools (information systems/technology) – to enable information flow and collaborative working 

All the above pillars influence and support each other to make up a collaborative environment and none of them can exist in isolation.

As I mentioned, most projects are only sharing information; they correspond to one another in an unmanaged and unstructured (so called ad-hoc) way, mainly by e-mail. The ease use of e-mail has allowed it to become the main communication channel. Project members are overloaded with huge number of emails per day, each demanding some input which needs time to consider.

Just because project members are working together to get the project completed on time doesn’t make them collaborators. They may well be coordinating through managed and structured sharing of documents via transmittals, aligning activities and schedules as well as managing dependencies using extranets with assigned roles and responsibilities and agreed workflows and data structures, or in some cases cooperating at a higher level than just a project, which requires interaction and commitment between organisations with more structured information.

I would argue in a project environment where participants are geographically dispersed, collaboration is not essential, unless all the organisations involved in the project are interdependent (mutually dependent), which means they have predefined goals with full workflow integration (Integrated Project Delivery methods for instance), shared resources, risk and liability, high level of communication and trust and real-time pipeline (to interact with a virtual environment).  

If we take the same meaning of collaboration in Computer Sciences, we can answer the question, “Is BIM an enabler for Collaboration”?

Yes – because BIM (at its lowest level of maturity) requires a Standard Method and Procedure (SMP), which recognises the importance of information and defines the roles of information management.  The SMP also strategically defines a Common Data Environment (CDE) process which enables better information management which results in more confidence and trust in the information available. BIM at its highest level of maturity provides international standards and advanced technological solutions that would be an enabler to collaborative working.

No – because BIM can’t build trust between different organisations, neither can it change the existing culture of file-based information sharing within the industry. Culture is something that needs to be changed by leadership and project participants believing in the change. The right culture will result in the right attitudes towards trust.

So in my view BIM has the potential to be a key driver for collaborative working. The industry however needs to take a step back and take a broader approach to collaboration, by that I mean rather than focusing on projects, the aim should be imbedding BIM organisational-wide. It’s key to remember that BIM is only an enabler for collaborative working; the pillars of collaboration must exist within an organisation, with or without BIM. 

*  any opinions expressed in this blog are purely my own and relate to my PhD work. 


Contributor: Sonia's background is in Computer Sciences and Information Systems Management. Sonia entered the world of Construction when she started her PhD at the University of Northumbria looking at impacts of BIM on Communication patterns of Construction projects. Sonia is an Incorporate member of the CIOB (ICIOB) and is currently working as a BIM consultant.

You can find Sonia on Linkedin and Twitter


Tags: BIM, Collaboration, Computer Aided Design (CAD)