PCL hammers out a software solution

PCL Constructors has built everything from hospitals to airport terminals, but one project the construction company tried to build for years and just couldn’t get right was a document management system that meets the company’s business requirements.

The Edmonton-based outfit has offices across North America, the Bahamas and Hawaii, along with many standalone project management offices in cities and locations where it has a building project underway.

Brian Ranger, PCL’s general manager of systems and technologies, said managing documents between different locations and the head office has long been a challenge. Documents were often shared on paper or by e-mail, but Ranger said there was no common filing place.

“That works, but it’s not very effective,” said Ranger.

He said PCL has tried to implement central electronic document repositories in the past, but without success. The process of entering files into the repository was too time-consuming, requiring users to manually add metadata.

Also, said Ranger, PCL’s distributed environment made for an additional challenge. Many job sites are in remote locations where Internet access is limited and bandwidth is narrow, necessitating offline document access and the ability to synch files and track changes.

Looking to get document management right this time, PCL began working with Avanade, a Seattle-based technology consultancy partially owned by Microsoft. Hal Bradwell, a business development executive with Avanade, said that in working with PCL to define their business requirements, Avanade developed a customized system based on Windows SharePoint Services.

Specifically, Bradwell said his firm extended SharePoint’s ability to be used on offline mode. Using Web services, a smart client application accesses a central repository based on SharePoint.

To overcome the limitations of the low bandwidth available in PCL’s field offices, which Bradwell said was the biggest challenge, Avanade designed a caching system. When a user wants to access a document, the system first checks to see if there is a local copy.

If there is, it checks with the central repository to see if there have been changes. If there haven’t been any, the user can open the local copy. If there have been changes, the user can choose to download the new version or work from the old one.

“The benefit is (that) we can schedule the remote site to download the most recent versions of all documents as needed overnight, so it’s less likely a user will have to pull down a document during the day,” said Bradwell.

PCL’s Ranger said with the new system the company hopes to gain visibility into its business processes by knowing who has what document and what they’ve done with it at any given time.

“It’s really trying to speed the whole process up,” said Bradwell.

Mindful of past failures, PCL has been taking it slow with the new system. It began working with Avanade to define system and business requirements and design the system in April 2005, and is currently in the midst of a prototype test with a pilot group, slated to last the summer, to make sure it has gotten the technology and the value proposition right.

“I think the preliminary review shows that the technology and the concept work, but to have it in actual business applications, I think it’s too early,” said Ranger.

PCL is anticipating that the new system could save a potential 1,600 person days annually.

However, “That’s not what we’re justifying this on,” said Ranger. “The reality is, this is something the business really needs, something the business has been pushing (to have) for years, and that’s the real driver.”

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