Digital technologies are changing the shape of everyday tasks required to manage projects, capture decisions, modify plans, and share information with larger project teams. The following account of a typical civil engineering project manager’s work day highlights how a new breed of software applications is saving time, reducing the risk of errors, and improving responsiveness to clients.
9:00 a.m.: Manage e-mail
As a project manager for Jordan, Jones & Goulding, Inc. (JJG) responsible for land, civil, and infrastructure projects, it’s my job to tie together all the people and information that contribute to successful outcomes. E-mail is our most commonly used communication platform, so it’s tempting to get a head start on e-mail by working at home in the morning, but I resist the urge to check email before leaving home and save my work for the office.
Once I get to the office, I dive into my e-mail inbox. E-mail has two components: managing the project, and managing the e-mail.
JJG has a policy of saving all e-mails as part of the project record, which can be tedious. For example, our old process of filing e-mails was to save messages as PST files, which we would drag to project folders created for that task. We had to rename the e-mail to something meaningful, such as the project name, and then log it into a spreadsheet with details about “to,” “from,” “date,” and more, in case we needed to find the e-mail later.
Fortunately, this process has gotten a lot easier since we implemented project information management (PIM) software. The PIM software we use to manage e-mail is Newforma Project Center. PIM software permits me to file e-mail easily with other project files. When I have incoming e-mails I want to keep as part of the record, all I have to do is click and drag them into a special Microsoft Outlook project folder; from there they’re swept into project files on our central file server.
Outgoing e-mails are even easier to manage. I am able to use the “send and file in project” option to send the e-mail, file it to the project server, and move the e-mail from the “sent items” to the “deleted items” folder automatically.
As I go through e-mail, in addition to filing it, I designate which messages are to be associated with specific RFIs, transmittals, and action items.
Instead of having to learn some new system, I use e-mail as I always have, but now I have a means to keep track of each item and manage it to resolution.
10:00 a.m.: Search for information
We don’t have to rename e-mails when we file them because the PIM software allows searches of text wherever it appears in an e-mail or attachment in the same way that Internet search engines find text on the web. I use this function every day, all day.
At JJG, we provide a comprehensive set of service offerings to address multiple client needs. We often have a number of team members involved in multiple aspects of a project.
For example, a project on Interstate-85 between Georgia and South Carolina is a great example of how multidisciplinary projects — highway, structural, environmental, geotechnical, traffic, survey, subsurface utility engineering — require management of many team members. This I-85 project also involves multiple state and federal agencies, including the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT) and, because it goes over Lake Hartwell, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
To make matters more complicated, the Georgia Corps reports to the Savannah District and the South Carolina Corps reports to the Charleston District. So, we had multiple districts of the Corps, multiple transportation departments, and the project center at Hartwell itself.
One of the issues that came up was whether we would need a Coast Guard permit. After a lengthy period of discussion, we realized we did not need a permit because GDOT already had an agreement in place. The SCDOT asked for documentation of this conclusion for its files.
By this time, the project had amassed 364 e-mails. I searched using the keyword “coast guard,” which turned up all e-mails with that term in any part of the e-mail, including attachments. That trimmed 364 e-mails down to 36.
Once I found the relevant documentation, I used Newforma Project Center to gather those e-mails into a single document set that I could give to SCDOT. The whole process took just a few minutes.
11:00 a.m.: Transfer files
The Newforma solution includes capabilities to manage file transfers and transmittals. Newforma Info Exchange is like an intelligent and self-administering FTP site. But, the software permits higher levels of security, logs the details of all files sent or received, and doesn’t require set-up by my IT department. Access passwords are issued automatically whenever I add a member to the project team.
An easy-to-use file transfer capability comes in handy with large files. For example, we conducted a value engineering (VE) study for State Route 20 in Bartow County, Ga. I ended up with 160 megabytes of files to transfer to each member of the VE study team.
The plan sets included 800 sheets for one project and 600 sheets for another. Imagine the costs of printing and shipping that much paper to five team members! Instead, I created an outgoing transmittal using Newforma Info Exchange, and distributed the files electronically in just a few clicks.
All the recipients have to do to download files is to click a link in an e-mail. The software audits who downloads what and when. In the case of the VE study, I set permissions so recipients could download partial contents, and set the system to send reminders automatically (to them) and alerts (to me). I also set the system to expire the files when all transactions were complete.
1:00 p.m.: Capturing notes at the job site
It’s not uncommon to visit job sites in the course of my day. There’s no replacement for walking the site and jotting notes on plans. Recently, we’ve found a way to integrate those field notes with our electronic files back at the office.
Rather than transcribe hand-written notes to electronic plans, we use Adapx Capturx digital pen technology to mark up plans. The pen uses old-fashioned ink on paper; a tiny camera in the pen reads a faint dot matrix that Capturx technology prints on the plan. By reading the matrix, the pen automatically registers to the correct sheet and location.
When I get back from the field, I put the pen in a USB pen holster, and the system automatically transfers the notes as an electronic markup associated with the appropriate drawing files. Now I have a record of my field notes that is easy to send via e-mail, duplicate, and reference in the course of managing the project.
4:00 p.m.: Mark up and share plans
My site visit took me too far from the office to return, so I drive home to finish the day’s work there.
On the way, a client calls to request revisions to plans. I need to get the markups to my staff in another office across town quickly because the contractor is waiting on our revisions to finish part of the project. Fortunately, one benefit of digital workflows is that they don’t depend on access to the printers and paper plans back at the office.
I turn once again to Newforma Project Center to streamline my task. I create a new markup session using the Newforma Viewer and open an Adobe PDF of the plans. (Newforma Viewer opens more than 200 file types, including MicroStation files, AutoCAD DWGs, and many more.) Once I’m done using the markup tools to highlight the required changes and add notes, I save the document and send it to my associate in another office.
The markup tool has saved me a lot of time. Without it, I would have to drive an hour or two to give markups to the people who needed them. Instead, the whole task takes 20 minutes!
Having suffered through the old ways of managing project information, I’m glad to have these new tools at hand to streamline many of my daily work processes. I’m managing my flood of e-mail, finding key items of information, sharing files, marking up plans, and more with greater ease than ever before possible.
The best part is that these new digital tools don’t require big changes in the way I work. I still use Outlook e-mail as my most common means of communication. I still mark up plans on paper with a pen when in the field. And because the software mitigates the risk of errors, in addition to saving me precious hours, the gains I make during the day also allow me to sleep better at night.
Ed Culican, P.E., is an associate and senior project manager with Norcross, Ga.-based Jordan, Jones & Goulding. He specializes in highway design for JJG’s Transportation and Transportation Planning service area. He has 15 years of design experience, managing roadway improvement projects throughout Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama. Culican was recently named JJG’s 2009 Employee of the Year.