Thanks to Web-based project management, playing phone tag and waiting for project information to arrive in the mail doesn't need to be standard operating procedure.

To deliver complex construction projects on time and under budget, all members of a construction team must be reading from the same page - no matter where they are in the world. Unfortunately, electrical subcontractors spend far too much time and money chasing down project documents (submittals, plans, specs, requests for information (RFIs), and punch lists) by phone, fax, and overnight delivery.

This is an expensive problem, but you can solve it by using a secure, Internet-based construction project management system available to all members of the project team. This system allows all parties to communicate, share documents, and collaborate. To participate, all you need is a browser-capable device and access to the Internet.

The Internet is a public network. When you have a private network inside a single company or operation, it's an intranet. Since construction projects often involve long distances, multiple sites, remote locations, and multiple companies, you need a secure extranet, accessed via the Internet.

An extranet-based project management system (EPMS) allows all members of a project team to communicate and share documents using a standard Web browser. Such a system eliminates the paper chase by storing all project documents and communications electronically in one secure place. Each document carries a date- and time-stamp, so everyone on the project has the most current information. An EPMS provides electrical subcontractors and other members of a project team with complete end-to-end project management abilities. It also incorporates all elements of the workflow associated with construction projects, from submittals to RFIs.

Ultimately, using an EPMS reduces costs, including the overhead associated with gathering, producing, and distributing documents. It also improves communication and speeds project completion. Understanding how to use this tool properly is rapidly changing from a competitive advantage to a competitive requirement, simply because of market dynamics. These dynamics include the cost-savings and error reduction that result from a more efficient administration of projects.

No technology investment. Although an EPMS provides powerful electronic document management and communication tools, it's easy to use with a subcontractor's current technology. Because it's an Application Service Provider (ASP) product, you don't need to buy or maintain anyone's software. Nor do you need to invest heavily in high-end portable computing devices for your people in the field. This means big savings in the total cost of ownership for you.

Each team member will need to learn how to use the EPMS application. However, the leading products are all easy to use. So, training costs are minimal. Here's an example of how you would use an EPMS to complete an RFI.

1. Log on to the EPMS site, using a secure password.

2. Click on "project" from the link list or icon display presented by the service.

3. View the splash page, which displays text links or icons for service features such as a calendar, messages, meetings, documents, and industry forms; and provides alerts to new items.

4. Follow the prompt, link, or icon to the RFI page.

5. Select "new RFI," "compose RFI," or whatever prompt the system uses to create an RFI.

6. Fill out the online form, as prompted. For example, you might ask the HVAC contractor to mark up a drawing so you know where to run the power for the new units that will arrive next week.

7. Select the HVAC contractor from the system's e-mail address book (or recipient's list), copy to the general contractor, and send. Now, you've completed your RFI.

To finish this example, you would check the EPMS site at a later time or date. It shows you have a new item. Opening it up, you see the sheet metal subcontractor (who is installing the roof curbings) attached the architectural drawing and performed a simple mark up (saved to the drawing for review later by you, the recipient).

On the same page. Subcontractors often struggle to get current information. Drawings, change orders, and other documents follow a routing path from engineer to architect to GC or construction manager and then finally to subcontractors. Delays in getting current information can be costly.

An EPMS automatically maintains relationships between documents and cross-referenced files, such as drawings and details. They're all in one place at one time within an electronic folder. This means real-time, simultaneous routing to the people who need the information.

An EPMS also allows team members to search for and find specific documents - even within enormous projects - by name, file type, date, author, or other user-defined searches. At the same time, team members control the documents they generate. They determine who has access to their documents and what others may do with them.

Creating and posting documents. Viewing documents created by others is easy, but what about creating and/or posting documents? The typical EPMS has built-in electronic industry forms, such as RFIs, which include prompts to include all necessary information. Do you have documents, such as spreadsheets, created in a separate application? In most systems, you can post them simply by using the mouse to drag-and-drop them from a folder on your computer into a folder in the EPMS.

What about paper documents, such as wiring diagrams and cut-sheets? You can scan these into the system using an inexpensive electronic scanner plugged into the PC. It's no more complicated than sending a fax.

Communication is faster and more efficient when all project team members are on the EPMS. For example, an EPMS can automatically notify members by e-mail when any document relevant to them has changes. Likewise, they'll get a notification when someone adds a new document that pertains to them. The system also sends notifications automatically for new task assignments and meeting requests. Project team members can post project schedules and send and receive messages.

Electronic tools let team members add comments or indicate changes on drawings and other files - accelerating the review and decision-making process. This feature is beneficial because the document never disappears into the approval chain. Everyone knows where it is. Online conferencing allows team members to work together on documents and exchange messages on the spot - similar to the process in an Internet chat room. Another feature allows project team members to track the entire process via date and time stamps, enabling them to verify issues they've resolved and issues still pending.

The bottom line. What about the fees for using an EPMS? ASPs base these prices on such things as the number of projects online and a monthly subscription fee, or a per-user license fee. During the life of a project, the responsibility for the fee may transfer from the architect to the general contractor. A subcontractor using the service during a project can usually remain online after the project is over, regardless of who funded participation.

Automating project management, especially if done online, can save up to 25% of project administration costs by eliminating redundancies, information searching, and costly distribution and routing of documents. Online project management eliminates unnecessary printing, copying, and delivery costs by making drawings, documents, forms, and communications accessible and viewable on the Web.

An EPMS allows immediate delivery of drawings, documents, and information right to project members' computers. You can route RFIs and have them back in hours instead of days. The entire team can simultaneously review drawings online. The system automatically organizes documents for fast retrieval and access to critical project information. The simplified approval processes and automated workflow streamline administrative procedures. This means your project team focuses on designing, building, and managing, rather than chasing down details and missing paperwork.

Despite its advantages, for an EPMS to be effective, all team members must be involved. Therefore, you must select a service designed to provide value for all project team members, including owners/developers, architects, engineers, general contractors, specialty contractors, distributors, and manufacturers. That means don't grab at the ASP that offers you the best deal. Instead, compare what they offer to how you do your work.