Eng. Otim Kevin, PMP
Eng Otim holds a Bachelor in Civil Engineering and a Postgraduate Diploma in Project Management. He is currently concluding a Masters in Civil Engineering. He is passionate about sustainability and is an ISO 14001 and 21500 Lead auditor. He is experienced at contract management, structural health monitoring, dam engineering and project management. Most notably, he is executing and advising on several high value projects at two of the oldest hydro power stations in Uganda, at the Nalubaale and Kiira HPP.
Modern infrastructure projects are a subject of frequent change, high risk and uncertainty, creating complexities in planning and execution. Unlike traditionally where projects were measured based on the project triple-constraint triangle (Cost, Scope, and Quality), the metrics with which projects are currently determined to be successful are based on set-out objectives of these undertakings. Aspects like safety, health, environment, sustainability, schedule, and local content form pertinent objectives against which project managers are measured. Even further, projects are subject to newer regulations, political scrutiny and vastly changing cross-cutting issues. To spur competitiveness, advance in project analytics and enable business value-creation, organizations are utilizing IT tools and technologies to assist decision-making in planning, monitoring, and executing projects. This paper details current modern IT applications that can be used for project planning and management along with opportunities of advancements in current traditional technologies to improve overall management of projects.
Projects are temporary endeavours to create unique products, services, or results whether tangible or intangible. They can have lasting social, economic, and environmental impact depending on the objective for which they were commissioned.
The PMBOK defines project management as the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to activities of a project so as to meet the project requirements or objects. It follows five key process groups being initiation, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling and finally closing. Managing a project involves identifying the specifications or requirements of the project, managing expectation of various stakeholders, and balancing competing constraints such as cost, quality, risk, scope, and schedule. These constraints have traditionally been a subject of change within the project environment, requiring frequent iteration and progressive elaboration of the project aspects so as to meet project targets.
In the modern age the factors influencing changes in projects are vast, varying from changing technology, competitive forces, political and economic changes as well as newer regulations environmentally or socially.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has also caused several projects in Uganda to be managed virtually, pushing the expansion of collaboration technology that has brought together individuals from across the world with obvious cultural differences and different time zones in the management of global multi-location projects. These factors and changes put a spotlight onto business owners demanding them to adapt to this dynamism, create predictability in light of such factors, respond to risks and issues in a timely manner and manage the project constraints to satisfy stakeholders and meet business objectives.
The planning phase, which involves processes required to establish the scope of a project, refine objectives, and define the course of action required to attain these objectives is quite critical in managing such existing and emerging risks. It is at this stage where project managers can anticipate and mitigate change factors that could potentially affect the project. The planning phase involves detailed analysis, definition, preparation, coordination, and several iterations to develop a robust project management plan that can be used to guide implementation right through execution, monitoring, controlling and project closure.
These responsibilities uniquely fall on the project manager, who provides leadership of the project team responsible for delivering the multiple project objectives. The work on a project involves several stakeholders and requires proper organisation and integrated systems to ensure success. The project manager is expected to perform communication roles, stakeholder management alongside managing elements of organisational politics in delivering the project. He/ She has to apply different skill sets such as recognising interdependencies amongst technologies, budgets, and people, planning the project to amplify productivity, motivating the project team, and controlling risks in execution. It becomes obvious that the breadth of responsibility of the project manager provides unique and vastly divergent interpersonal communication challenges (Johansen & Gillard, 2005).
Naturally dynamic project environment presents significant human challenges and limitations in decision- making, ensuring trust, avoiding unnecessary diversity, smoothening communication, and building team maturity. This calls for the use of modern tools and technologies that complement the human effort in planning and management of projects. Technologies in physical infrastructure projects are viewed to be a major factor contributing to economic growth in various countries, preventing cost overruns.
Be it in collaboration, workflow automation, project tracking, information gathering, scheduling, budget or resource management, modern ICT tools ease these processes, remove ambiguity, and improve decision- making in project execution. These packages, tools and software can provide us with added insight into the current state of affairs of the project, refining our definitions on elements such as duration, costs, and resourcing in the management of these projects making the project managers execution much simpler, more intuitive, and easily adaptable to the risks and changes. Modern infrastructure executions are increasingly involving such technologies especially with the participation of various foreign players, in what is becoming a global economy with a technologically advanced business environment.
The construction industry has suffered for decades from remarkably poor productivity relative to other sectors which have transformed themselves and boosted productivity. Despite the proven ability of new technologies, including digital technologies, and other innovation to lift productivity in other industries, construction lags significantly behind other sectors in the implementation of such tools. (McKinsey Global Institute, 2017). This paper highlights the technological opportunities available to Engineers and Project managers, their benefits and how they can change the project management landscape and bring predictability in implementation. The discussions are broken down into five thematic areas, being scheduling, workflow automation, project tracking and reporting, information gathering, and collaboration.
Scheduling comprises of processes required to manage the timely completion of the project. It involves provision of a detailed plan that represents how and when the project will deliver the products, services, and results defined in the project scope of work. The project teams select a scheduling method, such as the critical path or an agile approach. They then input data such as the activities, planned dates, durations, resources, dependencies, and constraints, to create a schedule model for the project.
The scheduling method originated in the shipbuilding industry during World War I, when Henry Laurence Gantt developed what is now known as the Gantt chart, a bar chart deploying use of resources over time. Creating an accurate or as built schedule using traditional methods from daily site records, engineers’ diaries and other on-site documents is a daunting task as several changes in sequencing and duration tend to occur during site execution. (John Conlin, 1997)
As organisations now tend to have several projects, scheduling of activities and resources requires computerised systems for achieving best results. This improves reliability, accuracy, and promotes high speed, in formulation of projects, and resource allocation, lessening incidences of cost and time over-runs. Excel spread sheets have been a revolutionary invention allowing for input of different formulae to provide insight and analytics on schedule performance. In a bid to complete time-sensitive tasks, the importance of scheduling software to ensure successful project management cannot be underestimated in this era, as making certain that project teams are in unison on calls and deadlines, could mean the difference between meeting project objectives or project failure.
Modern project management software has simplified the scheduling process enabling project managers to automate and iterate reporting of the project performance. One of these software is Microsoft Projects, a product from Microsoft designed to assist project managers in developing a schedule, assigning resources to tasks, tracking progress, managing the budget, and analyzing workloads. It is an easy-to-use application and provides detailed reporting on resource loading and execution progress of the project. Primavera is another robust solution, used worldwide for prioritizing, planning, managing, and executing projects of any scale be it large or individual. A number of easy-to-use tools are also available online such as click-up, Monday.com, Microsoft Power BI, providing project managers with the opportunity to accurately schedule activities within the project. Similar to how the cloud allows businesses to update and communicate in real time, modern scheduling software benefits from being built into certain social and chat platforms, bringing team accountability, project progress tracking and collaborative communication.
3.0 PROJECT TRACKING AND REPORTING
Project reporting involves collecting and distributing project information to stakeholders, in appropriate format, presentation and detail depending on the project. These reports can be informed of ad hoc reports, project presentations, blogs, and other types of communication about the project. Such reports allow stakeholders to track and understand the current state of the project, identify and address issues, along with having a view of the performance of the projects.
Solutions like Microsoft Projects, and Primavera, do provide excellent reporting platforms for organisations to communicate project statuses and progress.
Advanced tools such as smart sheets, and Microsoft Power BI as well give project managers’ ability to present in better more precise details on intricate dashboards, with respect to the stakeholder consuming the information. Cloud-based software also gives opportunity to project managers to track progress and update team members in real time on the status of each other’s executions. Having such technologies that are constantly updating and adapting themselves to the changing market is an essential component of project- tracking.
4.0 INFORMATION GATHERING AND ANALYSIS
Raw observations and measurements gathered from project activities such as work percentage completed, quality defects, start and finish dates of schedule activities and actual costs are analyzed, given context, and integrated to form information on the health of the project. This information has typically been generated manually by recording and input for analysis in applications like excel. The collected data are analyzed in context, aggregated, and transformed to become project information during various processes. Information is communicated verbally or stored and distributed in various formats as reports. For example, information on financial performance, lessons learned, performance metrics and issues, and defects are continually updated throughout the project.
For more complex construction projects where lots of data is required to inform the planning and feasibility as well as monitor the execution, information gathering tools like sensors are used to create an accurate, wide-ranging census of data critical to project implementation. Mobile and computer-based applications are becoming common in construction; such Apps enable data collection, assisting companies to gather faster, more accurate and higher quality data from the construction sites. These apps save time and reduce data entry errors, sometimes providing added analysis. Such apps can also be tailored to collect safety information such as near misses and lost time injuries, and providing instant daily reports, improving safety compliance and performance on sites. Project management apps provide for central document storage systems making it easier to share files and documents with team members. This, when integrated with a calendar, enables tracking of individual deadlines, meetings, and the entire project as a whole.
Advanced technologies like predictive analytics and pattern recognition have facilitated even more complex monitoring of construction projects, an example being the network of sensors installed to track the impact of tunnelling works for London’s Cross rail project (McKinsey Global Institute, 2017). As regards surveying, the industry is moving away from traditional highly labour intensive, electronic distance measurement for surveying, to photogrammetry and satellite positioning systems such as Light detection and Ranging (LiDAR) laser scanners which produce high-resolution images by using of lasers to detect thousands of points per second and then provide a 3D output. This enhances the accuracy and quality of surveys of even inaccessible terrain (McKinsey Global Institute, 2017)
Communication technology is now being used to monitor asset utilization and performance of construction assets and equipment, capturing real-time data from personnel, equipment, and stores to enabling contractors streamline their supply chains, reconcile material plans with physical availability, and analyze efficiency. Organizations now have the capacity to use this vast amount of data collected and execute trend-based analytics, generating insights into the productivity of projects and day-to-day decision-making on budgets and schedules, productivity, and wage rates. (McKinsey Global Institute, 2017)
Some larger firms have started to build and use Artificial intelligence (AI) to help with internal decision-making processes and operations, improving efficiencies and effectiveness in managing aspects like cost and safety.
Collaborative project management processes work across departmental, organizational, and national boundaries and help, especially with complex transboundary projects. Project collaboration involves working together with diverse project teams to success, through innovative practices. This is made possible by technologies and tools that promote communication, idea-sharing and transparency for local and remote teams (landau, 2021).
Building Information Modelling (BIM) is one of the tools leading collaborations in the construction industry. BIM is an intelligent model-based process for business and industry transformation. It involves creating a digital representation of the physical and spatial dimensions of a project, enabling those involved to make more effective and quicker decisions. The use of BIM allows for better collaboration because each person and expertise area can add their piece to the same model, instead of broken out onto multiple versions of a 2D paper drawing. These streamlines work processes and creates efficiencies in execution. It further allows for automated clash detection, smoothening the problem-solving process on the projects. The collaboration and transparency BIM provides improves building quality, reduces building cost, and optimises operational efficiencies.
The industry is adopting BIM alongside use of digital collaboration tools, drones, and unmanned aerial vehicles for scanning, monitoring, and mapping. Such technology is enabling transparency in design, costing, and progress visualization. Further, governments around the world are taking steps towards making BIM compulsory for large-scale facilities projects, including in India, Hong Kong, France, South Korea, Germany, and Italy. In the United Kingdom, BIM is already mandatory for government construction projects (McKinsey Global Institute, 2017).
BIM can be accessed through software we already commonly use such as AutoCAD and ArchiCAD. BIM is also available through Autodesk Revit, Tekla BIM, Protostructures and Navis works, among others.
Virtual reality technology commonly known as VR is also used in lieu of BIM to help better understand complex projects and give stakeholders a near-life feel of how a project shall look. It enables one to have an actual walk around through the project at the design stage and provide changes to the configuration, reducing on such variations during construction.
Even with less advanced technologies as above, collaboration is now possible through Microsoft office suite on one drive. Teams can work together on the same document tracking changes and making iterations to their final product from different areas of the world. Free online services such as google sheets are also changing the landscape in information gathering, analytics and collaboration.
6.0 WORKFLOW AUTOMATION
This is a process that uses software or digital tools to automate a series of actions to complete a task with little to no human intervention. Project managers are able to save time, effort, and money through workflow automation, delivering quality work quickly, accurately and boosting productivity.
Teams save time through automation of redundant processes and shifting energy to the more complex tasks. Some examples of commonly used workflow automation tools include SAP Workflow Management and Process Maker.
There are plenty of workflow automation software in the industry that deliver productivity benefits, freeing members of your team from ongoing administrative tasks such as meeting scheduling, and certain internal communications. One can automate data collection workflows so the submission of one form triggers another form to be sent, and so on, until a particular task is completed with all necessary signoffs and collected data.
The infrastructure industry is rapidly evolving as firms, contractors, and individuals across the value chain realize the benefits of, using technologies in planning and execution. Such technologies bring assets, people, processes, and job sites onto one platform, making everyone and everything work smarter, reducing and increasing efficiency (Deloitte, 2021)
With the sophisticated and dynamic nature of the construction industry, coupled with our limitations as humans, there is an urgent need to adopt technologies as a driving force for planning and implementation. With the vast number of tools available in the industry, it is upon us as engineers to research and challenge the status quo into adoption of such tools.
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