Still, there are challenges to getting e-collaboration right. According to Ned Kock, director of the E-Collaboration Research Center at Temple University's Fox School of Business and Management, online collaborationused by companies from Motorola Inc. to Unilever and Ford Motor Co.is still very new, and the challenges of managing it can be tough.
E-collaboration works best, Kock says, when the information that parties are sharing is mostly about numbers, specific measurements and cost dataquantitative data that won't, like complex knowledge concepts, suffer from the lack of face-to-face communication. "The biggest challenge right now to managers with e-collaboration is deciding which stages of a project work best using digital collaboration, and which stages require the kind of trust, clarity and nuanced communication that only face-to-face communication can give," Kock says.
Management style also has to change to accommodate e-collaboration, he says, from top-down styles to those which are more democratic. "People tend to be much more outspoken electronically, and your ability as a manager to control who contributes and when is much lower," he says. "People much lower in the hierarchy now make contributions, and you've got to change your management style to accept this. It's not easy for many companies."
The biggest mistake, Kock says, is to "fall into the trap of thinking a project can be conducted entirely electronically." Successful e-collaboration, he says, is finding the right mix of personal and electronic linkages.
Forging the right relationships is an ongoing challenge in the construction industry any time. Buildings, unlike cars put together on an assembly line, are the result of thousands of choices dependent on thousands of variables, even the quirks of a particular architectural firm or the unique requirements of a door supplier. Building codes can differ from state to state. And what can look like two identical buildings can be radically different in both construction and cost: One might be built on bedrock, another on landfill. Or, there might have been a surplus of steel when one was built, and a six-month delay in steel shipments during the construction of another. "If manufacturers had to do what we do in construction, they'd all go out of business," says Jon Antevy, CEO of e-Builder Inc., a creator of project management Web sites in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
All of which means that the construction industry offers a unique set of both opportunities and challenges for collaborative networking technologyand for managers seeking to use it. While collaboration networks are particularly useful for getting dozens of parties on the same virtual page, the unique needs of each project make it hard to develop a standard networking approach. And in the tradition-bound construction business, technology change can come hard. "The majority of the industry still doesn't understand the need for a collaborative Web space," says Paul Doherty, founder of The Digit Group, a Memphis, Tenn.-based firm that advises large property owners about technology. "For many, the highest level of collaborative technology they know is the fax machine."