After years of being slow to change, the construction industry has finally started to appreciate the importance of information technology as a tool in the construction process. This is not only at HQ but also on site. The industry is built upon a hierarchical model of architect, consultant, contractors and subcontractors all engaging in the project, therefore the importance of sharing information is key to the successful management of a tender, a project or even a supply chain process. Therefore anything that technology can do to provide a means of collaborating between people in the same company, customers and suppliers is very positive and welcome.
Union Square Software was formed in 2000 to develop and implement knowledge management, collaboration and enterprise portal solutions for the construction industry. Union Square is privately funded and has its headquarters in Nottingham, UK. Although the company is niche with 40 employees, they have 110 customers with circa 30,000 users. Most of the customers are headquartered in the UK or Ireland, but the product, Workspace, is used in 15 countries worldwide. Customers include Grimshaw Architects, Benoy, Osbornes, Midas, Fitzpatrick, Severn Trent Water and Tesco Building Services.
So what is Workspace? Stuart Bell, Sector Manager for Professional Services companies within Union Square Software, explained to Bloor Research that, "Workspace is an Enterprise Portal solution to support the communication and management of information across the business. It is a solution for project, email, document, customer and supplier information management. Workspace provides a consolidation point for disparate systems and data."
Workspace has been written to run on the Microsoft Windows .NET platform. The internal file store is a native file format. Microsoft SQL Server is used as the DBMS utilising Microsoft Indexing Services to catalogue all electronic documents published into the system. Whilst the application is typically installed on a client's technical infrastructure, the end user experience is fully browser-based supporting access to the system from anywhere with Internet connectivity.
Workspace consists of 4 key components:
- Corporate Database: used to provide a single source for Organisations, Contacts, Projects, Enquiries, Bids, Assets and Properties.
- Document Management: provides the ability to capture, store and retrieve documents/drawings/email as the product has been developed especially for the construction industry and has special features to support transmittals, drawings and scanning of wide format documents.
- Intranet/Extranet: no matter who created it or when, you go to the same place to find it. Workspace is also used as an Extranet, which enables mobile workforce support as well as allowing organisations to share documents with their external project and business stakeholders.
- Development Platform: this is based on Microsoft technology and forms an extension to Microsoft's Visual Studio package through an integral developer toolkit.
Workspace supports a number of key corporate and project processes:
- Project and Enquiry Management: provides a central point to manage the whole of the feasibility/tendering process for a project. All the information to the tender is related together and is seamlessly linked to the project at contract award. A series of job running and project management options are available to deliver further operational controls.
- Customer Relationship Management: provides a central point for the whole organisation to store information relating to the organisations and people a business knows and works with. Additionally Workspace captures specialist contact information required by the business, such as marketing interests.
- Email Management: Workspace works with Microsoft Outlook to store and manage emails. The stored textual content of mail messages and their attachments are indexed and are fully searchable. Incoming email is stored via drag and drop within Outlook using a dynamic IMAP service that automatically builds a list of the records the user is associated with or interested in. Sent mail can be stored directly into the system from Outlook using LDAP to lookup the project address or directly within Workspace in which case the message can be automatically captured.
- Document Management: this is a fundamental part of the core Workspace system that is used by every Workspace user to create, store and search for every document either created within the business or received by the business. It provides one place to go to see the full history of documentation concerning contacts, enquiries, projects or organisations.
There are some really neat features in Workspace that make it a very user-friendly and industry-aware tool. For instance, the security model is role-based, as one would expect from any Microsoft ISV, but then Union Square Software have exploited this to make the landing page be role based for all users. This customisation for users is taken further with the concept of "Personal Zones"; here users can choose the most appropriate applications to be included for them. The tabs on the windows (referred to as Band Sets), are used in the configuration for customers to display and secure pertinent information. The Information Zone exposes all of the corporate information archive (documents, drawings and email) in a familiar Windows and 'Google-like' search area with advanced filters to heighten results for required documentation. In the Activity Zone, all of the modules and options a person can access are logically displayed.
Workspace's corporate database is delivered with 5 key entities as standard: organisation, contract, projects, customers and assets but this data model is extensible. Workspace has support for mobile applications including 3G and specially written interface for Windows Mobile and BlackBerry.
Union Square Software Workspace has a number of well-known competitors that include Microsoft SharePoint Server, Documentum and Automony. However they have built a good user base in their current niche of construction. In Bloor's view Workspace is also a good tool to consider for other project based industries.