Making Use of New Communications Tools

There are a few significant challenges when it comes to performing specification consulting work.  Obviously, there are the fun and interesting challenges, like gathering, updating, and retaining the significant knowledge required to write good specifications, and the application of that knowledge to a varied and ever-changing collection of projects. On the more mundane side, there are logistical challenges, and in particular the challenge of staying up-to-date with project-specific information as our architect clients develop their projects through the DD and CD process.  Compounding that is the fact that specification consultants are usually tracking multiple projects simultaneously, and each of those projects is at a different stage of development.

Developing solutions to the challenge of streamlining project logistics has been a focus for Conspectus.  We believe that effective and timely communication is critical for us to produce specifications that meet our clients' needs and meet their deadlines.  Recognizing that each of our clients has its own system for communication, and its culture around working with consultants, we have established a collection of information-gathering procedures that we use in overlapping fashion.

Our basic tool is a work plan that we begin to develop on day one of each new project.  The work plan is an Excel spreadsheet table listing specification sections.  Each specification section is a row in the spreadsheet, and the columns provide cells for us to fill in that section's work results, basis of design products, and comments.  When we complete a pass at filling in the work plan, using whatever information we were provided (drawings, design narratives, etc), we send it to clients for their review.  Sometimes we schedule a meeting (generally a WebEx) to discuss the project, using the work plan as an agenda and framework.  As we complete the project, the work plan is continuously updated with new information, and we use it to track of the development of specifications and the status of each section.

If a project becomes dormant for any reason, the work plan acts as a snapshot of our knowledge about that project at the last moment we touched it.  The specifier who wrote the work plan can quickly have his or her memory refreshed about the project's content, even if he or she worked on a dozen other projects in the meantime.  If different staff need to work on the project, they can be brought up to speed much more quickly because the work plan reflects our best understanding of the project.

Other than emailing and speaking over the phone, our other main information-gathering method is to insert easily spotted notes to the architect and coordination notes to ourselves within the body of our specifications when they're still drafts.  The notes are placed right above the pertinent specification text so the comments and spec can be read in context.  Most clients respond to these questions by commenting within the specifications' PDF files.

While generally effective, these methods all crate gaps, particularly in terms of timing.  Once the work plan or draft specifications leave our office, we never quite know for sure that we'll receive timely responses.  Late responses can require us to scramble to make all the corrections.  Clients typically try to reply to the entire work plan or spec, which we acknowledge can be time consuming.  We therefore are experimenting with methods that provide more immediate feedback.

One simple change we are rolling out is to upload the work plan to Google Sheets and sharing it with the client.  Google Sheets maintains all of the Excel spreadsheet's functionality and offers the advantage of providing live feedback.  Each revision and comment is immediately saved and viewable by all project participants, eliminating the wait to receive feedback.  By setting up notifications, each participant can respond to comments with additional questions or acknowledgements as soon as the comments are made. As individual rows of the work plan are reviewed, Conspectus can follow up by revising the specification sections according to the client's instructions.

What remains to be seen is whether most of our clients will make use of the online tool.  It may be contrary to some of their cultures with regard to consultant communication, or there may simply be inertia in place with regard to how things have always been done; it's not always easy to change a practice.  But given the obvious advantages, we are going to be strongly encouraging our clients to make use of the Google system to streamline communication and make everyone's work more efficient.

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