Engineering projects today are the epitome of complexity. By necessitating the cooperation and collaboration of myriad experts, the success of these projects is contingent upon effective communication. This can be a significant challenge given the number of people involved, but with the right technology, engineering teams can facilitate this communication while reducing costs and project risk.

In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande explores the notion of complexity. As engineering peels off areas of knowledge and builds them into areas of specialized expertise, projects become increasingly complex. In the case of construction projects, there’s no longer a Master Builder but a myriad of specialists who contribute their piece to the project. Complexity comes into play because each “piece” must work with every other piece. A small change in one can have far-reaching consequences down the line, thus impacting timelines, cost, and even the integrity of a project.

Gawande relates a visit to the construction site for a new 350,000 square foot hospital wing to learn how such a complex project gets done. The project executive, Finn O’Sullivan, tells Gawande that “The biggest cause of serious error in this business is a failure of communication,” and introduces him to the submittal schedule.

Gawande explains to readers that the submittal schedule assumes “that anything could go wrong, anything could be missed. What? Who knows? That’s the nature of complexity. But it was also assumed that, if you got the right people together and had them take a moment to talk things over as a team rather than as individuals, serious problems could be identified and averted.”

He continues: “In the face of the unknown—the always nagging uncertainty about whether, under complex circumstances, things will really be ok—the builders trusted in the power of communication. They didn’t believe in the wisdom of a single individual, of even an experienced engineer. They believed in the wisdom of the group, the wisdom of making sure that multiple pairs of eyes were on a problem and then letting the watchers decide what to do.”

Enabling Effective Communication

Interestingly, the structural engineer for the new hospital wing told Gawande that “the major advance in the science of construction over the last few decades has been the perfection of tracking and communication.”

While submittal schedules detail the necessary communications that must take place throughout a project and in the event of a hiccup, they don’t necessarily make the act of communicating any easier. In fact, with myriad specialists involved in a project, some of which may be on or offsite on any given day, establishing communications can be a challenge. While it’s crucial that the various experts communicate, it’s even more crucial that projects stay on track. Delays due to scheduling conflicts mean rising costs.

A video collaboration solution can help facilitate these vital communications. Nothing is as effective as meeting face-to-face to solve unforeseen problems. Because video enables participants to see each other, they have visual cues to judge whether new ideas are being well received or if there are concerns that aren’t being vocalized. The personal nature of a video call also promotes engagement and more creative brainstorming to solve problems.

Video can also help engineering teams improve efficiency and avoid project delays. Experts can have face-to-face meetings anytime, anywhere so there’s no need to find a time (if one happens to exist) when everyone is onsite. Perhaps more importantly, participants can see the project itself, enabling all experts to be “on site” regardless of their location. This offers the unique ability to avert issues as well.

Video Collaboration at Work

Global engineering company FLSmidth has discovered the benefits of using video collaboration. The company supplies the cement and minerals industries with everything from single machines and complete processing plants to engineering, maintenance, support and operations services for processing facilities. Headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark, with project and technology centers in India, Germany and the U.S., FLSmidth has made video collaboration a best practice for face-to-face meetings for its 15,000 employees.

The Polycom RealPresence Platform and Microsoft Lync solution has improved FLSmidth’s operational efficiency while reducing the costs and time involved in domestic and international travel. This is particularly of value to the company’s board members, who are based in the U.S., Denmark, Germany and India. Regular video meetings allow the board to make quicker decisions and improve process.

The Polycom solution has also proven beneficial for having safe video meetings with partners outside of the company network. Thanks to the solution’s firewall traversal and security capabilities, the Operations and Maintenance department holds frequent video meetings with contractors in Egypt, Tunisia and Nigeria.

“A video meeting increases trust and helps build stronger partnerships with our customers and partners,” says Torben Nordling, IT project manager for FLSmidth. “Being able to do business face-to-face develops the human connections.”