Remote BIM teams provide some unique challenges for BIM Managers: lack of in-person communication, a workspace that is often less production-friendly than the office, and amplified pressure from clients to name a few. Luckily, the tech industry has stepped up to meet the evolving needs of at-home designers with a host of BIM collaboration tools. Here are some tips for using technology to keep your remote design teams engaged, cheerful, and adaptive while working from home.
Drive Up Conversation: For many remote design teams, easy interaction with project teams and ideas helps ease feelings of isolation and disengagement. While apps like Slack and Jabber are great for quick questions, suggestions, and funny GIFs, they don’t always do the trick for BIM designers, who rely on clear communication and tracking of their processes and workflows. Find ways to connect your teams with real-time commenting and requesting capabilities, preferably through a Content Management System (CMS) that allows you to link comments to the files themselves. After all, Revit Content can be fun and engaging, too.
Make It Beautiful: BIM designers often come from design backgrounds, and even the most tech-forward engineers appreciate a clean and visually pleasing desktop. Seek out ways to make your teams’ UX Experience seamless and beautiful, from cleaner digital libraries to updated templates and documents, to more elegant graphics and render settings. Better yet, find a way to manage your content so that users are browsing in a visual interface, such as AVAIL, as opposed to Windows File Explorer or some other siloed, hierarchical, folder-based interface.
Process Neutrality: Some processes, like drawing creation and file submittals, are best to keep regulated for efficiency and accuracy. But for others, like note-taking and idea-mapping, you may want to allow team members some creative wiggle room. Consider allowing teams to use edgy new web-based utilities, like Miro or Google Docs, and don’t forget to select a CMS that allows you to integrate URLs into your database.
Plunge into the Cloud(s): Let’s be honest – VPNs and Remote Desktops can feel like a huge performance hit. At first ‘the cloud’ seems like the best solution, but is it? And when managing multiple cloud systems, the myriad of places people have to go to find data can be overwhelming. “Is that .RFA file in BIM360 or the server? Is Panzura hosting this content, or is it on the on-prem server?!” These types of queries halt the design process and often require direct communication from colleagues or an extended vetting process to resolve. Not to mention, it’s hard to build enthusiasm around collaborating when teams are complaining about load times. Wouldn’t it be great if you could use one interface for all of these disparate data locations and the various BIM collaboration tools?
Provide Support: When working through a slog of a project submittals, sometimes a little hand-holding goes a long way. Consider making custom tutorial videos to walk staff members through complicated processes or standards in your company (these will also be terrific for onboarding!). Incorporating .MP4 files into your CMS will make it easy for team members to locate your videos and get the support and ‘human interaction’ they’re looking for.
Want more information on how a CMS can improve engagement and user experience? Check out the AVAIL YouTube Channel for recorded Webinars, Snippets, and How-To Videos.
Content management systems, and ultimately the initiatives they enable, fail over time. But why? In a word… Trust. Once someone loses trust in the system, they begin to work “around” the system or revert to old behaviors, such as using old content buried on their local drive, raiding past projects for content or searching and downloading content from the internet. A root cause analysis will often lead to two inherent problems. First, you begin losing trust if the information you’re looking for in the content management system isn’t there, but you know (or suspect) it exists. Second, when you use a system (or process) infrequently you become frustrated with each interaction as you’re basically having to re-learn each time you use the system. AVAIL is strategically addressing both of these issues.
The number one challenge with any content management system is keeping the information current. Since the inception of AVAIL we have stated a goal of automating as much of the publishing process as possible. We believe this is critical to success and why we introduced AVAIL Stream. The goal of Stream has been to “point and forget”. It was designed to make the presence of a file on a File System the only signal needed to make that content available in AVAIL. Nobody has to remember to put something in AVAIL. Stream accomplishes this by intelligently watching the File System for changes and then, based on a set of rules we call Stream Definitions, automates the publishing of that content in AVAIL. We have some customers who rely on Stream for 100% of the content that is accessed through AVAIL.
We recently released the second generation of our Stream technology that, among other things, added support for File Systems using the Server Message Block (SMB) protocol. Besides standard Windows File Systems this added capability provides AVAIL support of popular network storage solutions such as Panzura, Nasuni, Net App, Morro as well as more common cloud solutions such as Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive, Box, Dropbox and even Autodesk BIM 360 through their respective “connectors”. What this means for AVAIL customers is any information that is being stored in those solutions can now be “streamed” into AVAIL!
The other primary contributor to system and process failure is related to frequency. When someone has to learn something new there’s an inherent curve to adoption. Like all systems, if it’s not exercised or stressed frequently it will fail. Now think about that in terms of any software solution you implement. If it’s used daily it becomes second nature making even poorly designed software tolerable. Now think about the solutions you use infrequently. The ones you only have to touch once a month or every few months. You face the inherent learning curve every time you use the solution. That’s frustrating and why you dread or quit using those systems. Now think about every website you frequent for information as well as all the places you have to navigate to find information “inside” your company. Each of those has some form of content management interface that you must learn to navigate. Is it any wonder we ever get anything built in the AEC industry?
The frequency of use dilemma is why we’ve adopted a “horizontal” strategy for managing content with AVAIL. We refer to the multitude of systems being used to manage files within an organization as “information silos”. The Revit content is managed here, the visualization assets are managed there, the company photos are managed in that system, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. When information becomes siloed you lose value. You also lose users because of the intermittent use factor. With this in mind we believe the more information that can be accessed through AVAIL the more frequently someone will use the software and thus the less frustrated they’ll be having to jump to another solution to access information. So we’ve been busy not only leveraging Stream to connect to disparate file systems but beginning work on what we call Connectors to directly access frequently used information from 3rd party providers.
Changing human behavior is difficult, if not futile. We’ve adopted a never ending quest to simplify AVAIL on behalf of the sanity of our customers. AVAIL Stream for automatic publishing and the AVAIL Desktop interface as the primary means of accessing content and information on a daily basis are cornerstone features and form the basis of an overall philosophy that lead to adoption and use.
I used to say that “people are lazy” when it came to spending time learning a new piece of software. I had a friend correct me stating that “people conserve energy”. I like that better. It’s biological. Why fight it. The more we can automate, the happier we’ll be.
I wrote a blog post titled “Context Matters” in September 2015, prior to spinning AVAIL out of ArchVision, where I tried to describe the underpinnings of our approach to the problems AVAIL sought to solve. How we “think” about content at the time we’re looking for it changes depending on the situation, hence context matters. Here we are 5 years later and AVAIL has now been in the market for over 3 years and serving some of the best design teams on the planet. We recently released AVAIL 4.0 with some major updates across the board which prompted me to revisit that original post and reflect on what we’ve learned and refined where we are headed.
Context does indeed matter now more than ever. We’re all generating an incredible amount of data that makes the traditional means of “File System” storage/retrieval strategies obsolete. Coupled with the growing popularity of Cloud-hosted storage solutions and value-added services like Autodesk BIM 360 and you can only imagine the complexity we’ve weaved in the AEC industry. Those trying to just “get the job done” are now challenged with trying to build a mental map of this complexity. It’s not working. Most of us are becoming more inefficient because we can’t find the information we need. It’s hard enough if it is information you produced yourself, but exacerbated when it is information produced by our colleagues or 3rd parties. We spend half our time searching, browsing, and screaming our way through the deluge of information we’ve built our services teams to produce so efficiently. This intellectual property is often squandered and its full potential unrealized when it’s not being reused.
The conversations that prompted the “context matters” idea I described 5 years ago in my original post were a recognition that people in the AEC industry often resorted to going back to old projects to find content rather than using standardized libraries. This is occurring every day across the industry even though hundreds of hours within a firm (and tens/hundreds of thousands across the industry) have been invested in standardizing and organizing central repositories of that very information.
At AVAIL we’re breaking these problems down to their essence and building solutions to help tackle this “deep and wide” information retrieval problem. We are just getting started and have a clear path to keep us busy over the coming months and years.
We’re now rolling out our new AVAIL 4.0 Desktop application with several major enhancements. The #1 feature request since we released AVAIL in 2017 has been the ability to search across all Channels in AVAIL at once. Sounds relatively simple and we could have easily done just that. A simple search across everything would work okay if you were managing a relatively small body of content like your Revit family library or other isolated bodies of content; but we have customers with hundreds of Channels containing hundreds of thousands of file references, across a wide variety of different types of content. A “Cross Channel Search”, as we refer to it, would produce very noisy search results when applied across a large body of content. So we took some time and began rethinking what it would mean to return hundreds, even tens of thousands, of results following a search. Returning the results is the easy part, making that many results useful is the real challenge.
We began developing what we now refer to as “Progressive Search”. This is where context melds with search. When AVAIL returns hundreds or thousands of search results across your file inventory we also bring back the Channel context in which those files were organized. We then display that channel context as filters allowing you to narrow your search with the click of a button. A double-click takes you deeper into the context of that Channel, search implemented, revealing yet another layer of filterable Tags. You should never be more than 2 or 3 button clicks away from narrowing your search results to isolate a small enough subset of files to find what you’re looking for.
Projects vs Libraries
What we’ve learned is that successfully searching large bodies of content comes down to Pre and Post sorts to effectively narrow the volume of results. As we see our customers wanting to index and search an ever-growing body of content we’ve begun breaking the problem down into logical groupings. Most AEC firm networks can be bifurcated into an area where reusable assets are stored (libraries) and another where project-related information is stored (projects). AVAIL was originally tasked with helping manage what we describe as “relatively static” libraries of content such as your Revit standards library or a collection of reusable visualization assets. It’s not that they never change, they just don’t change often compared to other information being stored on your network. And the file counts generally number in the thousands or low tens of thousands of files.
Now check the number of files in your last completed Project. Go ahead, right-click on the folder on the Project side of your network for the last project you completed and click on Properties. I know you have one because every firm has the same setup. Wait a few minutes while Windows does an inventory and look at the number of files and the number of folders. It’s not unusual to see tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of files in several thousand folders. And that’s just for one project!
We’ve been working on tackling that data as well. The volume of Project data is what has been driving us to really think about Progressive Search and how to best help you make your way through the millions of files that you need to navigate. We’re working on a new organizational metaphor we call Workspaces that are being designed to help organize the Project-related side of your network.
So the first sort is an easy one, forming your Contextual Direction. Are you looking for files related to a Project or in one of your reusable asset Libraries? Should you search your Workspaces or your Channels? That simple decision can dramatically reduce the noise related to your search results. And when a project is completed, it should be archived. Now your pre-sort becomes “active project”, “past project” or “library”… Workspace, Archive or Channel?
An initial indicator of Contextual Direction combined with Progressive Search provides a powerful means of searching for (and finding) the files you’re looking for across an enormous body of content. You won’t see Workspaces or Archive in the initial AVAIL 4.0 release but we’ve been laying the groundwork for searching larger and larger bodies of content. As you begin using it to search your existing Channels we hope you’ll find that Progressive Search is an intuitive and logical way to navigate what can be very noisy search results to find just what you’re looking for. We invite you to experience AVAIL 4.0 for yourself.
We believe if you make a great product it largely speaks for itself and our customers will tell others. We spend most of our time and resources developing AVAIL, not on marketing.
We believe that in order to make great products you have to be intimately familiar with your customers and their problems. We spend many hours each day talking to our customers and they have direct access to the management team. That’s how we learn.
We believe our long term success rests on building long term relationships with our customers so we talk often and openly in order to secure and hold that trust.
We believe that in order to solve the big problems we have to focus on identifying and chipping away at the root causes. That takes time and thus customers who believe in the mission.
The BIG Problems
We believe professionals in the AEC industry have a huge challenge in getting the information they need to complete their work from hundreds, if not thousands, of sources. We developed AVAIL to begin bringing those resources directly to them.
We believe the volume of information AEC professionals must access on a daily basis calls for new ways to search and retrieve that information outside traditional file folders. The old methods are dead.
We believe hierarchical file folders as a means of organizing and retrieving files have reached the end of their usefulness so we developed AVAIL to provide a robust new search and browsing experience for AEC professionals.
We believe the increase in cloud storage locations is making it even more difficult to locate the information you need.
We believe content management solutions generally fail because they require someone to maintain them. Over time this model breaks and the users of the system lose trust in the content. So we designed AVAIL Stream to automatically publish content using a rules-based publishing paradigm triggered when files hit the file system. Publishing in AVAIL is a byproduct of creating a file.
Design – Visual interface to easily find and use content
We believe professionals in the AEC industry need to see information. Seeing the information speeds the sorting and browsing process, so we’ve developed AVAIL to satisfy those needs with a beautifully simple interface that focuses on seeing previews of files and content.
We believe design professionals deserve better software so we’ve agonized over the design of AVAIL to provide them with a beautifully simple solution to accessing the information they need on a daily basis.
We believe when it comes to user experience and interface design that less is more. AVAIL perfectly illustrates the software paradox of “the simpler the front end, the more complex the back end”.
We believe AEC professionals are plagued by errors and omissions related to legacy content storage and management solutions, namely traditional file systems. AVAIL saves AEC professionals time and reduces errors in their work by introducing robust search, retrieval and workflow tools.
context – Ability to adapt to your thought patterns
We believe Context is vitally important to solving the challenges of content retrieval so we’ve developed an approach we refer to as Progressive Search that melds contextual information with search results to help our customers manage the deluge of content.
We believe context is important when it comes to locating files and information so we’ve developed AVAIL to allow users to find the same thing in multiple ways, matching the context of their content journey.
We believe collaboration is essential among design and engineering professionals in the AEC industry and much of that collaboration is around the information and “content” they create, store in various software application files, and share with colleagues; so we have built a set of features that ties information to content (providing context) and improves asynchronous communication among project teams.
How often have you saved a file and six months later can’t find it? When you do finally find it you ask yourself why you saved it there. It must have made sense when you saved it or was the “least bad” place to save it. The answer is that the context changed. This is a huge limitation of traditional file systems. They are one-dimensional and content can only live in one context.
Extensibility – Future proof architecture that accommodates all content
We believe information is finding its way into more and more locations so we are developing AVAIL Connectors to connect AVAIL to the AEC industry’s most used resources.
We believe AEC professionals need a broad content management solution that satisfies the diverse needs of many software applications and workflows rather than having multiple “vertical” solutions that become inefficient and expensive to maintain. AVAIL provides a “horizontal” alternative to point solutions that are designed to only solve a narrow content management problem.
We believe content should be “close at hand” in heavily used applications like Revit, Rhino, AutoCAD, Civil3D, 3ds Max, and SketchUp; so we developed AVAIL Browsers for those applications that provide direct access to content within those applications.
We believe it’s impossible for us to do everything (or to be the best at everything) so we’ve created an extensible platform and begun exposing APIs to AVAIL that allows customers, 3rd party application developers, and partners to integrate their applications with AVAIL.
We believe a large part of our customers’ value is captured in their unique workflows, so we designed AVAIL around a core set of features that can be tailored to each of their practices.
We believe the best content and user experiences mandate desktop software and can’t be accomplished in a web browser so we’ve developed AVAIL Desktop and AVAIL Browsers for the most popular applications in the AEC industry.
Insight – Analytics to understand usage, control quality and gain insights into curating content
We believe analytics information on what content is being searched for and used is the key to effectively knowing what content to build and maintain. So we built analytics into the core of the AVAIL product.
We believe customers should have free access to the analytics data they generate so we designed AVAIL to provide access to the source analytics data and put it in their control.
We believe AVAIL Analytics can provide a “content roadmap” so BIM Managers can focus their efforts on the content needed most by their team and not try to “eat an elephant” when it comes to trying to manage an overwhelming body of content in need of attention.
AS BUILDINGS HAVE BECOME MORE COMPLEX AND BIM HAS CHANGED DEMANDS, AECO PROJECTS NOW GENERATE FAR MORE DESIGN INFORMATION.
Here are Four tips on How Bim Managers can prepare for what’s coming up.
Today, one project can involve as many as 100,000 digital files—50 times higher than a decade ago, and that volume continues to grow. It’s not hard to imagine a designer or engineer spending 30 minutes or more a day just searching for content. The incremental loss of productivity across multiple users and weeks quickly adds up, with the collateral damage being reduced efficiency and design quality.
The increasing digital demands have strained traditional content management methods to the breaking point, forcing BIM managers to look for better ways to solve the problem. Many firms continue to struggle with hierarchical folder systems that force users to remember where they stored files. And to further compound the problem, they’re often working across disparate storage systems depending on the application and file type.
Use these four tips to guide your BIM content management search in the right direction:
tip 1: knock down content silos
Firms are continually looking for ways to streamline processes and produce higher-quality, client-focused solutions — and common access to standardized BIM content is integral to that mix. Look for solutions that cross boundaries and silos.
To eliminate redundancies, proactively correct problems and streamline workflow, the ideal BIM content management solution must meet these criteria:
Standardized library to ensure content consistency
Improved review process to maintain current, approved content
Shared guidelines for creating models to avoid rework and errors
Security to protect intellectual property and confidential data
Tip 2: Focus on search, indexing and user experience
The user interface of a BIM content management solution should provide simple navigation focused on the designer experience. When AECO firms have dozens if not hundreds of people in content-related roles, it’s important that all have access to the same information, but in reality, people work in silos. When your CMS supports indexing and organizing of any file type, silos come down. Search must be flexible, but robust, with easily customized organization and search capabilities. And since BIM files tend to be graphic in nature, fast-loading thumbnails to visually preview and quickly identify content will further enhance the user experience. Time savings result from giving designers better ways to manage content and find information so they can then focus on quality designs and improved aesthetics.
Tip 3: Optimize where content is stored
In recent years there has been a push to move everything to “the cloud”. While cloud storage of your content can present some advantages like ready access when not at the office, it also presents a new set of challenges that are often overlooked. When files are stored in a cloud location they must be downloaded to be consumed. This presents real challenges for reusable libraries of content that must be downloaded, processed and republished whenever changes to that content must be made. It can also present frustration when content that must be continually downloaded every time it is used in AECO-related desktop application. Hybrid solutions that allow content to be stored “on-prem” or in the cloud offer maximum flexibility and efficiency.
Tip 4: break old content habits and mistakes
Productivity and quality improvements — or problems — have an impact beyond the design stage. One problem many design firms face is that both individuals and entire teams go back to old projects and carry forward old mistakes to new designs. If there’s no go-to place for standardized details, that creates a constant risk of introducing old errors into new work. Detecting and correcting an error costs much more if not caught until the construction phase, so it’s prudent to minimize mistakes at the design phase. By making the right content available, old mistakes stay in the past, and downstream projects have better outcomes.
Five more considerations for bim managers
AECO firms need a scalable tool to organize and search content that also works well with the content generated and used in dozens if not hundreds of software applications in use across the workflow. Knowing what is being searched for becomes one of the most important pieces of knowledge you can gather to improve content management. Use these five criteria to select the right solution for your BIM content management, search, and workflow needs.
Intuitive interface: Look for a solution that goes beyond relying on file names for search and filtering. Solutions that support additional tags can allow users to filter content, narrowing their search to smaller subsets of content that can be visually identified.
Workflow support: Remove silos by making content accessible across teams and applications.
Cultural match: Look for a solution designed by designers with experience in the AECO industry.
Simplicity: Overcome the limits of a hierarchical folder means of file storage so users can easily find the content they need.
Analytics: Improve processes by seeing what is being searched, found and most importantly not found!
Content management becomes a huge challenge for AECO firms, particularly for integrated design firms where information must flow across teams of architects, engineers, interior designers and landscape architects, each thinking about that information in different ways. This customer story details how Technology, Practice Management, Quality, Codes and Research groups at one nationally known firm worked together to find and deploy a functional library and content management system (CMS) that met all their needs.
The most common system that serves both as a content management and a knowledge management system is the old school Windows File System and it is holding A/E/C/O firms back from working faster and making smarter designs.
“Content Management” is a loaded term. So, let’s begin with a simple truth – you are swimming in data buried in thousands of files across your network, most of which haven’t been touched in years. Knowledge is stuck and cannot be found. Time is wasted, work is recreated, and project experience is lost because these assets are hidden or inaccessible within archaic file systems, previous projects, and invisible data stores.
Today, Architectural designers work on complex projects with massive amounts of digital information. Finding what they need, reusing what has previously been created, and collaborating with colleagues is notoriously difficult. These challenges only increase when teams are distributed and inter-company, which is now the norm.
The A/E/C/O industry needs to rethink the way we organize, communicate about and work on projects – all the way through the entire life of a project. The following white paper outlines the framework of the Project Lifecycle and how AVAIL is working to make that process smarter, more efficient and easier.
The Project Lifecycle as a Framework
The lifecycle of a project contains three primary phases: project setup, project design, project archiving. In each of these phases, content management and knowledge capture are essential to achieving customer-centric designs while meeting schedule and budget constraints.
Content is constantly entering the Project Lifecycle and most likely stored somewhere on a network in a series of file folders. Best practices revolve around standardizing a hierarchical folder structure on a file server that acts as the outline for storing all data. This practice is daunting, confusing, ripe for error and inefficient. And worst of all, this process is commonplace and accepted.
Only 2,240 folders to search through, and that’s just one library
Projects as the Core Driver
The lifeblood of a firm’s operation is the Project. Firm practices have been geared around making the design process as smooth and efficient as possible.
Most teams start a project with a set of predefined content. This is where Libraries come into play and, given the choice, firms would like to reuse as many assets as possible.
Project Setup – Phase 1
The majority of the content that is needed in any given Project already exists, with a smaller amount needing to be created from scratch. Most firms maintain relatively static Libraries to feed this need. The library may grow or shrink to remain relevant but the content is not often edited.
Firms want to reuse as many assets as possible. Recreating content is not only expensive but also opens the potential to introduce new errors. This is why centrally organized libraries are important to the overall efficiency and quality of the work-product of production teams.
A major challenge with storing content Libraries on centralized networks is the limitation placed on using file folders. Users are forced to decide where content has to be stored based on a rigid, hierarchical, folder-based system. This is why content is often “lost”. A file location that makes sense today might not make sense two months from now. The context for storing content is not always the same context for retrieving it; and thus, file folders are the prime enemy in executing a successful content management strategy.
Searching for content is a contextual exercise. A special challenge in this industry is that many people find it is often easier to re-create the content because they think it will take longer to locate it on their network!
The answer to more efficient content management is tied to separating storage from retrieval. The challenge is to break away from the outmoded practice of trying to retrieve information from the hierarchical system we have all grown accustomed to called file folders.
During a Project Lifecycle, teams must identify and integrate numerous internal and external sources of information. Content sources include internal Libraries of families, photos and templates and external content from Building Product Manufacturers (BPMs), standards bodies, clients and consultants.
One of the most important activities for designers is access to Precedent materials. Efficiently finding, storing and organizing these materials is difficult and time-consuming. When those materials are easy to find they spark the imagination and improve both the quality and speed at which the project can be delivered.
But in actual practice, a project’s Precedent materials usually end up in a local “stash” on the researcher’s computer, never to be seen again by anyone.
Project Design – Phase 2
The project design phase introduces a new challenge — the creation of orders of magnitude of “new” content. The content being produced is “new” and therefore more difficult for the organization to recognize, understand and assimilate. This content is critical to the current Project and Workflow, is temporal in nature as it relates to a specific Project, and may or may not be relevant to future Projects. Left alone, this content contains no knowledge, is trapped on the network and will be ignored.
Most AEC workflows continue to rely on email to move data and processes along the Project Lifecycle. This disjointed and “out of band” communications is how most of the relevant knowledge about project-related content is moved around between interested parties. Once content has been created, the presence of this new project-related content should trigger the next step.
Project Archive – Phase 3
Archives are the most underutilized asset firms possess. Old project files are locked in antiquated directory structures and not connected to team members, thereby limiting the archive’s ability to be leveraged to improve future designs and processes. The team moves on to the next project with every intention of properly shutting down the last one, but rarely does anyone ever get to that task.
Those old Projects are like buried treasure chests hidden in some remote, forgotten location, with Project Managers hoping of returning to someday to get rich. Proper archival processes at the end of each project should surface enough value to offset the time needed to perform the task. Improving the process of properly closing down and archiving Project data can help build strong central Libraries to be referenced and used on future Projects.
A significant challenge for BIM Managers is determining what content is new, and more importantly, weeding out what is project-specific versus what would be valuable in a Standards Library. It may also be meaningful to know what content from a Standards Library has been edited and where that edited content is being used.
At AVAIL, we are helping firms make the most of their project-related content by making it easier to find, easier to share and easier to harvest for future projects.
As ArchVision began contemplating entering the crowded content management market we spent a lot of time trying to identify what was missing. We have dabbled in content management over the years as we attempted to provide solutions to manage our RPC subscription content and provide customers with easy ways of managing thousands of pieces of content. We learned a lot over the years and developed some philosophies to build on.
While at RTC 2013 as I looked around the exhibit hall I half-jokingly started saying “we’re going to be the 159th company with a content management solution!”. You start to question what makes you think you’re different. Why hasn’t this problem been solved? I think the answer probably lies in the fact that it’s hard to get people to change their habits and that’s what most solution providers have offered. In regards to change, I often say “of course it’s hard, it’s biological. We’re wired for stability, not change”. An exercise in futility would be to bank on convincing people that a new process will be better.
We started asking anyone that would indulge more questions about how they manage content and kept hearing a couple of things over and over. When asked how they manage their centralized libraries of content there was 100% unanimity. Heads would inevitably lower and voices soften as if embarrassed by their answer. The dark chorus was in unison on their reliance and contempt of Windows file folders. We had more than a hunch that would be the answer. After asking the first couple of dozen times and hearing the same answer from teams that ranged in size from a handful to thousands we knew there was an opportunity to try to help solve a big problem.
Windows file folders make for a terrible database. I think everyone can testify that digging through directory trees to try to find something can be a frustrating experience. When added up would you want to know how much time you waste each year digging? A couple of minutes here, ten minutes there, no occurrence is painful enough to cause a revolution but in aggregate the pain is real. It’s the classic “death by a million cuts”. With Windows file folders, each individual file is relegated to a single location or worse, copies have to be made if you want the same thing accessible in different locations. Why do we do this?
We also had a suspicion (I’m painfully aware of my own habits) that many people also “keep their own local stash” apart from the central repositories. When asked how much of that went on in their operations that reality was also confirmed. But perhaps more interestingly, we began hearing another theme. When you need something, particularly AEC-related content, you’re likely to try to dig back through an old project file to find it rather than fight the Windows folders someone spent an inordinate amount of time organizing. “Hey Bob, what was that project where we used x” or “Kim, do you remember if we used x in project y?”. And then off you go, a new scavenger hunt. Sound familiar? The archived project file served as a better database than the central file folders!
Parsing these hundreds of conversations led us to identify what we think is at the core of efficiently getting to the content. Context matters. Duh! It’s how people think. We’re frustrated with Windows file folders because it forces us to try to think in unnatural ways. We dig back into archived projects for nuggets of gold because the initial project context was a well-defined path and the first thing that entered our brain when those synapses started firing. If you enjoy learning about this kind of thing you should read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. It helps explain not only how people think but why our brains are wired that way. Here’s the short version… the brain is an amazingly complex organ, biologically wired for efficiency. Given this understanding, we think the way we go about organizing and accessing content needs to change.
File Folders Do Serve A Purpose
The reality is that the Windows file folder can work… for the person who created them. That’s why everyone else (sans the person who created them) gets frustrated with central repositories. It’s also why everyone keeps their own stash. It fits “their” context, at least until it doesn’t. Those file folders can work as a logical way to store content. All those files have to be named something and physically go somewhere, don’t they! The trick is to separate the problems. Divide and conquer. Treat the storage problem separately from the retrieval problem. This led us down a new path.
AVAIL With all of this newfound knowledge, we set out to attack the problem in a new way. #159 will be different! We established these primary criteria for a solution…
Don’t disrupt current workflows. It’s futile to start there. Rather, augment what’s already going on.
Don’t require anyone to move their existing content (ie. you can leave it in those awkward Windows file folders). Admittedly this was probably driven initially by a desire to position opposite all of the “store it in the cloud” offerings that are popping up daily, but in reality, it’s about separating the storage problem from the retrieval problem. Who cares where the content lives as long as your users can get to it easily. Moving content “to the cloud” doesn’t solve the context/retrieval problem.
Provide the end-users with a visually driven, context-sensitive way of finding content.
Be content agnostic. There is any number of important types of files that need to be centralized, organized and retrieved.
Here’s how AVAIL works. First, we let you create Channels for accessing content. The concept of a Channel in AVAIL is the primary way of beginning to provide the proper context for content. You can create any number of Channels and each Channel can contain any combination of content.
Secondly, want to build two or more Channels that contain some of the same content? You can, and without making copies of the file(s). AVAIL doesn’t move content around, it’s indexed. That’s how we begin separating where the content is “stored” from how it is “consumed”. The index provides flexibility on the front end. It lets you get to content from multiple entry points (Channels) and is the key to providing unlimited contextual entry points to the same piece of content.
Thirdly, provide a visual way to drill down to the content you need. AVAIL does this with a new tag-driven filtering technology we call Panoply. Panoply provides the ability to create contextually sensitive arrangements of tags per Channel. As you click on Tags in the Filters panel of a Channel you are essentially expressing intent, a direction. Tags that are irrelevant based on your choices disappear. It’s a dynamic contextual path of sorts. It’s one of those things you have to experience to fully appreciate its effectiveness. A massive amount of meta-data can be encoded as Tags and arranged for the logical context in AVAIL. You can parse through thousands of files to get to just the right content in a handful of clicks. Need to see the same content in a different context? The same content can live in a different Channel with filtering designed to fit the new context.
We think we’re onto something and working hard to fulfill the promise. The first place you can experience AVAIL and the new Panoply approach to filtering is in the recently released Detail Warehouse product. AVAIL is providing the interface for managing a library of over 27,500 native-built Revit Drafting Views. We’ll also be showing off AVAIL at a couple of events before the end of the year. Look for us at the RTC Europe (booth# 18) event in Budapest, Hungary at the end of October and soon after at Autodesk University (booth# 1213) the first week of December in Las Vegas, NV USA. If you can’t catch us at any of those events you can sign up for updates at avail.archvision.com.
One of the observations we’ve made regarding the current state of content management is the strong reliance on two tools to manage your company’s files be they on a WAN/LAN or in the cloud; the ability to create and name file folders and the name of files themselves. I don’t have to tell you how limiting those tools can be. Our only option for decades we’ve all become somewhat numb to the pain.
We think there is a huge opportunity to improve both management and access to content. In many ways, the existing file folder and file name means of storing and retrieving files have pitted the needs of centralized control and file management versus the ease of finding what you’re looking for.
AVAIL is providing a new alternative, a way to separate where a file is stored from how it is retrieved. A way to reduce your dependency on those cumbersome folder and file names for retrieving content.
One of the themes we’ve developed over the past couple of years during the development of AVAIL is optionality. Optionality should be a good thing. Given optionality, you take advantage of an opportunity when it presents itself.
Optionality is present in several ways at the core of how AVAIL has been designed. If you’ve used AVAIL or sat through any of our webinars you’ll hear us talk about the importance of context in retrieving content. That’s a form of optionality that lets the publisher and consumer of content in AVAIL get to the same content in different ways mirroring the way you’re thinking about it at the time.
With the new 3.0 release of AVAIL, you’ll find a couple of additional features that play on this theme as well. We’re extending the ability to contribute to the management of content in a Channel in AVAIL beyond the firm-wide Publisher/Consumer role definition. Now, the owner of a Channel can allow anyone they’ve shared that Channel with the ability to contribute via a new “Can Edit” setting that is controlled per user. This means a Publisher of a Channel can invite select others to add or remove content and tags from a Channel without having to make that person a firm-wide Publisher. Optionality.
Another update in 3.0 is initial moves toward providing each individual control over how they organize and consume Channels and content. You’ll see this manifested in a redesigned Channels panel that now provides each desktop the ability to “Pin” the Channels they consume most. Additional features that let everyone customize their experience while letting you maintain administrative oversight and control will continue to make AVAIL more powerful and customizable to fulfill different needs and workflow preferences. Optionality is a good thing.
I attended Autodesk University 2018 in Las Vegas week before last along with several others from the AVAIL and ArchVision teams. That included participating in the Autodesk developer conference on Monday now known as Forge DevCon. Thanks to everyone who stopped by the AVAIL booth to say hi or attended one of our after-hours events. It was a great chance to catch up with longtime friends as well as make new acquaintances. These conferences are always a great way for us to learn more about specific industry challenges and trends as well as dig into the intricacies of workflow challenges you each face. That’s the primary reason we attend and thanks to everyone who shared insights with us.
Long plagued by fragmentation, the AEC industry is at an inflection point. There’s no doubt that consolidation is happening at all levels. I’ll focus here on the software and technology aspects of the industry. I thought I’d share some thoughts on the prevailing theme for both Autodesk and the industry as a whole.
The AEC industry has not taken advantage of standardizing across design and production workflows as have vertically integrated industries like automotive and aerospace. They’re not apples to apples comparisons I know but I think everyone can agree there’s much to be learned by studying these more vertically integrated industries and applying what we can.
I believe Autodesk is making some good moves with its Forge platform with this regard. Over the past three decades, Autodesk has made its mark developing desktop applications that became the backbone of many AEC industry workflows. The challenge was (and continues to be) efficiently moving data between these applications. The data is often stored (and transferred) via proprietary file formats and moving between modeling and visualization, documentation to construction and eventually, facilities management has appealed only to the masochist among us. With Forge, Autodesk is building a new common data layer on which multiple services and applications will be built. Forge promises to make the transfer of data across those services and applications more painless and they’re once again focused on supporting an ecosystem of 3rd party developers to build specific solutions on top of the platform. Forge promises to break down the dozens of application silos Autodesk built (or acquired) over the previous three decades.
After talking with hundreds of customers over the past year it’s evident that application (and thus workflow) silos are one of the major hurdles facing every firm. How do you efficiently manage data and information that needs to flow across dozens of applications you’ve chosen to use across your firm. There are multiple challenges with the siloed approach to application and data management that plagues our industry; 1) Infrequent use of secondary systems means employees must basically relearn applications with each use, 2) Inconsistent design philosophies and nomenclature across applications become confusing, and 3) the managerial cost of supporting multiple solutions is unbearable.
To add insult to injury we’re now muxing on-prem and cloud-based solutions. This threatens to become the new bane when managing workflows across these new silos. We’re paying extra attention to the complexities this causes regarding “content” and file management. “Where” a file is (or needs to be) is becoming increasingly ethereal in this new era.
At AVAIL we see efficient content management across the project life-cycle as one of the major challenges to the industry. We’ve taken a decidedly horizontal approach to the problem ensuring that AVAIL can handle a variety of basic needs across oft complicated workflows. AVAIL customers are managing their 2D and 3D models in the same system alongside their visualization assets, photos and other precedent materials, scripts and documents. The design teams use the same solution for servicing the marketing department. This approach ensures that everyone using AVAIL is learning to use the same solution regardless of the content or application. By knocking down siloed solutions and replacing them with a single-point-of-truth AVAIL is doing its part to make you, your firm and the industry as a whole more efficient.
I just returned from Autodesk University where we engaged in numerous conversations about the value of employing content management systems. There’s obvious value in the immediate task-at-hand of organizing volumes of files (content) and making them easier to find and use throughout your organization. A topic that isn’t quite as obvious is the value of a content management system as a System of Engagement (SOE).
In traditional enterprise speak a System of Record (SOR) is defined as a conventional enterprise system designed to contain the authoritative data source for a given piece of information. A System of Engagement goes a step further. According to Forrester, “Systems of engagement are different from the traditional systems of record that log transactions and keep the financial accounting in order. They focus on people, not processes…. These new systems harness a perfect storm of mobile, social, cloud, and big data innovation to deliver apps and smart products directly in the context of the daily lives and real-time workflows of customers, partners, and employees.”
Being able to capture knowledge throughout your organization in the form of the content that is being generated and more importantly, where, when and how it is being used is of tremendous value. Knowledge can be fleeting. At AVAIL we’re focused on helping you capture and manage that knowledge.
To help you engage and capture feedback related to the content you manage with AVAIL we’re introducing a new feature we refer to as Flags & Comments. As a start, Flags are labeled as “needs attention” and provide a mechanism for your users to alert you or your content admins. Tightly coupled with Flags are Comments. You can require that a Flag be accompanied by a Comment. For example, if a user triggers a “Needs Attention” flag they can then be required to include verbose notes on what problem they see with the content. AVAIL then provides the admin an easy way to filter the content containing Flags and take appropriate action. Over time we plan to let you define a Flag’s meaning (“needs attention”, “mark as complete”, etc). We will also soon introduce Notes which allow you to provide information to permanently accompany any content managed with AVAIL.
Flags, Comments, and Notes are just the first step in providing you with valuable workflow tools to manage content and an important piece of a System of Engagement solution.
I’ll claim that when you’re talking about content management “local vs. cloud” is a limited argument. In a broad sense, it’s analogous to saying “now that we have cars you don’t need to walk”. If you’re in the business of selling cars (or cloud services) that argument might make sense. For most, of course, reality dictates that you need to manage content across “all” environments. Sometimes the cloud makes sense but, for the foreseeable future, you will also have content on your local network. Even the most popular cloud storage solutions like Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, One Drive, you name it, cache a copy of the content locally.
Valid arguments for storing content in the cloud include 1) a need for external teams to have access to content, 2) consolidating content in one location, 3) making content accessible via the Internet, 4) “outsourcing” IT/storage.
For most people, the design of local versus cloud is largely a storage decision. If you have teams needing to access that content in the field, there are indeed good arguments for cloud storage, but if most of the content is accessed at the desktop the cloud doesn’t solve many of the real content management problems those users encounter daily.
Another way to think about the challenge is to think in terms of Storage and Retrieval. I’ll make another claim… with regards to content management, storage isn’t the real problem, it’s largely a retrieval problem and going to the cloud does nothing to solve it. The graphic above was used in a class we presented at RTC Europe in Budapest a couple of weeks ago. It illustrates the challenge not only of your own content being stored locally and in the cloud but of trying to manage cloud-based content from 3rd parties that are being downloaded and stored in your local environment.
At AVAIL we’re working on some unique solutions to the retrieval problem. AVAIL is attacking content retrieval in new ways and tackling the reality of managing content in a “blended” environment. I’ve blogged about how important we think context is to accessing content and how AVAIL is addressing some of those problems.