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Making the Most of SharePoint

Making the Most of SharePoint

How do you manage the reams of paper and complicated project management timeline related to a multimillion dollar building expansion? SharePoint proved the answer to staying on time and on budget for the Van Andel Institute’s construction effort

PROJECT MANAGEMENT | Matt Fahrenkrug and Bill Culhane get paid to handle the nuts and bolts of complicated construction projects. As the owners of Culhane & Fahrenkrug Consulting, they facilitate every aspect of commercial construction efforts, such as the second phase of a three-year, $US170 million building expansion for the Van Andel Institute, a cancer research facility based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

An IDC survey of 300 users found 61 percent were deploying SharePoint enterprise-wide, and that 28 percent of those using SharePoint in departments now are expected to expand usage to the enterprise within the next 12 months

Culhane and Fahrenkrug are overseeing every detail of this project for the Van Andel Institute. As the Institute’s “owner representatives”, Culhane and Fahrenkrug write the contracts for all of the architects, engineers, construction managers and subcontractors involved in the building expansion. They get building permits and approvals from the city of Grand Rapids. They make sure the Van Andel Institute is adequately insured, and that all of the consultants, contractors and subcontractors follow federal and state safety standards. It’s a big job with lots of stakeholders and moving parts, and one that generates reams of paper, including contracts, drawings, specifications, maps, requests for information, cut sheets and meeting minutes. To manage all of the project’s documentation, logistics and participants, Culhane and Fahrenkrug are using Microsoft SharePoint.

SharePoint has grown to incorporate so many features that some IT shops still have a hard time understanding exactly what it does. But the product’s capability around the storage of unstructured data is one of its strengths, says Rob Koplowitz, a principal analyst with Forrester Research who specializes in information and knowledge management tools. “Organizations see SharePoint as a backbone for getting more control over large amounts of unstructured data,” he says. “All of the things that would have previously been put on a file server or e-mailed around as attachments are great candidates for moving into a more structured environment [like SharePoint].”

Why SharePoint

When design of the Van Andel Institute’s new building began in January 2006, Fahrenkrug and Culhane met with Bryon Campbell, CIO of the Institute, to find out if there was any technology they could use to store all of the documents the construction project was going to create. Fahrenkrug figured they’d use an FTP site, having used them for previous construction projects.

Campbell recommended SharePoint, having used SharePoint Team Services in 2005 on another unrelated project.

Campbell told Fahrenkrug and Culhane that his IT department could use SharePoint to create a secure, private Web site that the architecture, engineering and construction teams could use to store and share documents, create threaded discussions and post meeting minutes. Anyone to whom Fahrenkrug and Culhane granted permission could access the site with a username and password.

To date, SharePoint has proven to be an effective solution for the Van Andel Institute’s building construction project. It’s provided a lot more capabilities than just document storage. Culhane and Fahrenkrug have used SharePoint’s calendaring function to track contractors’ vacations. They’ve set up alerts so that people know when documents are ready for approval. They’ve used discussion boards for brainstorming, and they’ve used SharePoint to share specifications.

Fahrenkrug says one goal of SharePoint was to eliminate as much paper as possible to reduce printing and shipping costs and support the Van Andel Institute’s environmental sustainability efforts. “We wanted to be as environmentally friendly as we could,” he says.

The collaborative workspace certainly helped: Culhane and Fahrenkrug have shaved as much as $US250,000 off the cost of the project because they were able to reduce the amount of paper they had to print and ship around the country to the various architects and contractors by 50 to 60 percent, compared to typical past projects, says Fahrenkrug. Campbell also believes the construction process has been expedited because architects and engineers don’t have to wait 24 hours or more for the documentation they need to do their jobs.

“Turning documents around faster translates to building faster and that translates into cost savings on labour,” says Campbell.

“SharePoint has worked pretty well, adds Fahrenkrug. “It saved a ton of time and a lot of money and trees, but it hasn’t been flawless.”

Specifically, SharePoint took some getting used to, and its workflow didn’t support the project’s requirements out of the box, he says. Provisioning proper access for users was also tricky using SharePoint TeamServices. But the consultants and the Van Andel IT staffer who developed the site worked around those difficulties and crafted a solution that has largely met everyone’s needs. Here’s an inside look at their solution and what it accomplished for Van Andel’s building expansion.

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