«Pak Yoong School of Information Management Victoria University of Wellington Kelburn Parade P.O. Box 600, Wellington 6001, New Zealand E-mail: ...»
Role of mobile technology in the construction
industry – a case study
School of Information Technology and Mathematical Sciences
University of Ballarat
P.O. Box 663, Ballarat, Victoria 3353, Australia
School of Information Management
Victoria University of Wellington
P.O. Box 600, Wellington 6001, New Zealand
Abstract: The construction industry is facing a number of pressures to decrease costs, improve productivity and have a competitive edge in terms of quality of service and customer satisfaction. Recent advancements in mobile technology provide new avenues for addressing this situation. This paper presents the role of emerging mobile technologies and, in particular, the development of a mobile facsimile solution that assists collaborative communications between parties on or away from the construction site.
This paper first identifies potential use cases for mobile technologies in the construction industry and highlights the issues that would hamper their adoption. It discusses the modelling of the problems related to the workflow of a construction process with the aid of a focus group formed with various construction industry representatives in New Zealand. The various problem-solving processes adopted by the industry practitioners at different functional levels are analysed and the findings summarised. Finally, this paper describes the development of one such mobile solution, called ClikiFax, which could address some of the issues and pressures prevailing in the context of the New Zealand construction industry.
Keywords: mobile technologies; remote site; construction process;
Reference to this paper should be made as follows: Venkatraman, S. and Yoong, P. (2009) ‘Role of mobile technology in the construction industry – a case study’, Int. J. Business Information Systems, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp.195–209.
Biographical notes: Dr. Sitalakshmi Venkatraman is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Information Technology and Mathematical Sciences at the University of Ballarat, Australia. Prior to that she worked in the School of Information Management at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW), where she carried out this research work. Her current research interests concentrate on e-commerce and mobile computing. She has 20 years of work experience – in industry, developing turnkey projects, and in academics, teaching a variety of IT courses. She has published technical research papers in internationally well-known refereed journals. She has peer-reviewed several research articles and is also a reviewer for the ACM New Zealand Chapter.
Dr. Pak Yoong is an Associate Professor of Information Systems/E-commerce at Victoria University of Wellington. Yoong teaches in the areas of virtual organisation, research methods and IS leadership. His research, teaching and consulting experience is in the facilitation of virtual meetings, online communities of practice, online knowledge sharing, mobile collaborations and human resource development in information technology environments.
He is a coeditor and author of the book IT Human Resource Management Challenges in the Internet Age. His work has been published in such journals as Journal of Information Technology & People, The DATABASE for Advances in Information Systems, Journal of Information and Knowledge Management, Journal of Systems and Information Technology, and Journal of Internet Research.
The construction industry predominantly consists of a mobile workforce. This is attributed to the fact that construction activities are quite dispersed and take place at frequently changing remote site locations. According to Chan and Liu (2007), “The construction industry is complex and multidimensional.” Due to the complex nature of construction projects involving physically dispersed parties such as contractors, architects, workers, suppliers and customers, there exists a need to have a collaborative communication system among these remote site parties to achieve a successful project completion (Chien et al., 2003; Vlachopoulou and Manthou, 2006; Chong et al., 2007).
Hence, the construction industry experiences a need to manage remote collaborations and subsequently an increased pressure to reduce costs and improve productivity by reducing process inefficiencies (Laborde and Sanvido, 1994; Equential, 2004; Ismail et al., 2006).
As Aziz et al. (2004) stated: “Collaboration needs of site based staff and other mobile workers are not well addressed.” In this context, ‘Mobile Technology’ could play a vital role in improving the efficiency of the construction processes. Currently, as part of business communications, Information Technology (IT) solutions connecting with Telefax machines are being used extensively for exchange of information such as drawings, pictures, schedules, documents and other workflow-related information (Adriaanse et al., 2004; Momaya and Ajitabh, 2005). However, with the fast technological improvements in mobile computing, such as handheld personal computers, is the construction industry able to make an effective use of such advancements?
In general, some researchers have reported that mobile computing is yet to have a significantly positive impact on the construction industry as IT innovations have been adopted in a piecemeal fashion (Raimonda and Salvioni, 1998; Aziz et al., 2004;
Motawa et al., 2004; Vlachopoulou and Manthou, 2006; Chong et al., 2007). This research paper investigates the potential use of mobile technologies within the New Zealand construction sector.
The paper first describes the background of the case study in Section 2 and the research methodology undertaken in Section 3. Section 4 discusses the findings from the initial phase of the research project by identifying the opportunities and barriers in the use of internet-enabled mobile devices within New Zealand’s construction environment.
Subsequently, it highlights the possible solutions to such issues and describes a mobile technology-based solution developed and evaluated during the implementation phase of this study. Finally, Section 5 presents the conclusions and suggestions for future research.
2 Case study background
It is a global fact that similar to today’s transformed distributed manufacturing process, the construction process requires collaboration between many physically dispersed parties for it to be undertaken efficiently and successfully (Chien et al., 2003; Bennett and Vaidya, 2005; Chong et al., 2007; Gunasekaran and Ngai, 2007; Lee, 2007). It is necessary for construction information not only to travel to remote sites to become sharable enterprise-wide but also to get translated from the digital ‘virtual’ world into the material ‘real’ world, and vice versa (Vlachopoulou and Manthou, 2006). This could result in a loss of consistency, clarity and efficiency. Such a mixed handling of data could have a negative impact on the workflow processes (Aziz et al., 2004).
In New Zealand, modern communication technologies such as the telephone, facsimile and e-mail have enabled members within the construction workflow process to be cities or even continents apart. However, computer utilisation within the construction workflow has not been up to the full potential and has been channelled only to certain areas of design and management. This situation is similar to that of other countries where it was found that though the introduction of computers is well established in the office workflow of design information, the ‘field’ information still remains to be predominantly paper based (Pham and Dawson, 2003; Li et al., 2006). Mobile technologies and other digital tools have been promising to bridge this physical and information gap especially with regard to the office productivity scenarios (Alexander et al., 1998; Venkatraman, 2005). However, industry predictions are clouded by the relatively limited research undertaken into application requirements, barriers and consequent effects of these new mobile technologies within the construction workflow (Magdic et al., 2002; Chan and Liu, 2007). This warrants a research study that investigates the potential avenues of mobile communication technologies to enhance the workflow or communication efficiency of the field workforce within the construction industry.
This research study explored the potential avenues for the use of new mobile technologies within construction industry. In particular, it was aimed at proposing mobile solutions to enhance efficiency of workflow processes and to design and develop one such mobile application, which was subsequently tested and evaluated within New Zealand construction industry.
3 Research methodology
The methodology used for this research study was subdivided into the following three phases: (1) exploratory phase, (2) design and development phase and (3) field usability and evaluation phase.
3.1 Exploratory phase The main aim of the exploratory phase was to gain a broad understanding of the issues, problems and potential avenues for digital mobile communications to enhance workflow processes in the construction arena (Harrison et al., 2004). We adopted a two-stage data collection strategy: data from a focus group and then from individual interviews. The term focus group is defined as a group of four to ten people, moderated by a facilitator(s), that are organised to discuss a topic or set of topics of special interest to the participants (Plax and Cecchi, 1989). Yoong and Huff (2007) have found the focus group to be a useful and fast technique for gathering research data as the group participants normally have some common knowledge that relate to the topic(s) being considered.
During the early part of 2003, a group of nine participants from the building construction industry were invited to take part in a focus group. The participants included a building contractor, two architects, an interior designer, an electrician, five architecture and design lecturers and a building researcher (see Figure 1).
Figure 1 Stakeholders from the construction industry
The transcripts from the focus group discussion and a summary of the main points were returned to the respective participants for checking for accuracy. All feedback comments were subsequently incorporated in the final version of the interim report.
During the second stage of the study we conducted semi-structured interviews with a number of the participants. These unstructured interviews have provided us with more in-depth data relating to some key factors that were uncovered during the focus group.
The results from this phase are reported in a later section.
3.2 Design and development phase The main objective of the design and development phase was to draw inputs from the exploratory phase to design and develop a prototype for a mobile solution that could aid and enhance communications anytime and anywhere in the construction industry. It was realised that usability perspectives were essential to be examined while designing the interfaces of the mobile solution. Hence, the design and development phase included hardware and software usability considerations for the mobile solution. An iterative prototype development approach of System Design Life Cycle (SDLC) methodology was adopted to design and develop the mobile solution (Figure 2).
Figure 2 Iterative prototype design and development
A heuristic testing of the mobile solution was conducted at each iterative cycle of the prototype development (Wright et al., 2005). This was conducted internally by software developers and designers of the mobile solution. At each stage in the iterative process of the design and development phase, the usability issues were rated and prioritised, which helped in improving the prototype of the mobile solution.
3.3 Field usability and evaluation phase There could be several barriers that could hinder an IT implementation process (Nilsson, 2007). Hence, for the mobile solution, the main purpose of conducting the field usability and evaluation was to unveil the experiences obtained by companies in order to identify potential values or impacts of this mobile technology convergence in their business processes. We adopted a qualitative survey-based methodology for the field usability and evaluation phase (Venkatraman et al., 2007). The survey was based on certain existing theoretical models such as Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) (Davis, 1986) and Diffusion of Innovation Theory (DIT) (Rogers, 1995). We have focused on the following
three main influencing factors that were derived from these theories:
1 task/job-related factors 2 behavioural factors 3 environmental factors.
Figure 3 provides the main activities we had identified for the usability and evaluation phase of the research study. Five different construction companies from New Zealand participated in the field-testing of the mobile solution. We adopted a cognitive walkthrough method that simulated mobile use case scenarios so as to evaluate the usability of the mobile technology. This helped us in identifying specific on-site tasks for the participants to conduct and evaluate the effect of such construction processes using the mobile solution.
Figure 3 Field/Site usability and evaluation
The next section provides the details of the findings at each phase of this research study.