TonicDM: Project Information Management for AECAECbytes Review (May 16, 2019)
While the AEC industry is more than amply served by solutions for project management (PM), construction management (CM), and team collaboration for our increasingly complex buildings and infrastructure projects—for example, Procore, CMiC, Deltek Vision, Aconex, Bentley ProjectWise, and Autodesk BIM 360, to name just a few—the field of project information management (PIM) has, until now, been relatively sparse.
For over a decade, the only real solution for project information management in AEC was Newforma Project Center, the flagship application from Newforma. In fact, Newforma pioneered the field and can even be credited with coining the term “project information management” to differentiate it from “project management.” (The basic difference is that PIM manages the large volumes of information associated with a project, whereas PM manages the actual project—its design and construction—itself.) While Newforma has branched out and now has other products in addition to Newforma Project Center (see this AEC Tech Updates article), the need for project information management in the AEC industry has intensified and a couple of additional solutions have recently emerged to meet it. One of these is from a veteran AEC technology vendor, Deltek. The other is from a startup, TonicDM.
Overview of TonicDM
TonicDM was started by industry veterans who experienced first-hand the problems with using an existing PIM system like Newforma Project Center to effectively manage the vast quantities of information that go back and forth daily between the members of a project team. (In fact, I first met Reg Prentice, one of the co-founders of TonicDM all the way back in 2004 when he was at Gehry Partners—he was the key person I spoke to for my research on the article, “Technology at Work at Gehry Partners: A Case Study.” He has subsequently worked at Gensler, where he had a lot of experience with trying to implement Newforma Project Center. TonicDM was born from that experience.)
The information going back and forth between team members includes drawings, documents, RFIs, and lots and lots of emails, often with multiple versions of files. Additionally, there are meeting minutes, contracts, and chat sessions, all of which contain valuable project information. And all of this is just for one project. AEC professionals are typically working on multiple projects simultaneously, exacerbating the chaos. Needless to say, some kind of an organizational structure is needed to coherently manage the deluge of information and clearly differentiate which information belongs to which project. This makes a solution for managing project information a necessity, not only to stop AEC professionals from being completely overwhelmed and unable to function, but also to enable information to be quickly located when needed for making project decisions. Because ultimately, it is the decisions that are key to the success of a project.
While organizing project information so that it is easier to find and eliminating duplication is the basic function of a PIM solution, it can further streamline many common PM tasks such as creating and tracking submittals and RFIs. While TonicDM provides all these capabilities, what sets it apart is its strong focus on ease of use and the use of smarts to automate many routine tasks, minimizing the work users would have to put in towards managing project information. It is even incorporating the use of NLP (natural language processing) technology to “understand” the content of project emails, making it easier to find and categorize emails of particular importance. TonicDM also includes integrations with some key PM applications like Procore to work with the project data that they contain.
Ultimately, a good solution should make project information management smarter, more efficient, and easier to use—all of which were precisely the guiding principles underlying the development of TonicDM.
How It Works
TonicDM is a cloud-based application, which simplifies it off the bat. (Cloud applications are developed using newer software technology and since they have to run on web browsers, they are forced to be faster and more lightweight compared to traditional desktop applications.) The other advantage of being a cloud application is the ease with which it can be deployed, without the need for dedicated in-house IT infrastructure that requires IT personnel to manage it. Many companies across the board, not just in AEC, are getting more comfortable with deploying cloud applications in lieu of desktop applications when cloud versions are available, and the trend is likely to continue to accelerate. (See the Gartner article, “Cloud computing is the new norm.”) I see this trend in AEC first-hand, where an increasing number of applications that I have recently reviewed are cloud-based—these include Aditazz Design Synthesis, Cityzenith, Autocase, BIM Assure, Aconex, and Skysite.
Given its focus on simplicity and ease of use, TonicDM has distilled its PIM functionality into three main areas: email management, file transfers, and contract administration, which includes creating and recording submittals and RFIs. It also has some user management features that come from the creation of contacts from the emails it manages. Additionally, it can integrate with Azure Active Directory (AD), Microsoft’s cloud-based identity and access management service, which allows your users to be automatically signed-in to TonicDM (called Single Sign-On) with their Azure AD accounts.
With the growing reliance on email by project teams to communicate and collaborate on projects, any system for managing project information needs to ensure that all email correspondence is part of the project record. TonicDM achieves this by integrating with Microsoft Office 365, the cloud version of Microsoft Office, more specifically through an Add-in in Outlook which appears as a sidebar (see Figure 1). A search bar at the top of this sidebar can be used to search for a project; the three most recent projects to which emails were filed are listed for easy access. Selecting a project here makes it the active project for filing emails. An email can be associated with a project either by selecting it and clicking the green “File Selected Email” button in the sidebar, or by moving it to the Outlook folder for the project, identified by the project number.
Once an email is associated with a project, all emails that are part of that conversation are automatically filed as well. Furthermore, all incoming emails are monitored and are automatically filed with the project if they are part of the conversation. Emails that have been filed are marked with a colored tag (Figure 2), and this is done for all the project team members using the TonicDM add-in for Outlook. Contacts are automatically created for all the users on the emails filed for a project and added to the project team list. Filed emails can be searched using filters to find information quickly (Figure 3). Emails can be marked as confidential to restrict access to them. An email can be opened in the TonicDM sidebar, providing the option to open it in the main Outlook window to reply to it or forward it.
While the emails that are filed are stored in the TonicDM cloud, they can optionally be synced down to the project folders on a company’s local network, if required.
The other two main PIM capabilities of TonicDM—file transfers and contract administration—are consolidated into the single interface shown in Figure 4. Once you select a project from the list of active projects, you can use the Files tab to upload and send large files and folders. The transmittal for this transfer is automatically created and logged, along with a record of all the downloads, allowing all team members to see who downloaded what and when (Figure 5).
The Submittals and RFI features work in a similar fashion. The Submittals log, shown in Figure 6, is colored by status, with the white rows indicating the items on which action needs to be taken by the user, the cyan rows indicating items that have been sent to consultants for their response, the magenta rows indicating items that have been sent back to the contactor for some follow-up action, and the gray rows indicating items that are closed. These visual cues make it easy to quickly categorize the submittals. The log can be exported in Excel format if needed.
Each row of the Submittal log can be expanded to see a quick history, as shown in Figure 7. The full details of a submittal can be seen by opening it. New submittals can be created, and an integration of TonicDM with Procore allows Procore items to be viewed and imported into the submittal (Figure 8). A similar function is available for importing RFIs and submittals received by email. Once created, a submittal can be forwarded to a consultant or returned to the general contractor. Consultants’ responses are also logged, either manually if they are sent via email, or automatically if sent using TonicDM.
Analysis and Conclusions
While the NLP (natural language processing) capability to parse through emails for what TonicDM called “sentiment analysis” to gain deeper insights into the project is still in beta, it is a key component of TonicDM’s vision of PIM, and from my perspective, a great use of NLP technology for AEC. Further down the road, this capability may allow TonicDM to further automate the filing of project emails as well as categorize RFIs based on the issues they are covering. The more automation there is, the greater the reduction in the burden on staff for managing project information, and the more complete the project records can be.
While I greatly appreciated the clean interface and streamlined approach of the solution which makes it very easy to use—good interface design is, I think, as much of an art as designing good buildings that work well—the challenge before TonicDM is to continue to maintain its clarity and ease of use even after expanding its capabilities to cover more tasks. It could integrate with more AEC applications used for project management, and possibly with accounting, finance, and CRM applications as well to bring in the project information they contain. Even its email integration can eventually be expanded to include Google’s G Suite (the commercial version of Gmail and other Google apps) in addition to Office 365.
Thus, while TonicDM has several enhancements it can work towards, the good news is that it can be used as a very effective PIM solution even now for any design firm that is using Office 365. I especially appreciated its “less is more” approach, a sign of logical and clear thinking that minimizes the steps a user needs to take in order to do what they need to do. While it is hard to predict how successful TonicDM will be—there are so many factors that go into making a technology company successful other than the excellence of its products alone—I was happy to see such a good example of a well-designed application in AEC.
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