The document-based approach: a stubborn element in Systems Engineering

In traditional construction projects, all information – from day one to the completion of the final development phase – is stored in documents, spreadsheets and other files. These documents are of vital importance for the entire engineering project, because they both record the current status of the development and serve as input for subsequent engineering phases. And on top of that, they are used to communicate with all interested parties.

In other words: documents represent a snapshot of a project’s status and/or the system from the perspective of a specific discipline. When the focus of an engineering process lies on generating such documents, we call this document-based engineering.

In document-based engineering, all engineering activities lead to new documents containing increasing amounts of data.

Some technical teams use Model-Based Systems Engineering (MBSE) to limit the number of documents. However, since a ‘model’ of a system is not something that humans can directly comprehend, documents such as ‘written reports of the models’ remain a necessary feature of such projects. This is especially true when communicating with interested parties, assessing results or interim results and providing evidence in the form of an officially ‘signed’ document.

Digital information also often still document-based

Because most information is processed using Word, Excel and similar files (as well as the PDF versions of those documents), information systems are set up with documents and document management in mind. This creates a variety of issues. Systems like Aconex, Bentley Systems and Autodesk – the big names in the world of construction information management – use various clever ways to move documents around. However, these systems still treat every document as a kind of black box, completely ignoring their actual content.

What it boils down to is that many of the systems engineering environments currently in use are still dominated by information recorded in Word or Excel files. This means that there is no ‘single truth’ in these systems, and that makes it incredibly easy for inconsistencies between documents to arise every time a user needs to manually update a document or to send a document to colleagues and partners by e-mail to inform them about recent changes. This is already an issue within single disciplines, but where different disciplines are involved within a project, keeping track of it all is an impossible task.

Legal focus also on documents

The risks and interests involved in projects are considerable. Who is responsible when something goes wrong in the coordination between the contractor carrying out the project and the client? It is an important question that more often than not leads to the creation of complex legal structures. The point is that legal processes are strongly document-based: to cover all your bases, you have to submit the right documents at the right time. While these legal processes do not actually have much to do with construction directly, they do strongly affect the way information is handled, which in turn affects the way the construction work takes place. These days, validation and verification are essential components of every building process: at any given moment, contractors must be able to demonstrate to the client that they are in compliance.

Many processes are therefore managed and set up with this need to provide legal proof in mind. And while a document-based approach might at first glance seem like the right approach in such as context, a model-based approach can provide the required evidence faster and, more importantly, more reliably.