Analysis

Ten benefits of a digital master specification system over MS Word

13 September 2018 | By Stephen Hamil

Stephen Hamil, director of research and innovation at NBS, looks at the top 10 reasons why the use of a digital master system, for writing and managing specifications, is better than using a programme such as Microsoft Word.

Since launching its first database specification tool, Specification Manager, in 1990, to now launching its first cloud-based specification platform, Chorus, in August 2018, NBS has been on its own specification transformation journey.

In the 1990s, personal computers became affordable for businesses, and specification writing moved from the typewriter to the word processor. Word processor applications such as Microsoft Word added new benefits of efficiency and accuracy, which transformed the industry.

Functionalities such as the ability to check for and easily correct mistakes, to copy and paste text and to modify the formatting of a page were huge benefits for anyone writing documentation at this time.

Since then, software has been produced that has allowed construction specifications to be written in a way that is demonstrably better than using a word processing system.

So what are the top 10 reasons why the use of a digital master system, for writing and managing specifications is better than using a tool such as Microsoft Word.

1. An enforced structure

Over the years, standard structures have been developed for classifying and structuring construction specifications. This standard approach to specification writing creates efficiencies and lowers risk within the organisation that produces the specification. It also hugely helps those receiving the specification.

A digital master specification system can enforce these standard structures, acting as a strict data entry system that enforces quality control. A word processor gives the user too much flexibility, and the result is more than likely a finished specification that is not aligned to a standard structure.

2. The provision of contextual technical guidance

A digital master specification system separates the template specification articles and the associated technical guidance. This separation creates a clear differentiation between the article content that will be shared with the recipient and the associated guidance that is there to inform the specifiers’ decision-making process.

3. The ability to pick from suggested specification options

The guidance within a digital master specification system may suggest options for the specifier’s consideration. This offers greater support over a word processor by displaying these options so that the specifier can quickly select the correct value for the project that they are working on.

4. Using and referencing the latest content on every new project

One of the biggest sources of frustrations we hear from construction professionals is the reuse of old specifications from previous jobs that reference out-of-date standards and practices. There is also a real danger of needing requirements that may have been deleted from the previous project.

Where a practice manages the specification content internally, keeping this up to date with industry standards is a huge job that takes colleagues away from fee-earning project work and onto content maintenance. With companies like NBS, who have teams of experts who research and maintain this same content, it’s an unnecessary job.

When a word processor is used, the job of updating the system is often manual, and offices may discover that they have been sent the latest content but have not found the time to update this on specifier’s computers.

Subscribing to a cloud-based specification platform like NBS Chorus, is the lowest risk and most cost-effective solution to mitigating the referencing of out-of-date standards. This ensures that the content used on projects is always the most current provided.

5. The capture of specification knowledge across an organisation

By subscribing to a digital master specification system, an organisation benefits from the knowledge written and maintained within the platform. However, further benefits can be realised when the organisation itself uses the master system as a host for their business’ knowledge.

The structure provided allows knowledge to be captured in the form of guidance notes and office master template specifications. It is commonplace for knowledge to exist within an organisation and for it not to be shared. It is also very difficult to retain knowledge when colleagues move to different companies or retire.

A digital master specification system allows this knowledge to be retained and shared across an organisation.

6. Improved teamwork

Specification writing on a construction project is almost certainly a collaborative effort. If you’re working in a tool such as Microsoft Word then this collaboration can only really take place by emailing copies of documents between team members and merging revisions. This can lead to errors and confusion over which copy of the document is the latest.

In a cloud-based digital master specification system, those with specification writing responsibilities can work from the same “single source of truth”. This ensures that the latest version of the content is always being worked on.

7. Access and quality control

Collaboration on specification requires a level of quality control. Design responsibilities should be defined and then a permission model agreed that states which project team members can administer and contribute to which specifications.

In addition, restrictions are required to define which project team members can have read-only access (or indeed no access, where relevant), a function that NBS Chorus has.

Once a Microsoft Word file is emailed to a team member or provided on a USB stick, it is impossible to impose any level of access control.

8. Task-specific functionality

A tool such as Microsoft Word has to work well for all types of documentation production across all industries. A digital master specification system has functionality developed especially for specification writing in the construction industry.

Examples of specific functionality include synchronised guidance and the optional drop-down value suggestions already covered. It also may include the ability to quickly add or copy entire blocks of structured text, to add milestones for revision information or to add a manufacturer product specification with one click.

9. An audit trail of decision making

On a complex project, thousands of decisions will be made by many construction professionals and an audit trail is essential to provide clarity on who made which decision and when.

Within a word processing tool, the “last modified” information tends to be at the level of the document. Within a digital master specification system, it is possible for this information to be captured for each decision. Furthermore, with revision functionality, it is possible to compare changes across key project milestones.

For those developing the specification throughout the project timeline, this provides the potential for an audit trail from briefing, through design and construction, and then through to handover.

10. Part of a digital eco-system

Specifications are rarely written as documents without external dependencies. On most projects, they provide information that is supported by the drawn information within the model.

Within digital master specification systems, functionality may exist to view the model whilst assembling and writing the specification. When the model or the specification then changes, any corrections to annotations or missing items can be quickly made.

A BIM environment is not simply the information contained within a 3D model. It is the wider information set that is linked together, and this most definitely includes the specification. Having software that allows information managers to coordinate project information is now as essential on BIM projects as clash detection functionality of geometry.

In summary, an internal process using word processing files will inevitably lead to those involved in specifications being frustrated. Too much time will be unnecessarily spent on non-fee-earning work and poor quality specifications will be produced, raising the risk of problems later on in the project.

When you are developing a specification writing strategy within your organisation, there are a number of considerations. These include time efficiencies, knowledge sharing, quality of information and risk mitigation. Introducing a digital master specification system will deliver production and quality improvements across your organisation.

NBS Chorus is a collaborative specification platform supporting global design and construction, aimed at those professionals who need to produce high quality specifications efficiently. 

The use of cloud technology ensures that those using the new platform have the latest software and global content at all times, improving collaboration and efficiencies across whole teams and minimising risk.

NBS CEO Richard Waterhouse said, “Some of the biggest issues for our customers when it comes to producing specifications are: unstructured content, barriers to collaboration and lack of connectivity between specifications and the rest of the project.

“NBS Chorus allows the whole team to work together as one. It connects the people you need wherever they are, provides the whole team with accurate global standards and classifications and connects this all together in a platform built for BIM on a global scale”

A number of global practices have been involved in a private launch of NBS Chorus throughout 2018, including Mott MacDonald, Ryder Architecture and IBI Group.

“The ability to work within a cloud-based software platform allows Mott MacDonald to collaborate with external organisations undertaking projects worldwide using the capabilities of the collaborative software,” said Mark Bragg Principal Mechanical Engineer at Mott MacDonald.

“This platform will not only allow us to more effectively work between Studios, but also with other consultants. The ability to be able to review specifications not in isolation from the design / model, but as part of the design, will allow for more collaborative discussion with context,” said Nick Ainscough, BIM Development Lead at IBI Group.

Glenn Tate, Associate at Ryder Architecture, said: “By having project specifications from different design disciplines in a single area, we hope that the collaboration this offers will remove the risk of gaps in the project specification and help to remove assumptions in design information that has multiple responsible parties.”

NBS Chorus delivers structured content written and maintained to UK or Canadian practice and standards. Content suitable for US and Australian practice and standards will follow.

If you’re interested in learning more about NBS Chorus, NBS is running a series of discovery events across the UK in September and October. To register interest email/visit and to find out more visit www.theNBS.com/discover

To find out more about NBS Chorus, visit www.theNBS.com/Chorus

Using word processing files will inevitably lead to those involved in specifications being frustrated. Too much time will be unnecessarily spent on non-fee-earning work and poor quality specifications will be produced, raising the risk of problems later on in the project.– Stephen Hamil