Collaboration vs. Coordination – a new way to define BIM

Some people use the words of collaboration and coordination interchangeably, yet they are two different type of activities. Let me explain how I see the difference.

Collaboration is defined as: “the action of working with someone to produce or create something.” This is two or more people working together to achieve a common goal. The activities can be done together or separately, but the separation between the two is usually dynamic in nature. This means the exchange of information takes place on a regular basis in order to know the real-time effects of the work on each particular subgroup.

Coordination is defined as: “the organization of the different elements of a complex body or activity so as to enable them to work together effectively.” Coordination is again two or more people working to achieve a common goal. In this particular instance, these activities are 'siloed' into smaller, distinct groups. When these groups are complete and ready, they are then brought together to fit into a new assembly or whole.

Recently on this blog, the definition of BIM has been discussed. As Connor previously posted, BIM takes on many forms. BIM has been described as a process, a workflow, a methodology, so on and so forth. Each will have their own definition of what BIM is to them. A successful BIM workflow requires collaboration AND coordination. Not only does one need to coordinate with each trade involved on the project, but there needs to be a true collaborative effort to see how the work in each silo affects the other.

In true EpicBIM fashion, I propose we kick the silos over and connect them into a pipeline. This pipeline becomes a method of exchanging and sharing information – not only in the vertical manner of the silo, but also horizontally. This allows for the dynamic exchange of how the changing of one of the elements affects the other. Is this a radical way of thinking? I don’t think so. In fact, I feel many of us who read this blog regularly feel this same way.

When BIM is effectively deployed on a project, it becomes the information hub of the project. BIM becomes the place where all of the information is combined, where these individual silos are put together, exchanged and compared as to how they interact with each other.

During my career, I have found that many in the AEC community fail to truly collaborate AND coordinate during different parts of the design and construction process. Some projects do a good job of coordinating the work before being put in place. Others do a good job of collaborating, but fail miserably in the coordination of the work. The projects that I have been on where everyone collaborated and coordinated, ended up being very successful. When one silo fails to participate in the process, it creates a blockage in the pipeline and things can get sideways quickly.

Recently, I have been exposed to some who strongly feel BIM has no place in the AEC community. Some still believe BIM is all about pretty pictures – the Hollywood BIM that is sold to many. This leads to a mentality of everyone doing their own thing – each silo continuing its vertical progression – then coordinating the end product. With no collaborative effort, we cannot see how the pushing of one item is pulling on another.

This leads to one questioning, “Why is that duct being routed that way?” The simple (coordinated) answer would be, “to avoid a clash with that pipe.” The collaborative and coordinated answer would be, “because the submittals for that Air Handler requires it to be at that location, and that particular size. The submittal also states that the pipe requires a certain amount of insulation and requires a straight run distance of 36 inches before allowing any bends in the pipe.” One answer can be rather open ended, while the other clearly answers the question.

To sum up, I feel we need to create a new definition of what BIM is. This is my attempt at a definition – all feedback is welcome in helping further refine the definition below.

BIM: A methodology of coordination and collaboration between all parties involved in a project; a dynamic way of viewing the cause and effect relationship of each element that makes up the whole of the project.


  1. Cost data comes from people who unaedstrnd construction and its costs. If you want to get 85% accurate, there are numerous services that provide cost data at different scales – from components up to buildings.However, every contractor would could build your design will have to be able to price it. Our architect-led construction firm uses a software estimating package called Quest that could easily export cost data to a model.The problem isn’t getting data … it’s getting good data. The accuracy of the last 15% has a significant impact.David Gunderson,

  2. Your story is a bit disheartening, as I have always considered your side of the world to be one of the LEADERS in BIM, and that the US is a few steps behind. If you're having the same sort of issues that we're having over here, then I'm going to still be banging my head on desks for the foreseeable future.

    Changing lanes within the Construction industry is indeed problematic. Changing DIRECTION seems almost impossible. I do hear good things about IPD, but in all honesty, I don't see those projects, as I'm the guy putting the M into BIM for a 2D world that is slow to adapt to change.


  3. Chris: I agree. We are talking about the same thing. I just don't think using the word 'collaboration' is helpful. It doesn't describe the actual problem(s) so allows people to not only avoid doing anything about it but to put the blame on to others.

  4. Antony: I was being optimistic when I said twice. I'm on the tail-end of all that work up front, and my example/description of collaboration in my 1st post "is" a reality. We're talking about the same elephant-in-the-room, you're just standing at the trunk, and I'm standing at the tail.

  5. Chris, Why do you think things only have to be done once? This is exactly my point.
    As an architect I first design the building making assumptions about what the structure and services will be because the engineers won't do anything until the building is designed.
    Then engineers do their work and we have to do redesign work to get it to fit in with the design. We see that as our job.
    But do you think we can get the engineers to change their design to optimize the building? No way, apparently they "have used their fee up".
    It is not about collaboration (whatever that is, nobody seems to be able to give a real life example) it is about people changing their altitudes from providing a design product to a design service.

  6. It amazing me how people think they don't have time to collaborate, but they always seem to have time to do things twice.

  7. Well said. The problem is if noone makes the time to coordinate and collaborate, then the project is going to have a hard time meeting its schedule and budget.

    I am not always assuming its the architect's fault – sometimes its the GCs fault, the subcontractor's fault, the engineers fault – someone is not pulling their weight when it comes to sharing information. This lack of communication and worry about who's fault and who's liable is what can drastically undermine the efficacy of trying to make a project work. This does occur every day on the job – at least for me. Sometimes – not all the information is given to do the work.

  8. "Why didn't the architect take the time to review the shaft … "
    Why do you assume it is the architect's fault? Maybe they have asked and not got a timely reply. And even then why do they need to ask?
    But you are right about the review. Architects are the only ones that reviewing things, (which seems to anoy everyone), everybody else assumes they make one decision and their work is done.

    And yes, I class it a fantasy world where everyone has the time to sit around and chew the fat, drawing on napkins and chatting on the phone.

    "You should have asked", which is what collaboration here seems to mean, is not a replacement for doing your job and providing your information in the first place.

  9. I'm gonna give you the secret to tearing down silo's, and it doesn't require a high-powered computer, or 100k in software. The entire collaboration process can be started with a $23 dollar investment.

    Its called a napkin sketch. You need a 50 cent pen, and $22.50 for the bar tab. Dont' go cheap, and try to use a pencil.. you have to spend money to make money after all.

    If you are working with people in far-away places, then I recommend you both grab a beer, or a coffee, and utilize a fax machine. If you're super fancy, you could use Google-Hangout, or Join.Me, or a plethora of other "collaborating software" that they give away for free. If you're MEGA-RICH, you could spring for some more expensive software.

    Collaboration is easy… Don't let anyone tell you that its difficult in the least. Its just talking… and drawing simple pictures to figure out complex things.

    OK, so I lied… you'll probably have to pick up the phone too.

  10. Interesting…so collaboration and coordination is as far fetched as world peace and ending poverty. Interesting analogy, however I think collaboration happens more than you care to think or want to consider. I am not blaming everything on the architect – I in fact will take the architect's side when it comes to compromising the design intent of an area due to lack of collaborating with the structural engineer or MEP. The question is – why did the architect not take the time to review the things that are critical to their design. The determination of a size of shaft is minor in things – what happens when you have major structural issues that affect the design intent? Then what? Do we just throw our hand in the air and give up? Or do we get together and figure it out – or collaborate as its otherwise known as.

  11. So collaboration is a 'Love-in' where everyone has designed their area of responsibility and has full knowledge of what their requirements are.
    Doesn't happen!
    The reason the architect designed the shaft too small is he was given inadequate information. Why is there an expectation the architect should just 'know' everything? We rely on others to tell us.
    We constantly fight with engineers and D & C contractors to start their designs before our architectural design is finished. On a current project the fire contractor refused to put pen to paper before everyone else had produced their drawings.
    There are two reasons people end up working in silos. One is because they want to, the other is no-one will talk to them.
    Collaboration sounds wonderful but is a fantasy like world peace and ending poverty.
    What we really need is for ALL project team members to treat their work as an iterative process, not a 'draw once and build' exercise.

  12. @antony I never said collaboration would solve all our problems. It's a another way to look at a project and try to ensure its success

    @chris nice post!! Thanks for sharing and shedding some light into what any of us know…..a lot of things occur during a good coordination meeting.

  13. When there is a failure to take in account all of the things that occur in a building, this affects many things…even the vision of the architect. The attitude of thinking that the engineer has a good reason as to why that pipe is there is the attitude of working inside a silo. Your work may progress but it happens independent of others. The structural engineer should work closely and collaborate with the design team since structure is so integral to design. If you have beams penetrating or even below a ceiling that was designed, wouldn't that be an issue you would be concerned with? Or is the attitude that the engineer has a good reason as to why that beam is there a good enough answer?

    The main issue in failing to collaborate is that the design team deals with design intent and trades deal with a level of detail above that, at fabrication level, a much higher level of work. I would think collaboration is vital since it all of those groups working together to actually bring the vision of the design team to reality.

  14. While these two terms are indeed separate, they typically happen at exactly the same time, and happen during "coordination meetings". In those meetings, when construction professionals should just be deciding who goes where, we find ourselves fixing the erroneous specifications that are outdated and no longer meet code, coordinating equipment and design with Architectural and Structural elements that were never considered, redesigning entire areas to accommodate the congestion that "horse-blind" designers have created, planning ahead for trades that aren't even on-board yet… while doing Clash Detection, and trying to maintain a building schedule put together by someone that has zero sense of how long construction tasks actually take.

    We are typically give 3 to 4 weeks to complete all of these tasks for an area, while at the same time issuing construction and fabrication for the previous area, while modeling ahead for the next area.

    There is good reason that people confuse these two, separate terms…

    @Antony: You don't care why a Pipe is there, but you should care because you're designing rooms around the shaft that accommodates them, the Structural Engineer is designing Steel around the opening, and the Electrical Engineer is designing electrical mains that passes directly under this particular shaft. When I inform you that your shaft is too small because no one accounted for insulation, or the annular space requirements around this Pipe noted in the Fire-stopping specss… you are now redesigning rooms to accommodate. The ceiling pattern is changing, people are moving lights and diffusers, furniture, etc. Structural is now moving steel, and this needs to go back through the City. The Electrical Engineer is now getting RFI's about where to reroute the Electrical Mains due to conflicts with a growing shaft-bottom, and the Framer is asking for an extra to accommodate sheetrock changes on walls that were not in his bid.

    An hour or 3 of "collaboration" could of saved hundreds of hours, and 10's of thousands of dollars, that ends up impacting the Owner overall cost.

  15. I don't get how 'collaboration' is going to solve all our problems.
    As an architect I don't care why that pipe is there, I trust the engineer has a good reason. I don't want to interfere with the engineer's work and I don't want him or her to interfere with mine.
    Saying everyone should know everything about all things sounds like a good idea but is not even close to being realistic or practical.

    I've yet to see a plausible example of this so called 'collaboration'. Could anyone enlighten me with a real world example?

  16. Good article. I think a good definition can lead to building a good standard process that teams can work from. I personally have a vendetta against people that throw the analogy "BIM" on the table without first understanding it. We need to do a better job at educating. Without a definition there can be no education.

  17. DJ – I appreciate that you've broken it down to these two components: collaborate and coordinate. Its important to recognize that they are NOT the same thing, but are both incredibly necessary for successful anything in this industry, especially when it comes to BIM.

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