NEC Contracts (commonly known just as NEC), based in London, is part of the commercial arm of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in the UK. It maintains and supplies the New Engineering Contract (NEC), a standardised suite of engineering and construction contracts for use both in major framework projects such as Crossrail, and more minor works and purchasing. The contracts ensure sound project management principles and practices, as well as robust legal relationships across these engagements. The ethos behind them includes clarity and simplicity for all parties, based on values that have been agreed collaboratively and established as industry-wide operating standards.
The NEC contract suite dates back nearly three decades, and has been updated periodically to keep the terms and conditions relevant. The latest edition, NEC 4, was published in 2017. At this point NEC saw an opportunity to take the contracts digital.
Previously, clients would buy hard copies or PDFs of the documents, which they could apply across multiple use cases. After a year, the PDF would be locked and clients would have to pay a new subscription fee. But that was as far as NEC’s digital offering went.
The new vision was to make contract access more convenient and collaborative, with everything kept together in one place. This would include the data elements of a contract (the name and value of the project, and so on) as well as the finished document. All of this would be readily accessible by clients via a self-service online space.
“Users told us this was something they wanted – a place to prepare and keep contracts, and find them again easily,” explains Liz Brookfield, Head of Product Development at NEC. “So that’s what we set out to provide.”
Having raised the expectations of its clients and of ICE’s board members, NEC wanted to deliver on its promise in as short a timeframe as possible.
We liked the sound of the way they work; they had related experience; and they clearly understood our business needs – and were able to accommodate them, rather than trying to bend our requirements to fit their software.
NEC’s technical team researched potential development partners, and approached eight companies to see if they could help. Following a competitive tender and round of presentations, One Beyond emerged as the clear choice. “We liked the sound of the way they work; they had related experience; and they clearly understood our business needs – and were able to accommodate them, rather than trying to bend our requirements to fit their software,” Liz says.
True to its reputation, One Beyond helped NEC refine its requirements with proactive suggestions about better or more cost-effective ways of doing things. “They were similarly very helpful throughout the development process, too,” Liz adds.
One Beyond delivered a secure cloud space where contract users can work together to create documents and control access to them across their organisation. “For example, the head of procurement can lock down who sees a contract, and we can set authoring rights and permissions for approving and releasing a contract,” Liz explains. “These controls are very important.”
One Beyond, a Microsoft Gold Partner, used the latest Microsoft technologies to build a secure, web-based application that can be accessed securely from anywhere, via a desktop or laptop. “We discounted mobile optimisation, as the contracts are too wordy for a smaller screen,” Liz notes.
The system, designed with a .net core and a Vue.JS front end, is hosted on Microsoft’s secure Azure cloud infrastructure. “Security was very important, given the nature of the content, and the Azure hosting means there is 24/7/365 access and continuous uptime, which was vital too,” Liz says.
One Beyond used a specialised Rich Text Editor from SyncFusion to optimise the document processing functionality, allowing for copy and paste from sources including Microsoft Word and Excel, while maintaining formatting. Online PDF viewers provide common Adobe PDF Reader functionality including zooming, searching and printing.
The system is integrated with NEC’s Salesforce CRM system, enabling a single sign-on into the system as well as automated checks of an organisation’s ID and subscriptions when creating contracts. The resulting system fits seamlessly into the existing NEC suite of online applications and can be launched directly from the NEC web site’s client area.
One Beyond’s work has been fantastic and the team have been a pleasure to work with. Throughout, they have been very quick to respond; always constructive and able to find a solution that works for us. The new online system is very intuitive to use and does everything we wanted it to do and more. We’re impressed!”
When the Covid-19 public health crisis broke in March 2020, around the time the new system was due to be delivered, NEC took the decision not to add to the changes already disrupting the market and asked One Beyond to ‘park’ the project – for what turned into a period of six months. “They were very understanding about that,” Liz says. “When we restarted the project, they were absolutely outstanding in getting us to the go-live quickly and efficiently.”
The online contract compiler and management hub will prove transformational for clients, Liz says. “It will make our clients’ lives easier and much more efficient. Now they can quickly find and work with everything all in one place, instead of having bits of contract fragmented all over the place. It also gives them a clear audit trail of what has been approved or not.”
Although the new digital contract hub has been targeted predominantly at UK-based clients for now, NEC serves a global market and has a lot of clients in Hong Kong, which will also benefit in due course.
Continuous enhancements will be made to the system over time, based on user feedback, and further digital service innovation is also planned, to continue to improve user convenience. As far as possible, NEC hopes to continue working with One Beyond though, as ICE is a membership body with charity status, there are other stakeholders to consider when selecting a supplier.
“One Beyond’s work has been fantastic and the team have been a pleasure to work with,” Liz concludes. “Throughout, they have been very quick to respond; always constructive and able to find a solution that works for us. The new online system is very intuitive to use and does everything we wanted it to do and more. We’re impressed!”