Lower Thames Crossing (LTC) project builds bridges amongst teams with an intranet based on Microsoft 365

Published on July 21, 2020

Highways England maintain and build the roads that carry 35% of England’s total traffic by volume and connect the country’s major cities. A current Highways England scheme is the Lower Thames Crossing (LTC), a transportation infrastructure project with a budget between £5.3 billion and £6.8 billion

(US$6.63 billion and US$8.5 billion) designed to benefit the Lower Thames area east of London. When finished, 23.3 kilometres (14.5 miles) of new roads, 50 new bridges and viaducts, and two 4.3-kilometre (2.5-mile) tunnels beneath the River Thames—which will be the third-widest such tunnels in the world—will route heavy-goods vehicles from the southeast English ports directly into London from the east.

This massive undertaking began in 2017 as a joint venture amongst three individual companies and 200 staff. When the construction phase begins, the workforce will balloon to 14,000 people. By the time the project ends in 2027, all these people will have gone. Given this extraordinary situation, Colin Shedden, IT architect and operations manager of a five-person LTC team for Highways England, had to find a way to communicate, collaborate, and preserve institutional knowledge in the face of a 40% turnover rate.

To do that, he turned to Microsoft 365.

Starting from scratch…

Before Microsoft 365, LTC didn’t have an intranet. In fact, there was no common platform of any kind. The LTC scheme was effectively built for purpose, and the people involved in the project brought their technology with them from their parent organisations. LTC’s technology team consisted of just five people whose primary task was to keep the lights on. “There was no budget for technology,” notes Shedden. “People are coming with their own laptops—everything is BYOD. Everyone uses his or her parent company’s calendar and email.” A common intranet that the entire project team could use would help keep everyone on the same page.

…with unique challenges

However, LTC is unique in that people constantly rotate on and off the project from their parent companies and partner organisations based on their expertise and the phase the project is in. This entirely task-oriented culture makes getting people up to speed a challenge. The other challenge was preserving knowledge when people rotated off the project. A common intranet was one part of the solution for LTC; the other part was Microsoft Teams.

“Some of our people work for member companies; others rotate in, perform their stated task, and then rotate out. There’s not much time to acclimatise. You have to get up to speed, get the resources you need, and get to work almost instantly,” says Shedden. All these teams are producing and updating project-specific artefacts, from environmental impact statements and soil analyses to archaeological inventories and construction blueprints. The staff must be able to change these materials in real time, and the materials must be accessible across the LTC project, even when the people who created them have long since rotated off the project.

LTC need to maintain institutional knowledge across teams despite high turnover. Staff need to publish updates quickly that are visible across the project, and LTC have to avoid lost productivity.”

— Wes Hackett, CTO, Addin365

High-pressure requirements

Collaboration and communication were vital for LTC’s success. For example, the initial phase of the LTC project culminated with the development consent order (DCO). This 150,000-page planning permission document required collaboration amongst nearly 30 people to coordinate multiple county governments and nongovernmental organisations as well as determining the sites for major high-pressure gas mains and high-voltage electricity cables. With no LTC-specific email or intranet and staff coming from many different organisations outside Highways England, lost productivity, lost documents, and overlap loomed.

The LTC scheme is a high-pressure, high-profile effort, with deadlines having been agreed upon long before the project’s start. Any failure to hit a deadline can cost thousands—or even millions—of pounds.

Shedden knew that the intranet would have to be lightweight, agile, and able to support high turnover:

“When the project started in 2017, there were about 200 people. In 2020, there are 750 people. When construction begins, numbers will surge to 3,000 to 4,000 office staff working across approximately 20 compounds and another 10,000 construction workers.”

To help build this centralised communication and tools hub, Shedden turned to Suzy Dean and Wes Hackett of Addin365 to discuss LTC’s requirements. “LTC need to maintain institutional knowledge across teams despite high turnover. Staff need to publish updates quickly that are visible across the project, and LTC have to avoid lost productivity,” says Hackett.

SharePoint helps LTC adapt

Shedden and his team already used Microsoft 365 internally, so building an intelligent intranet based on SharePoint and capitalising on the collaboration features in Teams were easy choices. “With Microsoft 365 technologies, we could create an intranet that’s agile and easily migrate the content we’d already created,” says Shedden.

People just need to know how to do their jobs. That’s the biggest part of our SharePoint-based intranet.”

– Colin Shedden

By requiring all team members to use Teams and the intelligent intranet based on SharePoint, Shedden ensured that staff could:

  • Collaborate in real time.
  • Access common reference material.
  • Store project artefacts, such as videos and images.
  • Democratise news and information for the whole team to see.

“The intranet is incredibly lightweight but broad. It’s an umbrella over everything,” says Hackett. Users have an official landing page—a hub site—with five to six communication sites associated with it for important content, such as health and safety and International Organization for Standardization (ISO) compliance documents—an extremely important library for development of the DCO and 2,500 more documents.

It’s also agile. As various parts of the project end (for example, DCO) and new phases spin up (such as construction), any associated hubs and their communication sites are archived, and new hubs are created. The archived sites remain searchable so that no institutional knowledge is lost.

At the same time, LTC requires that all team members work in Teams to ensure collaboration, document version control, resources, messaging, and video streaming—and the team members love it. Rather than asking workers to find and access the right LTC intranet pages from a web browser, Hackett and Shedden decided to expose the intelligent intranet through Teams, as well, making Teams a truly one-stop shop. In Teams, Shedden can present the right pages to the right groups of workers: Everything they need is in one place.

Shedden also uses adaptive cards to provide a rich media experience, with the user interface specific to the channel the staff member is in. Unconventional and dynamic, the organisation of the LTC intranet changes based on the phase the project’s in. Its purpose is straightforward:

  • It’s a place for new staff members to go to familiarise themselves with the project.
  • It’s a central repository for information.
  • It connects staff members to the Teams sites they’re part of.

As Shedden puts it, “People just need to know how to do their jobs. That’s the biggest part of our SharePoint-based intranet.”

A democratic culture takes over

The LTC intelligent intranet’s one-stop approach is important because new workers must hit the ground running—without formal training. Shedden doesn’t have the time, budget, or personnel to train new staff, but with the intelligent intranet and Teams, he can raise the digital literacy of the entire LTC workforce to the same starting point, then build from there. “Once the culture adopts Teams—video chat, collaboration—the team culture takes over, and people effectively train themselves. We just teach newcomers the basics of the tools.”

“Once the culture adopts Teams—video chat, collaboration—the team culture takes over, and people effectively train themselves. We just teach newcomers the basics of the tools.”

Once the culture adopts Teams—video chat, collaboration—the team culture takes over, and people effectively train themselves. We just teach newcomers the basics of the tools.”

– Colin Shedden

The LTC intranet–Teams combination is remarkably democratic and efficient. Any member of any team can publish news on his or her team-specific pages. An internal communications team read through the content to determine what should be promoted up through the news cycle to the main LTC news hub. Shedden says, “No one person owns the news of the project.”

Similarly, workers needn’t download documents to their local machines to work on them. Instead, they can work on documents together in real time, tracking changes in Teams web view and taking advantage of guest user access. With Teams, everyone works on the same version: There is no version-control issue.

Getting more out of Microsoft 365

LTC’s IT team is just five people, so automation is necessary. To help, Shedden and Hackett are taking full advantage of the Microsoft Power platform. For example, they’re using Power Automate (formerly Microsoft Flow) as the LTC onboarding system, giving new staff members one-stop access to questionnaires, drugs policy checking, and more. Through Power Apps, the team can also provide deskside assistance; an IT support bot; and a glossary bot, which keeps terminology consistent across the project.

Microsoft 365 enables Shedden’s team to focus on content and processes, not on building technology. Hackett says, “As Microsoft releases new capabilities, they’re immediately ‘lightswitchable,’ meaning that LTC are always using the latest release.” Shedden sums it up this way: “By making the features contextual to the business and the staff member, by making them accessible, they get used. If a tool is ignored, it doesn’t help us.”

Shedden’s all about getting the most out of LTC’s Microsoft 365 investment: “We’re a small team supporting a massive project that has to succeed. Billions of pounds are on the table for the successful completion of this project. If we don’t try things, if we don’t do things in new ways, we won’t succeed. It’s very much try, fail fast, and move on. We’re here to help everyone else succeed.”

Digital first, digital only

Adoption of the LTC intranet and Teams rarely falls below 98%—an extraordinary achievement. Shedden says, “The organisation’s adaptability to change is tremendous.

And leadership at Highways England has taken notice. The lightbulb has just gone off that it’s a completely digital project, cutting edge in its approach. The LTC scheme is changing how the Highways England central team think. It’s become a catalyst for change. “We’ve set the benchmark at E5 licensing

for everyone across the board,” says Shedden, “with Microsoft Dynamics CRM for stakeholder management, Microsoft 365 tools for communication and collaboration, Azure for infrastructure and databases, Azure and Power BI for data analytics and reporting, and now Power Apps for smaller productivity solutions.” The infrastructure Shedden and Addin365 have put in place could well be the target operating model Highways England employ on future schemes.

“In 3 years, the LTC IT team has gone from being a rogue shadow IT organisation to being a technology leader,” says Shedden. “It’s an impressive feat, and Microsoft 365 is a big part of that.”