Digital tools are improving the construction, engineering and architecture industry, but cultural and behavioural challenges to large-scale digital transformation persist.
These barriers exist from top to bottom, according to a report by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE). Clients may not fully understand new digital tools; industry professionals may require constant training and re-training on changing technology; and on-site workers may have little enthusiasm for tracking their work through new digital reports.
In response to the report, conducted by ICE in association with Bluebeam, several construction and engineering experts assembled for a roundtable discussion in the United Kingdom on 24 February to share their thoughts on these digital transformation challenges.
Here are the most important takeaways from the discussion.
Defining the challenge
When it comes to adopting digital transformation in construction, there is often confusion about what that exactly means, according to the roundtable participants.
First and foremost, there’s an important difference between ‘digitisation’ and ‘digitalisation’. ‘Digitisation is just taking what you have and making it digital; digitalisation is changing the process so that it’s better’, said Vicki Reynolds, head of digital for I3PT and CertCentral, during the roundtable conversation.
The greater the awareness of how digitalisation is the clients’ goal – rather than the mere digitisation of data or designs – can be instrumental in driving digital transformation. Clients have a vested interest in the ongoing lifecycle of their building and the total cost of ownership (TCO); they should be the first to buy into a digital approach to garner the longest-term benefits of increased productivity, efficiency and more intelligent designs.
Executive buy-in is a must
Digital transformation begins in the C-Suite. Although individuals may have an interest and education in operating a digital business, large organisations can’t make the turn without executive buy-in.
Reynolds said that she has observed a ‘shift in respect for data’ among executive leadership in organisations she has worked for. She said it was initially ‘difficult to foster respect for information and data, whereas I think we’ve now jumped that hurdle and most major contractors in the U.K. will have a product officer leading something like this or a data analyst team.’
Still, the growing interest in digitalisation creates a market for solutions – processes, apps, platforms and the training that goes into each. ‘I think with digital, we’re not necessarily trying to lock down a way of doing things’, said Mike Hunting, the head of governance, risk and commercial at Atkins. In fact, we’re trying to create a space to allow innovation and for data to be used in different ways.’
‘There needs to be consistency in what you do as an organisation’, added Nick Leach, a strategic BIM manager at Sir Robert McAlpine. ‘If you put your subcontractor hat on, if they’re using different systems with just one company on lots of multiple projects, then you tie in the fact that working on lots of other jobs, it’s hard for them to try and keep up with what app or what bit of technology, so you need to be consistent across the tools.’
Digitalisation can rapidly innovate, but the key to successful technologies might be interoperability.
‘The next step is encouraging or demanding interoperability across platforms’, Reynolds said. ‘So, there should be a single sign-on regardless of what systems you’re using on a project. The platforms themselves should only be brought to projects if they are interoperable with other major platforms.’
Moreover, the value of interoperability and data flexibility across platforms is vital to successful digitalisation.
‘The more I’m going onsite now, after probably a couple of years of spending less time on site, I’m seeing a lot more digital forms, and even more exciting is that data is being collected in a common language now’, Reynolds said.
Reynolds provided an example that any contractor should have an interest in for reducing overhead costs: insurance.
‘We are currently working closely with a major insurer for construction’, Reynolds said, ‘and they plan on using the data that we are collecting onsite to help them decide how much to insure construction projects for.’ Improved data collection and analysis provides a clearer picture of risk, and clearer risk within an insurance pool creates more precise – and often lower – premiums, she said.
Bolster training and education
Many companies have already incorporated a data analysis team to oversee any data produced onsite and to store and study data properly to build a continually growing resource for forecasting and decision-making.
Kevin Reeves, a director for Internet of Things and Digital Twin at Costain, said he uses digital twin technology as an example of how long-term digitisation plans are important to improve benefits across the whole life of an asset.
‘If you look at the national digital twin program, which extends more than 30 years, they recognise that for it to really be effective and to feed down into the supply chain, it probably will take that long’, Reeves said. ‘If we think about everything in short five or 10-year regulatory cycles, how can you achieve things like whole life performance backed by data? The benefits are more limited if you only think relatively short term. So, as an organisation, we’re starting to change our thinking. We now have a long-term vision and an agile five to10-year strategy, which we then break down into programs of work that are really focused into one- or two-year periods.’
Training for digital expertise is also shifting the design and build landscape. Many believe that the U.K.’s government, which has adopted design standards, should expand to training standards so a central knowledge base of digital professionals can easily share data across platforms as well as get the entire industry up to speed with set frameworks and new digital technologies.
Ultimately, the roundtable panelists concluded, the government should aim for clients to understand how digitalisation can improve their TCO, as clients buying in is the greatest barrier to industrywide digitalisation. This means digital competency should be considered an essential part of professionals’ job descriptions, with a certain proficiency required before moving up to another level. This could be akin to Six Sigma, where the entire industry recognises a particular standard of proficiency and encourages continual learning.
An eye on change management
Training methods are also important. ‘Training people where they are makes a really big difference’, said Joe Williams, vice president of global industry insights at Bluebeam, maker of Revu and other construction, engineering and architecture industry technology.
For training to succeed, people need to know why they need to change; they need to see the benefits for themselves; and they need to see how the technology will benefit them. Some people will always resist training, so owners and managers should be able to implement certain requirements to ensure ground-level people have set key performance indicators to achieve.
To be sure, fostering a company culture of training can be expensive, but it creates a much more effective and confident professional culture. And, if people are trained in the fundamentals, they will up-skill more rapidly and have greater adaptability.
‘We’re not training someone how to use a specific platform’, Reynolds said. ‘We’re training them to appreciate data and to understand how designs are put together now in a digital environment, which actually should be a transferable skill.’
Hiring the right people, with the right skills
Hiring is also a key area of concern. With so many technologies and an ever-expanding array of tools, do you hire for existing expertise on one platform or for the flexibility to learn many technologies quickly?
This is where digitally focused leaders who understand the broad-level strategy, project requirements and the digital technology necessary to bring it all together are important.
Leach said that if technology is ‘relevant to your role, that needs to be embedded as part of your job role. If you want to be a senior HR manager, there has got to be an element of digital competency in your role.’
It all comes together, of course, when companies hire the right trainers and digital translators who can inspire others to engage with one another and the technology, up-skilling digital apprentices and raising the value of everyone’s work.
There are so many digital tools, platforms and approaches to data management that it’s easy to become overwhelmed – especially for small- to medium-sized businesses that can’t afford to make the mistake of investing in the wrong technology.
The digitalisation of the construction industry is still in its infancy, but it’s already an essential component for builders to understand and capitalise on. Sound data collection and analysis will lead to better decisions in the short and long term.