Digital transformation - overcoming barriers
Charles Jensen of ICE Engineering Knowledge, discusses the outcome of the joint report from an ICE-Bluebeam roundtable discussion on how the construction sector can overcome barriers to digital transformation.
It has long been known that the construction industry is lagging behind other sectors in digital working. Level 2 BIM was mandated in 2016, and since then, the UK Government has largely left the industry to do things itself and implement BIM without much clarity and often mixed results.
In September 2019, Bluebeam surveyed 161 construction industry firms, mainly in the UK and Asia and across different experience and career levels. Their answers revealed some valuable insights into the barriers holding companies back from embracing digital transformation. This was a pulse-taking on the state of digital adoption in the industry.
The research focused on the cultural and behavioural barriers to digital transformation within AEC businesses and opportunities for improvement. Following the survey, a roundtable discussion was held at the ICE London headquarters focusing on the cultural and behavioural barriers to digital transformation.
 The Good
- Onsite digital data collection is happening more now on construction projects through the use of digital forms. Although data collection is still not always collated in a standardised format common language, people are starting to recognise the benefits of collecting data on-site. For the first time, we are using data to drive decision-making. In the past, information was collected, assessed, monitored and stored in an ad hoc manner. Now organisations are starting to recognise the value data can bring to projects and it’s becoming a genuine asset. People are using apps and dashboards to summarise information onsite and provide real-time access to live information.
- There is increasing professionalism in handling data and respect for this too, which has been a big shift. "As a company it was difficult to foster that respect, but now we’ve jumped that hurdle," said one participant.
- Increasingly, projects can now include AI or machine based-learning which is adding value to multiple datasets in a way construction projects weren’t able to before. And more sensor and intelligent data can be added into projects, such as satellite data and Google maps; all forms of sensing, imaging, video data that weren't accessible before can now be accessed and utilised in a positive and beneficial way.
- The public is driving the industry to change and become more accountable. There’s public awareness of recent high-profile news stories such as the Grenfell disaster, Carillion’s bankruptcy and data security issues. It’s now not acceptable to show disregard for these sorts of problems. The industry is expected to address these issues and handle them well.
- The industry is collaborating more! Net-zero carbon has been a huge renewed driver for achieving digital transformation. The industry is seeing traditional competitors coming together to work on this global challenge. It's so significant that we can't face it as individual organisations. And from a digital perspective, there’s a focus to use digital technologies and data-driven approaches to monitor and measure the progress of more sustainable project outcomes. The evidence is in the results.
- There is hope for the future; new graduates and apprentices who are digitally native are entering the industry. They’re used to working with digital software, so it’s a normal skill rather than one they need to be trained in.
 The Bad
- Implementation of digital transformation is poor, with companies distorting the picture to make it seem like digital transformation is further ahead than it is. Organisations don’t always prioritise efficient digital solutions or promote data-based decision making, and nearly half of firms are operating at BIM Level 1 or lower.
- There is more demand for owner/operators to take their data ownership responsibilities more seriously, due to guidance from IPA and NIC.
- Small SMEs are struggling to keep up with all the technical advancements that digital transformation offer because technology can be expensive, and they have less time overall to train employees.
- A little effort from large organisations/clients can pay dividends here - sharing your systems or providing training to those working for SMEs within a project. For a small cost, this could take away burden and cost for SME partners and create trust and more efficiencies. Also, sometimes only large organisations can be the bridge between SMEs who are working digitally and those who are trying to catch up. SMEs are at an advantage too; they can be more agile here as it is far easier to upskill smaller companies with fewer employees.
 Training need
Two types of training exist, and both are needed: awareness about relevant technologies and processes to implement new tech across an organisation. This is best done during on-boarding, when keenness to learn is highest. But also a right-on-time training when something needs to be done immediately. The funding for these two types may reside in different budgets (central HR budget and project budget); accepting this and locating them may be useful in identifying how to fund training.
Also, there is still a bad reaction by some to the concept of digital which to some is a meaningless word and hence digital training sometimes doesn’t land well. Training is a closed, limited-scope activity. Education should be ongoing and encouraged. To get people to think in new ways, perhaps we should call it ‘digital transformation education’ and empower people to organise it for themselves. When people are in control of their own learning, they learn better.
 Looking forward to the infrastructure sector
The industry is shifting from doing projects to providing products (and infrastructure as a service). Systems are slowly becoming data-based rather than form-based. And from this, data-custodian or librarian is an emerging new role.
A lot of changes in current practice have come from people side-stepping in from other industries. One point to consider is, as a sector, do we send enough people out into other industries? If we aren’t doing this, how can we hope to learn from sectors further ahead in digital transformation? Maybe we should be encouraging a lot more people to go out on secondment placements to learn from other organisations.
Traditionally for the sector, we’ve only looked ahead to the end of a project, or maybe to 3-5 year vision. Having a long-term vision may be beneficial, although hard to do. By having a long-term plan, with regular, annual updates, this allows an organisation to adapt well to the current industry and technological possibilities.
Thirteen companies were represented at the ICE's roundtable, and over 161 responded to the survey outlining the problems. It is hugely encouraging to hear that a number of them have already noticed these problems themselves and in some cases taken steps to overcome them. As an industry, we need to share our efforts to enable efficient digital working and results - for that matter - both good and bad. Only from these efforts will we then enable our companies and their supply chains to make the fundamental changes needed and get the most from the digital revolution.
The companies taking part were:
- Sir Robert McAlpine
- ISG plc
- Scottish Water
- Balfour Beatty
- Oxfordshire County Council
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