New digital technologies like BIM and virtual and augmented reality have the power to transform many aspects of the construction industry, but they have yet to find their way into mainstream construction business activities.
According to the many advocates of such technologies, they have the potential to enable construction project teams, clients and supply chains to work more collaboratively to co-produce, experience and test buildings before work starts.
Furthermore, by integrating digital devices into plant and machinery and building structures, we have the potential to improve construction logistics, safety and productivity by more accurately measuring, monitoring and managing resource movements, flows and levels on projects.
This is the theory at least, and while there are clearly concerns about intrusion into peoples’ lives, privacy and data ownership and security, recent research shows that compared to other industries, construction has been relatively slow in capitalising on the potential benefits of the new digital revolution which is sweeping many other sectors.
Recent research shows that one of the biggest pitfalls for firms wanting to engage in this new technological revolution is focussing on the technology itself rather than the process of cultural and organisational change which is needed to integrate it effectively into their business. There is an increasing realisation that the technology itself is only a small part of the story and it is interesting that many technology companies like Microsoft are spending an increasing amount of time and resources on helping their customers implement new technology solutions into their business.
Important insights from recent research include:
- Stay rational: technology is a bottomless pit and is very exciting and enticing. There are potentially huge benefits of new digital technologies but also many costs and risks. Technology should be a means to an end, not an end in itself and seen as only one part of the success equation.
- Collaboration is key: the supply and demand chain has a key role in successful technology absorption.
- Collective responsibility cannot be assumed: there will be resistance to change and culture, people, structures and systems may need to adapt.
- Careful planning is needed: technology improvement efforts should be carefully planned and coordinated.
- Be strategic: focus on the big strategic game-changers that can provide competitive advantage (there is a tendency to focus on operational incremental improvements).
- Move incrementally: you can’t do everything at once; adopt a staged approach, build on existing initiatives, limit number of initiatives, keep it simple, focus on what creates competitive advantage, be courageous in some areas where you think you can succeed.
- Develop a technology integration strategy: new technology can be overwhelming. There needs to be a clear vision and integrated strategy regarding how to use technology effectively in your business (new technology affects many parts of an organisation).
In addressing the last point, there are five key questions which firms need to ask in developing an effective technology integration strategy:
- Why are we doing this – is it competitor, client or internally driven?
- What are the broad goals for our organization in using technology and what are the concrete goals against which we can measure success? These can include sustainability, productivity, quality, cost, safety, waste, reputation, stakeholder involvement and so on.
- What technologies are out there, and how mature are they?
- Which ones will best meet our goals?
- What are the risks and opportunities of each technology?
- What is our absorptive capacity to use it effectively? What needs to change to effectively use the new technology to advantage – vision, mission, management philosophy, leadership, workforce skills/knowledge/capabilities, systems, processes, structures, roles and relationships, supply and demand chain partners, existing technologies/systems, interoperability and so on.
- Who will be affected by the new technology (the key stakeholders) and how will they need to be involved and/or consulted?
- How does it affect existing professional boundaries and interfaces, power structures, job descriptions, roles and responsibilities, systems of communication, processes and reporting structures?
- Will it be met by resistance, and from where will that come?
- Does our supply chain and workforce have the skills, capability and openness to use the new technology?
- What alliances and partnerships do we need to form in the supply and demand chain? Most firms these days do not have the full range of skills and knowledge to innovate and co-create new ideas in collaboration with other firms who have complementary skills and knowledge and finance?
- How fast do we want to move? Do we want to be a first mover, fast follower or a laggard? Fast following can often be the best strategy since the costs of testing new technologies and teething problems can be borne by the first mover and fast follower can improve the technology and deliver at lower costs.
- How fast do we want to roll this out – incrementally or radical/rule busting?
- How fast do we expect to get ROI?
- How do we want to develop/procure the new technology (develop in-house, licence, co-develop or otherwise)?
- How much do we want to invest in terms of time, money and resources? Research shows most people don’t invest enough.
- How will we roll it out/diffuse the innovation into our organisation? Consider changing mind sets, training, forming new alliances and so on.
- How will we collect feedback from stakeholders and measure and monitor success and progress against goals?
Moving forward into the new digital age, which many are calling the fourth industrial revolution, will involve many risks and opportunities and the firms that will succeed will need to tread carefully and think strategically to fully capitalise on what can realistically be achieved within their own specific capability, time and resource constraints.