Even as the construction world trends toward the digital, soft skills and creativity are becoming more critical than ever among business leaders. Successful construction entrepreneurs seem to be lucky people.
They appear to have a knack for stumbling across good ideas and tend to be in the right place at the right time to fully exploit them. But the vast body of research into what makes a successful entrepreneur indicates that luck plays very little part in their lives.
By continually searching for something new, these entrepreneurs are doing something deliberate – even if they happen to find something quite unexpected during the process. In other words, by the very act of looking for something, entrepreneurs instinctively create the conditions and opportunities for a serendipitous opportunity or insight to occur.
Recent research into the life stories of successful entrepreneurs shows that they share seven common attributes: humility, intellectual curiosity, optimism, vulnerability, authenticity, generosity, and openness. These crucial qualities make them more ‘attractive’ or ‘magnetic’ to others and give them a greater chance of being exposed to new ideas, often from other fields, which might create a new business opportunity in their own business. Successful entrepreneurs don’t live in straight lines but in a zig-zag, where random interactions, casual conversations and accidental encounters enrich their lives. They also tend to see their success as social and more reliant on relationships and ‘communities of practice’ than on access to vast quantities of facts and figures.
It may seem counterintuitive, but these soft relational skills are becoming even more important in the context of an increasingly digitised construction industry. Many of the traditional tasks, processes and knowledge that form the basis of work in the construction industry are easy to digitise, and innovative firms are already thinking about how they can merge digitisation and artificial intelligence with human qualities to create new forms of value.
This means trying to define and then develop the sorts of attributes which will be needed by their current and future employees to be successful in a digitised construction industry – and also new business metrics to measure them. It may seem strange that while new digital technologies will generate vast amounts of data and require new analytical skills to understand them, research is also showing that because digitisation is able to replace tasks and jobs which rely on routine cognitive and manual skills, successful businesses will also need to develop non-routine, entrepreneurial, innovative, creative and social skills. These skills will be needed to work in the diverse multidisciplinary environments facilitated by these new digital technologies.
Success will also depend on businesses developing new more nuanced and sophisticated business metrics, using both formative and summative assessments to use alongside traditional accountant-based measures of productivity and efficiency, which reflect these types of soft attributes. Such metrics may include entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship, networking, emotional intelligence, empathy, ability to work in teams and to collaborate across traditional disciplinary boundaries.
These simple insights should cause those who work in the construction industry to pause and reflect about the sorts of skills and attributes we need to develop in our future workforce and whether our traditional hard-nosed commercial and often confrontational culture, will serve us well into the future. While many argue that new technologies like digitisation, robotics, BIM, ICTs, big data and the use of analytics have the potential to transform the construction industry, we need to first develop and measure the types of attributes which will allow us to create a culture of trust and collaboration which will be the foundation upon which all this new technology will ultimately succeed or fail.