Neil Thompson MCIOB

Analysis

Interview: Balfour Beatty’s Neil Thompson - Taking change to the industry

8 October 2015 | By Stephen Cousins

Every role I have taken on since has been about identifying ways construction can do things better whilst rubbing up against a culture that is frequently resistant to change.– Neil Thompson, Balfour Beatty

Neil Thompson MCIOB, UK head of digital research and innovation at Balfour Beatty and chair of the CIC BIM 2050 Group, tells BIM+ how he got started in the digital world and the challenges of working in an industry often resistant to change.

Neil Thompson has packed a diverse career covering digital project management, BIM consultancy, environmental services and an education in mechanical engineering and rocket science into his 29 years.

Thompson aptly characterises himself as someone who doesn’t fit the mould, a trait he has played to his advantage to differentiate himself in his career. “My tendency to move between roles is partly the result of my ambition, and partly the result of being exposed to some very forward-thinking people and technology at such a young age.”

Thompson’s career in construction began at just 17, when he left college a year before his A-levels to take on a role as a Revit technician at a local architect, tapping into his basic knowledge of computer programming and website design. “I always had a natural interest in seeing how things work, and the built environment, so I decided to take the job,” says Thompson. “I had no idea at the time I was working with a completely cutting-edge piece of technology.”

The move proved critical to his career, as it brought the experiences of his next job, as a temporary works designer at Harsco, chronically reliant on 2D techniques, into sharp relief. “I thought: this is crazy – we should be using computers to speed up these processes to allow humans to spend more time on all the creative stuff. Every role I have taken on since has been about identifying ways construction can do things better whilst rubbing up against a culture that is frequently resistant to change,” he says.

Thompson went back into education in 2007 to complete his A-levels and study for a degree in mechanical engineering, with a focus on aviation and rocket science. But shortly afterwards he switched back to construction, studying building services engineering at London South Bank University, while working part time for Laing O’Rourke.

That year, Thompson met his future wife, with whom he is now expecting his first child. They live in Southend-on-Sea, where he spends his spare time making music, both digitally and acoustically. He has played lead guitar, synth and “keytar” – a lightweight keyboard strapped around the neck and shoulders – in both indie rock and electro bands, including Aristocrats and The Vanity Clause, and has recorded two EPs and an album.

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Thompson’s next career step was to set up his own BIM consultancy, precociously early in 2009. He believes True Building Information Modelling was one of the first businesses of its kind in the UK. “I was lucky to be ahead of the curve and picked up quite a bit of work as a result,” he says.

One client, BDP, invited him to join full-time as an environmental engineer. Later, when delivering a speech as part of the CIBSE Young Engineers Network in 2012, Thompson caught the attention of Balfour Beatty, which approached him to devise a strategy to integrate BIM through the business. “It was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse – something I didn’t think I’d ever get the opportunity to do,” he says.

In his current role, as head of digital research and innovation at Balfour, a key focus is project managing a £250,000 Innovate UK-funded scheme to deliver a new form of tendering app, in collaboration with technology startup
3D Repo and the Finishes and Interiors Sector (FIS). The software being developed will address the problems of digital information overload, caused when supply chain contractors are asked to price jobs based on vast amounts of project information rather than the specific package they are interested in.

“Information density has gone beyond the point of human management,” says Thompson. “We are looking at how we can use an e-commerce platform, in conjunction with a 3D model, to upload and categorise data and only send out relevant information to the relevant people. It should make things a lot easier for the Tier 1 contractor and for tendering firms.”

Thompson became a chartered member of the CIOB earlier this year and is working towards chartership at the Institution of Engineering and Technology. He says the CIOB’s interdisciplinary approach provides access to a far greater pool of expertise than any other institution, while MCIOB status itself demonstrates his ability to tie people and processes together.

“Engineers don’t always make very good managers, so the qualification helps me articulate that ability. As construction becomes more globalised, being MCIOB opens up new employment prospects abroad,” he adds.

In addition to a demanding workload, Thompson somehow finds time to study for a master’s in construction economics and management at UCL and chair the CIC BIM 2050 Group, an interdisciplinary group of young professionals working to support BIM adoption in the UK.

So, given his far-reaching experience with BIM, what is the biggest challenge facing the industry today? “It is frustrating that construction has created a separate role for BIM staff, the mystical BIM Superman,” he says. “Detaching BIM from the ordinary day jobs of people in construction is disruptive and creates a barrier to people wanting to join the sector. For example, an individual might question whether they want to become a construction manager when they could become a BIM guy. This should be about digitising what we do, not quitting our jobs to go and do some BIM,” he concludes.