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Tools alone won’t change our culture

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If BIM is to work we need better education, new contractual models to encourage collaboration and the leadership to develop teamwork, says Gary Sullivan OBE, chairman of logistics contractor Wilson James.

In the early 1990s I was introduced to a chap called Barry Ramsey, a Kiwi. Barry was working with Stanhope and others to produce a 3D modelling tool. 25 years Later we have BIM and while today’s technology is perhaps a little faster, they look pretty similar.

More recently I met Mark Bew. Like Barry, he’s a pretty smart chap too. So smart, in fact that, as with Barry, I don’t understand much of what he says. This is due to my lack of expertise, by the way, and not Mark’s erudition or eloquence.

I understand the words, I understand the intent, I even understand what it (BIM) can do and importantly what it can’t. What I don’t understand is: if it allows the supply chain to innovate, why don’t they? If it creates collaboration, which in turn creates lean and focused information essential to operational delivery, why hasn’t operational delivery improved?

Apparently when BIM arrived on the scene in 2011, it was going to create greater predictability and certainty, resulting in faster project delivery. It would reduce risk, there would be less waste and sustainability would be better.

Promised differences

No doubt I will be “trolled” by BIM Ninjas, it may become unsafe to walk past an architect’s office without incurring the wrath of God, or should that be Gods? But the questions have to be asked. If 3D modelling has been around 25 years or longer, and I know that BIM is a lot more than 3D modelling, why is it new and why isn’t it making those promised differences of more of somethings and less of others?

Before you jump on to any of your various devices to remonstrate with this upstart and Luddite, let me continue.

Gary Sullivan: BIM is not a panacea

I am as much as a fan as anyone of a virtual walk through, anything that provides me with timely information can only be a benefit and who wouldn’t want a tool that lets you see what the future will look like?

But, to quote Steve Crompton of GroupBC.com, who in 2012 said: “BIM without the ‘I’ is just BM, Basically Meaningless.”

The former general secretary of the UN, Kofi Annan, I am guessing, knows little of BIM, but he added to Francis Bacon’s famous quote by saying that “knowledge is indeed power, information is liberating and education is the premise of progress, in every society” – and therein lies the problem.

Human behaviour is not changed by tools alone. We have seen the power of technology in the exploitation of social media, but are we more knowledgeable today than we were before search engines? We certainly have more information than before, although it could be argued that we have too much.

I am not sure I agree that information is liberating, we are bombarded with data that we don’t always know how to interpret, it can be far from liberating, it often suffocates or blinds the recipient.

Then we come to the much-debated subject of education. We could discuss the issue of education, skills, experience and practice ad infinitum. However, I’ll say no more than it should be at the heart of all that we do, but it isn’t.

We have had reports from Latham, Egan, Wolstenholme and now Farmer, our industry hasn’t changed and it hasn’t died. We have not seen any substantial changes to the way our industry contracts or procures, nor have we seen change in the way it makes money (or doesn’t). Quality is traded for price and price remains the winning goal.

Our industry is full of amazing people, who can create works of art, people who can turn that art into functional infrastructure, they have talent and ability to rival any industry. People like Barry Ramsey and Mark Bew: talented, skilled and dare I say it evangelists for that illusive trait, collaboration. BIM, while not yet perfect, is an amazing tool, if only…

If only we were taught to play nice when we were young, if only we were taught to share and if only we could collaborate without consideration of money won or lost.

The elevation or obscurity of BIM will not be about its power as a tool, or even about the skill of its users, it will be about the culture change that is taking longer than your average ice age. “How do we speed that up?” I hear you shout. That is up to every leader at every level in this industry. Until you believe that collaboration is healthy, until you believe that knowledge is not power, actually knowledge dispels fear, and we can play nice when we operate without fear.

BIM is not a panacea, it is not integral to the construction programme and ignores logistics. To make BIM work, we need a few things to happen. We need to educate folk about the value of information as a transforming resource, it is not just data; we need to change the contractual models in construction to encourage human collaboration, not just data sharing via technology; and we need leadership to create that elusive prize, teamwork.

The elevation or obscurity of BIM will not be about its power as a tool, or even about the skill of its users, it will be about the culture change that is taking longer than your average ice age.– Gary Sullivan, Wilson James