Analysis

When ‘collaboration’ is the hardest word

21 June 2017 | By Dr Anne Kemp

To respond to the government’s Construction 2025 strategy targets, the industry must make BIM Level 2 ‘business as usual’ throughout the supply and demand chain by 2020. But is it the need for closer collaboration that’s holding us back, asks Dr Anne Kemp, chair for the UK BIM Alliance.

Let me tell you a tale of two industries. On the one side are the “haves” – the forward-looking early BIM adopters – driven by the mandate for large public sector projects but becoming increasingly sophisticated and adept in their use of the methodology.

On the other are the “could haves” – the 95% that mainly work for SMEs and are too small to even consider bidding for large public sector projects. We are talking here about a substantial 1.5 million workers.

Perhaps the chasm is not quite as wide as this yet. However, with the government’s attention now moving on from the mandated BIM Level 2 to Level 3, the gap between the BIM-enabled and the rest could certainly widen.

This is where the newly-formed UK BIM Alliance has stepped in – to make sure the rest of the industry continues to work towards BIM Level 2 with the aim of making it “business as usual” by 2020.

But why are smaller businesses still reluctant about BIM? They must agree that we need digital transformation in order to survive in the global market. There’s every chance that they have embraced digitisation as consumers – they are on Facebook and LinkedIn, listen to music via Spotify and order a taxi using Uber.

The potential benefits are far-reaching, ranging from cost and waste reductions to better resource allocation; fewer construction clashes and the ability to explore “what if?” scenarios to produce better-quality buildings. And once construction projects are complete, the benefits continue through the building lifecycle in terms of improved maintenance and sustainability.

So if BIM is about collaborative working, managing information and 3D geometry, which part is causing the problems? If technology takes care of the 3D design and there are processes and tools to manage information, then could it be that it’s the concept of working closer together with partners and suppliers that is the real challenge?

There’s certainly a need to change the way we work, becoming less adversarial and more cooperative while still respecting the commercial interests of one another. But the silo mentality is still deeply entrenched.

While BIM mainly belonged in the upstream reaches of a project, the architects and engineers developed standards and protocols that didn’t necessarily suit the construction teams and supply chains further down the line. Consequently, BIM discussions are often deeply technical and far too complex and without the much-needed emphasis on the value proposition.

In its paper BIM in the UK: Past, Present and Future, the UK BIM Alliance points out that up until now, BIM has largely been delivered as part of the design by engineering consultants, but not as a broader data and information management approach, it has been bolted onto existing practices and not optimised through an effective digital transformation strategy.

However, early involvement of the supply chain is essential to a new collaborative approach. With this will come the need to create digital representations of assets as standard with increasing numbers of attributes.

Those providers already facing low profit margins may balk at this prospect. However, the investment will be rewarded as these object standards become more widely used and collaboration becomes a two-way design conversation.

It’s difficult for businesses working in a highly competitive environment to trust even those working on either side of the design/build/operate chain on the same project. But the right team mentality has to begin at the procurement stage.

Current procurement processes make it difficult for a client to “buy” a collaborative approach, often deciding on those who will carry out the later construction stages and the final management of the building separately from the design.

The industry needs to find ways to make it easier for a building owner to insist on collaboration. In return, all professionals must show respect for everyone’s contribution and an understanding of their individual professional challenges.

Thrashing out as many contentious issues at the contract stage will be worth the time and effort – ownership of the model, for example, and the need to hand models over to the facilities management team after completion. If the need for collaboration is ignored, there could be widely differing understandings of obligation, causing problems later on in the project. 

In the 2017 Construction Manager BIM survey, around 60% of those polled said that one of the impacts of BIM on their projects was the promotion and collaboration and reduced silo working. Surely this will be the best preparation possible for Level 2 and beyond?

Image: Ldprod/Dreamstime.com

There’s certainly a need to change the way we work, becoming less adversarial and more cooperative while still respecting the commercial interests of one another. But the silo mentality is still deeply entrenched.– Dr Anne Kemp