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Young or old, we need to work together

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The young generation has the tech skills, the older generation has the experience and life skills. But how do we exploit both for construction’s mutual benefit, asks Peter Trebilcock.

In September 2014 the CIC BIM2050 Group published a report titled Built Environment 2050: A Report on our Digital Future. The report is the result of the group’s research into what an interdisciplinary scope of work may look like as construction technology develops to BIM Level 3 and beyond, towards 2050.

The report illustrated the need for organisations to consider new (digital) skills, new processes (including nano-second procurement) and to develop strategies around emerging technologies (such as the interoperability of products) with the aim of helping the UK to be the vanguard of construction in a digital future.

Perhaps the most important of all its recommendations was that organisations should provide life-long learning using free, open and online resources. This is fundamental in the world of BIM as the vast opportunities and enormous benefits which can come with large-scale innovation and game-changing new technologies will, I believe, only be realised if the industry is able to cope with them.

More than two and a half years on from the report, what has changed?

I have witnessed three main barriers to the adoption of new technologies and the changing of business practices to deploy them. They are:

  • Arrogance: “I have been successfully delivering projects for the last 20 years without this technology. Why should I need it now?”
  • Ignorance: “I do not know how to exploit it nor understand what I need — so how can I utilise it effectively? I shall stick with what I know.”
  • Pain: “I know it can add value but it means I have to buy a new software package or pay for some additional resources. I don’t have the time or the money. Change is okay for others, but I’m too busy. I like innovation but I don’t like being innovated upon.”

John Maynard Keynes said: “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.”

There is a plethora of software to help realise business efficiencies, but the problem lies not in the digital tools, but in the capability and willingness to exploit (implement) them. Contractors have project demands and contractual responsibilities and while they want improvement, they are generally conservative (risk averse), demand clear business case models against new investment, and are very cost conscious.

The old and the new

The new generation of workers, meanwhile, are much more comfortable with the use of new technologies to help resolve problems, reduce risk and improve efficiency. It’s easy for this new generation to find fault with the old guard — and it’s easy for the seniors to maintain the status quo. But how could the two generations help each other a bit more?

I would suggest two simple approaches:

  • The tech-savvy, tech-reliant and, dare I say it, impatient generation who demand “more of now” could take a cue from Socrates: “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new! They need to take their peers with them, hold their hands, if necessary, and demonstrate how they can make things easier for managers, team members, customers and projects alike.
  • For the older generation (or less tech-savvy), where life skills and project experience is as important as any technology, they can host a workshop where the techies can show them the array of digital tools they can choose from on a given project (BIM, modelling, simulation, 4D planning, drones, 3D printing, mobile technology, mobile data, VR headsets, asset data and so forth) and determine which will add most value to the given bid, project or problem facing them. Not all aspects of digital construction apply to every project.

Both parties have to accept it is not an overnight exercise.

If we can grasp the right mechanism for life-long learning so the concepts, technologies and changing practices can form part of the core ongoing learning, from board level to graduate, then we can understand, evaluate and take these new technologies in our stride.

I suspect, given the historic lack of R&D and education and training within the construction industry, we will struggle to deal with any accelerated change and given the challenge many SMEs have in understanding and investing in BIM, what hope have they got with the onslaught of new methods of procurement, data sharing and digital tools?

By embedding new thinking, developing the talent in our organisations and, perhaps more importantly, by being able to keep our finger on the pulse with ever-changing technologies, significant value can be added to our businesses.

Image: Oleksandr Delyk/Dreamstime.com

There is a plethora of software to help realise business efficiencies, but the problem lies not in the digital tools, but in the capability and willingness to exploit (implement) them. – Peter Trebilcock