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Analysis

Round table: Tech for the new normal – will uptake accelerate?

22 May 2020 | By Stuart Wilks

What is holding back tech uptake? And will the Covid-19 crisis accelerate it as we move into the new normal? Stuart Wilks, founder of Limeslade Consulting, reports on a recent virtual round table where these and other issues were debated.

The attendees comprised a hand-picked selection of experts including a leading construction solicitor, along with Marzia Bolpagni – senior BIM adviser at Mace; Paul Sandford, associate at Peter Dann Consulting Engineers; Jeevan Kalanithi and Phil Epifano of technology company, OpenSpace.ai; Charlie Woodley, a data specialist and founder of Dispute Data; and hosts, Edward and Julie Carolan of Lindford Consulting. BIM+ editor Denise Chevin chaired the online discussion.

Decisions from the bottom up?

At Lindford, the team often find that an organisation has a top-down approach to implementation of software and roll out. Initially a testing process is implemented, and then a system will roll out across the whole business. The problem with this being that it may seem to some stakeholders that they have no involvement and therefore engagement will be difficult to obtain.

The ‘bottom’ (for want of a better term) need to understand the importance of using it and what can be achieved. It is important to convince them of the benefits to change their mindset. Once again, the need for cultural change is key. All the projects we work with are digital in some way. But construction is a conservative industry, and in the UK at least, it takes a long time to change things and introduce new technology.

Paul Sandford has often found systems are often not used on site because of when the decision to purchase the software has been made. It may be that the project has already started and these considerations should have been taken earlier. If it hasn’t been tested for field agents or end users, they can often feel as though it is forced upon them. Then they do not use it.

Sometimes things are discovered to be unfit for purpose only when you get them onto site. This can lead to a negative stigma against technology arising. The feeling being that you didn’t investigate it fully, and therefore it wasn’t right for you.

However, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t tech out there that is right for your project. When decisions are made at the top, decision-makers may not be certain of what happens on the ground. There are a lot of options, making it hard for companies to know where to put their money.

Marzia Bolpagni feels that as an industry, we need a research and development approach. Sadly, we often don’t have the time or money for this. There’s also a need to be agile, as tech can progress very fast. Signing licenses for five years can be a dangerous move, with tech moving so fast firms could end up stuck in the past. Then you may not have the budget or space to implement newer tech which might be better for your project.

Breaking down silos and encouraging collaboration

Bolpagni notes that the industry is arguably poor at searching for improvements, testing and measuring benefits. Lots buy the tech, implement it but then do not measure the benefits. Each project is unique so it can be difficult to compare like for like. Implementation, particularly for first time use, often happens in a silo.

Mace’s Marzia Bolpagni: Digital take-up is different across the world

It would be helpful to reuse the information we develop, and link platforms together. Ideally, everything should connect so we would only have to collect the information once, yet be able to use it over and over. If there were better standardisation, would this improve adoption and use of technology?

Another issue identified by Bolpagni is that of working with high security clients, such as government bodies. In these cases, we cannot always implement solutions. Often questions are asked such as, “where are your servers?” or “where is my data stored?” People seem scared to lose power and control of the projects. Arguably the younger generation are better at understanding these issues, but not yet at the top to make the decisions.

From Charlie Woodley’s perspective, as much as there is pressure to adopt tech to improve delivery there is also downward pressure not to adopt. The supply chain is digitising at different speeds. In some scenarios, if you charge by the hour, being efficient is not always best, or easiest to procure.

Jeevan Kalanithi observes that as software providers, it’s incumbent upon the people providing the solutions to remove as many of these barriers for our customers as possible. We need to design simpler products, convenient products. There is not extra time on a site to do things, so you always need to remove work, not add anything else.

The key is to design a product that doesn’t really need a huge amount of training. The interface should be similar to platforms many of us already use every day, such as apps, Facebook or Instagram. Simplicity is the key. Consider the cost. Often cheaper technology can be implemented with fewer barriers. If you charge per user, things can become complicated. Companies that do well don’t try to solve these problems through brute force. Successful operators design products which avoid these problems.

Legal and document management issues

Lawyers see queries around everything from GDPR, human rights, data rights, copyright and intellectual property. There are lots of questions, but whether the use of tech actually hangs on these points is not always clear.

From an information management perspective, cost increasingly affects the legal process. It is incredible how much human labour can go into a small number of project records. Increasingly, pressure is mounting to reduce the cost of dispute resolution. It is therefore equally important to create good records to begin with.

Woodley’s next observation is that we have become good at turning paper into a pdf. But that doesn’t take into account what we are doing with the information on that piece of paper. Often the data on the pdf is the same data as was on paper. Little thought is given to whether this structure is an improvement. Does it result in saving us time anywhere? Moving data between people on the projects, accounts, legal teams and experts can become complicated.

From a solicitor’s perspective, the amount of time spent processing, extracting and managing data is enormous. A lot of the legal tech we use is developing well, with solicitors aiming to try to get to the point of being able to advise faster.

Success stories: What kind of tech is increasing?

Our attendees’ thoughts turn to their own experiences of working in construction. Even prior to Covid-19, Woodley suggests it was a given that much communication in the construction industry would happen electronically. People are now far less likely to print, handwrite and scan documents, and it is rare to go through paper files anymore. In turn this seems to be leading to better structuring of data.

Charlie Woodley: Biggest touch point with clients is understanding what things absolutely need to be done

Aside from the current situation, across the industry more generally, he notes we are seeing more take up of systems such as BIM 360 and other digital ways of working. One attendee noted that a lot of what we see in terms of adoption happens at a practical delivery level. For example, with BIM 360, people are flagging issues directly from site, and issues are being caught early on.

Phil Epifano tells us that he sees a lot of field-based technology being adopted. This is not necessarily being driven by quality or safety, but it comes down to programme speed. If you can respond to an RFI quicker when using field-based technology, you could save a day or two per query.

However, from Bolpagni’s experience of working in Italy, Finland, the US and the UK, take-up is different across the world. This is often related to both skills and demand. Finland, for example, is far more advanced than the UK. This raises the question of whether culture plays a significant role in adoption. It takes almost a generation to adopt new tech, so it could take a while for the UK to catch up.

In the US, Epifano notes that collaboration using software is increasing which is streamlining some of the daily tasks people have to fulfil. Parties are becoming more engaged in the technology adoption process.

What makes implementation easier?

The industry seems to be in agreement that we need to keep up with modern technology to succeed. But when it comes to uptake, we are one of the slowest industries. So what works?

Client requirements are a key factor in take-up. Some clients are more innovative than others and can have different expectations. They may want the technology on the projects, but you should be clear from the outset what the benefits and limitations may be. However, even within a client organisation there may be variations. On one project the requirements may be very advanced, but they may not want the same level of technology on all the projects across their portfolio.

Proving that tech can increase quality and safety, or reduce costs is often the easy part. Using it correctly across a project can be much harder. Epifano and Kalanithi note that convenience is one of the most powerful motivators to adoption. Ultimately people will choose to use something when it is easy and doesn’t interfere with their current ways of working. Technology which is hard to use will struggle with adoption, even if it clear that it gives a bigger return on investment.

Kalanithi is acutely conscious that cultural change is the most difficult thing to achieve in a business. Moving people away from their comfort zone can be a challenge. Demonstrating benefits can help, but those designing the technology have an important part to play. Our attendees noted that people like to use systems they are familiar with (for example, Excel). So, when designing, it is important to think about how the interface will look and how users will interact with it. We need to design tech that works in a similar way to apps and programs we are familiar to using such as Outlook, Facebook, or Uber.

Jeevan Kalanathi: Moving people away from their comfort zone can be a challenge

For Woodley, the biggest touch point with clients is understanding what things absolutely need to be done. Particularly those that happen regularly or with high frequency. This can allow us to reach for the low-hanging fruit. For example, if typing site records by hand takes a certain amount of time and is carried out 3,000 times a month, if you can demonstrate technology will eliminate that process, you will be on to a winner.

Woodley also highlights a challenge that can sometimes be overlooked. The issue of how and why we create data. Data often needs to be re-purposed later on. For example, records which were created for one purpose (for example a monthly progress report) may later be needed for use as evidence or for structured analysis in a dispute. Having tech that allows us to view and extract data for different purposes will be highly useful.

Where is the weakest link for adoption?

The lawyer in the discussion noted that often her clients will use different technology in different parts of the business and in many cases don’t know what others are using. They then try to join them up and encounter problems.

In response, Epifano highlights the importance of an implementation being well structured to succeed. This can depend on the company. You should apply the same routine as you would if you were implementing any new process or system, which can avoid people feeling overwhelmed or intimidated.

What is happening now and what will the effects be?

On the whole, our panellists were optimistic that the ongoing Covid-19 situation could lead to an uptake of tech as the country goes back to work. Having been forced upon us now, there may be a willingness to adopt new mays of working that wasn’t present before.

Panellists felt there is a need to look at business and project needs as a whole. Parties need to demonstrate benefits and join up across different departments, projects and stakeholders in a project. A key requirement is to keep things simple to use and make it easy to pull out information at a later date. It is crucial to tackle the cultural change that software brings.

Once we return to work, Bolpagni notes it is clear that things will never be “normal” again. But this could be the chance for the industry catch up with other industries and find smarter ways of working.

Woodley has spotted a marked increase in pushing process information into contractors. Undoubtedly there will be lots of construction companies on the verge of distress in the coming months. It is a well-known fact that the small margins under which many in construction operate are unsustainable.

As a result, we need to make processes more efficient, reduce the human element and speed up management of construction.

An inevitable difficulty lies in convincing the industry that in difficult times they should be investing in innovation. This is compounded as people won’t be wanting to spend more money in difficult or uncertain times. However, it is likely that people will want to see returns on the investment from tech they have already purchased.

Our legal panellist suggested the legal profession may see some modernisation. In law and the world generally, there is already so much tech that is not harnessed or connected. We need to use what we have in a modern way. However, cost consciousness is an inevitable result of an economic downturn.

From a software perspective, the software team at OpenSpace have seen a big surge in use of their platform as a result of Covid-19. This makes sense as you can have a full virtual version of your project, meaning some people do not need to visit sites.

Lots of projects are continuing but with fewer people on site, so technology is improving the industry’s ability to record and manage things remotely. Many people who were interested in the last year are now calling software companies with a desire to adopt tech with increased urgency. Simple solutions are gaining traction. It is likely that we will see people less likely to experiment. They will only be looking for convenient, affordable technology with a clear value proposition. Tech buy-in is likely to drop, but that doesn’t mean nobody will invest at all.

From a consultant’s perspective, Edward Carolan suggests there seems to be a two-fold approach: there’s an element of modernisation generally, as well as a push to virtual working conditions – there could now be less office working, more online collaboration.

On site, Sandford suspects the crisis may cause everyone to take a step back. Once we get back onto sites that have closed, everyone will be pushing hard to get everything back on track. Tech will be seen as a luxury that we don’t have time for. We may see an increased investment after six months or so, when new projects are starting and we want to be prepared, should something like this happen again.

The new normal?

Bolpagni suggests we ought to perhaps stop thinking that we will be back to “normal” soon. We need to rethink normality. Think about reverse engineering, what is really needed and why we were doing things. The industry cannot just adopt tech without a new way of delivering things. It will be about surviving, those willing to innovate and change, to make tech “business as usual” will likely be those who continue into a new era.

At Lindford, in the short term the team expect to see a surge of data gathering to deal with delay and disruption claims. End users are also a factor which requires consideration. They are going to want more information on their buildings. As things progress and in anticipation of increased adoption, the use of tech is likely to be a full project-lifecycle issue.

Tech holds the key to improving margins in the business, but it will vary across companies and how they go about it. The status quo will mean a lot of the current companies will no longer exist – whether it is the small or large that disappear could really change the future of the industry.

Covid-19 is likely to change the way we work on site for some time. Social distancing and the latest CLC advice/government guidance means that things are unlikely to return to normal for a while. Technology can provide at least some of the solutions in terms of reducing the numbers of people required to be on site.

However, with revenues dented and productivity reduced, will the industry be able to commit to the investment it needs to make to fund the necessary changes? Furthermore, there may be a need to harness technologies to provide accurate and structured records. Good records will be necessary to deal with any claims that arise and recover possible losses.

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