Interview: Laing O’Rourke’s James Eaton – BIM: now it’s personal

I visited a site and asked to see the BIM model and they said they couldn’t open it until the “BIM guy” arrived, which is crazy and made it clear to me that a different approach was needed. – James Eaton, group head of digital engineering, Laing O’Rourke

James Eaton, group head of digital engineering at Laing O’Rourke, explains why its BIM training programme won the title BIM Initiative of the Year at the recent Building Awards. 

Can you tell us about ‘BIM: now it’s personal’? Why was it set up?  

BIM, or what Laing O’Rourke terms Digital Engineering, is a technological enabler for how everyone will work in the future, so the aim is to get as many people engaged with it as possible, rather than just a few specialists. In addition, it is human nature for people to struggle against any major change that’s imposed upon them, as the government’s 2016 Level 2 BIM mandate has proved, so we decided to make the training as real and personable as possible to individuals’ roles and to demonstrate to them the efficiencies this way of working can bring.

How is it organised?

The current programme follows on from an introductory digital engineering learning module we delivered in the organisation last year, to everyone from project managers to receptionists and cleaners.

We have developed specific training and targets for the nine key functions of: project delivery, engineering, planning, procurement, commercial, design, HSE, estimating, and building services, which cover about 80% of our 6,000-strong workforce across the UK, Europe and Australia.

By the end of 2015 every staff member within each of the functions will have to reach a “foundation” level understanding of BIM, and 60% a “competent” level. “Advanced” and “expert” training is being developed now and will be implemented over two years, starting in 2016. The heads of department for each function are responsible for getting staff to meet the targets and must report back each month with progress.

How do you define “competent”?

It depends on the role, a commercial staff member should be able to use a model to track changes and extract key quantities without support from a specialist.

How is the training made bespoke to each role?

The foundation training aims to give people some basic navigation skills and an understanding of how their role can engage with BIM. For example, a person in procurement can start to use BIM to begin to scope packages of work for tenders, an engineer can do temporary works modelling within the model, a planner can use it for 4D sequencing and construction managers can use it to brief staff in the morning.

We worked with each of the different functions to identify the activities they are currently performing and how digital engineering can help make those activities more efficient, integrated, or predictable.

Over 200 case studies were developed evidencing the efficiencies enabled by digital engineering for a range of projects. These include comments from individual staff and can be filtered so staff can view just those related to planning, construction, management, logistics or health & safety etc. It’s all about helping people see the benefits of change, making it personal to them, and creating a critical mass within the business so everyone gets on board.

What do other contractors get wrong when it comes to BIM training?

Most organisations just recruit or train more BIM specialists and become over-reliant on them. For example, I visited a site and asked to see the BIM model and they said they couldn’t open it until the “BIM guy” arrived, which is crazy and made it clear to me that a different approach was needed. 

There is obviously still a need for specialists, but here we prefer to call them “catalysts” who can also help people understand the relevance of BIM, try to get them excited about it and encourage them when they face obstacles. It’s not about focusing on the “BIM guy” any more and we don’t want to simply build up a team of people working in parallel with those who work more traditionally. 

Does the training tie in with Laing O’Rourke’s focus on off-site Design for Manufacture and Assembly?

Yes, digital engineering is critical to making DfMA work, from early feasibility and optioneering to componentisation, then seamless transfer into the factory to drive the robots, so our training needs to bring all those elements together.

Has BIM delivered any tangible benefits at Laing O’Rourke on projects so far?

We have compared jobs that started in BIM with those that didn’t and seen predictability tighten up in terms of cost, programme, health & safety statistics, quality etc. Four to five years ago project variance was over 12%, and we’re starting to see this drop to less than 3%.

How did it feel to win the award?

It was great to win out over the likes of Turner & Townsend, Arup and Aecom, among others, but the important thing was the recognition that we are trying to bring about organisational change rather than the usual focus on technology.

What’s next?

The buzz around this has led other department heads outside of the nine core functions, including IT, legal and other departments, to write their own “lite” versions of BIM training for their teams. As a result, we expect around 90% of the business to be BIM-savvy very soon.

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