How we can bring SMEs to the construction technology party

SMEs (employing 25 to 50 full time staff) make up the lion’s share of the construction industry and it is these that are suffering at the hands of the larger contractors. – David McNeice, DWF

David McNeice asks if BIM and digital technology is for the few larger firms that have the time and money to implement it, but not for the SMEs that account for the majority of employment in construction.

Does size really matter? Well, when it comes to the use of BIM and digital technology in the construction industry, the answer seems to be decidedly so.

Before the pitchforks are taken out and knives sharpened, I am well aware of quite a few SMEs or micro-businesses that have embraced the use of BIM and digital technology over the past few years, and have done this on their own initiative, and not as part of the supply chain working on Level 2/3-compliant projects. 

The old adage that it is easier for a speedboat to change direction than a cruise liner has never been more apt than when it comes to innovation in the construction industry – however, this is not the case across the board. I applaud those companies who have managed to get themselves up to speed with the use and understanding of BIM, with some of my own clients at the forefront of this digital revolution. But these are the minority, and something needs to be done about it.

The Construction News survey (Is the Industry Ready for BIM Level 2?) showed that SMEs were significantly behind in the adoption or preparedness for BIM Level 2 compliance. This can be explained away by most larger contractors having the resources to assist in the raising of skill levels and able to have dedicated BIM departments that can lead the process. 

The findings of the survey do not seem to have changed. This became startlingly obvious during my recent CIOB roadshow on the legal implications of BIM, with the vast majority of SMEs present knowing very little of the implications of BIM, and doing even less about preparing for it.

I suppose my frustration comes from being a millennial. Although I didn’t grow up with technology in my hand, and I still remember my father bringing home his first brick-sized phone, I have definitely been part of the digital revolution that has swept across the world (albeit still struggling with getting my new microwave to work).

There has been a staggering number of technological advances since the first smartphone came on the scene in 2007. Ask anyone in a builder’s hut, designer’s office or director’s ivory tower, and they will be able to produce for you a smartphone that has more technology inside it than the first moon shuttle.

Why then are we so far behind when it comes to the construction industry? Especially when we have the roadmap for implementation, the technology and a government mandate to use BIM.

Last October I was chairing the Digital Procurement Workshop for the Institution of Civil Engineers, and the sheer amount of technology out there in the construction industry is both exciting and terrifying. The digital run through of some of Anglian Water’s projects was brilliant to behold, and the technology in existence that replaces site supervisors with drones that monitor and check plant, materials and foot traffic on site takes us one step closer to George Orwell’s 1984 (perhaps that’s a little overdramatic).

From this workshop, the main divide came from the floor. They were split into two camps: one side asked the question: “What are we doing to bolster the use of BIM and digital technology for the industry and SMEs?” The other side asked: “What is the government doing to drive this digital revolution, and how is it helping SMEs?”

Perhaps it is my millennial instinct taking over, but I fall on the side that it is the government that must do more to help bootstrap SMEs in this new digital age of construction.

It is fantastic to see the advances and how technology is driving construction, however it is disappointing that these advances and access to this technology comes at a price, and thus closes access to many SMEs.

It is the government that has mandated the use of BIM and encourages the use of digital technology.  When the UK government first published its initiative for BIM, smartphones were in their infancy. Look how far they have advanced and the fact everyone has access to this technology, in comparison with the construction industry and BIM. 

I appreciate that profits drive the capital market and incentives for innovation in technology for personal use and it wouldn’t make financial sense to give this technology away for free, but the government never mandated the use of smartphones or claimed billions could be saved with the use of digital technology.  Having said that, it is not too much of a leap to see how this can be directly related to the construction industry.

However, when we look at the use of digital technology in construction it is SMEs that are being left behind. SMEs (employing 25 to 50 full time staff) make up the lion’s share of the construction industry and it is these that are suffering at the hands of the larger contractors. 

So what should the government be doing to help SMEs in the construction industry?  Here is my elevator pitch:

  • Have more outreach programmes; free access and training on digital technology in construction (not just BIM);
  • Fund collaborative events across the industry, and attempt to raise the bar to a minimal level that SMEs should easily get to. This construction community forum should be run by those in the industry (the ICE, RICS, CIOB, working groups), and not be government led. BIM4SME is a great example of how privately this can be done;
  • Require it to be part of publicly tendered work that main contractors must skill share, train and promote the use of BIM with SME subcontractors, and allow them access and retention of the resources for the duration of the project. This can be monitored through KPIs;
  • Increase awareness of the access to technology and improve the bare minimum of what is out there that can be accessed by SMEs, using PAS 1192 as a springboard, not a race to the bottom;
  • Reward SMEs that innovate. Too much of the construction industry (a different soapbox for a different article) is too heavily motivated by negatively incentivising the supply chain and not positively rewarding the good work.

Chloe Smith, Cabinet Office minister, stated at a BIM4SME conference in 2013 that BIM is the catalyst for growth for the SME community and would help them to move into new and bigger markets by unlocking more efficient ways of working – but this is not what BIM has done, the government mandate for BIM has caused another hurdle which SMEs must now strive to overcome. 

I would question how use of BIM Level 2 and the government mandate can be a leveller and not more restrictive, and ask what can be done to ensure BIM and digital technology is for the many, not the few.  Answers on a postcard.

David McNeice is senior associate construction and infrastructure at law firm DWF

Image: Phaendin/

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  1. Yes David, it is frustrating and it is a long hard slog. Whilst the SME can survive for now how long will it be before the technology really does overtake the current status quo. As you say we must celebrate and reward those that do take steps forward, (see RICS BIM4SME awards) and we must remove as many of the hurdles as we can. Through my discussions not only with SMEs but larger organisations too, there is a propensity for Tier 1 contractors (and indeed many clients) to push BIM through to the supply chain without really dealing with their ‘readiness’. there are some good maturity tools out there too which you could add to your list and combine with that overall message of awareness, training and support which needs to grow at this time, not disappear

  2. David, it’s very interesting to read about this. I agree with your suggestions – all very achievable. With your construction law expertise, to what extent do you think public procurement is affecting the situation? Are the procurement routes, contract types and insurances on most public projects supportive of the collaborative approach required for BIM? Is this more or a cultural issue, where we don’t trust each other enough to fully enter into Integrated Project Teams with Integrated Project Insurance, etc.?

  3. In one sense it is reassuring that this problem is now being recognised (thanks for a great article David) but in another, there is no short solution since SMEs will continue to fall further behind as time progresses and technology both advances and diverges. How can they get started let alone keep up? It is true that the cost of licences, hardware and software is prohibitive to the majority of SMEs. Some areas of the industry might argue that it will and should drive SMEs out of business. If that path was followed the best prognosis would be that SMEs are left with the smaller, less critical projects requiring basic if any BIM. But this will only stifle creativity and innovation and further reduce the industry gene pool which is already endangered!
    There is no doubt that BIM is an essential tool and the industry absolutely needs to embrace it from top to bottom. There is some amazing technology available to the industry now and I am in awe when reading some of the articles published. SMEs should not be inadvertently excluded.

  4. David, why not work with the UK BIM Alliance, BIM4SME is part of our network? Contact me.

  5. All,

    Thanks for the very positive feedback to this post, and great to see this has engaged discussion for something I think is concerning there is very little written about. I am certainly not a pessimist when it comes to BIM and how SMEs are affected by it, but I certainly have concerns that as technology progresses at the rate it is doing so in the industry, a monopoly could form for the larger contractors, and eventually limit the amount of contractors/subcontractors and those in the supply chain who can keep up with these advances, through no fault of their own.

    Tim – you are dead right! There must be collaboration when it comes to the use of BIM through the supply chain. And the availability to education or the tools that are out there must be presented in such a way that the supply chain gain access to it and maintain that access. The analogy I used earlier with the development and speed of technology rings truer with BIM and the supply chain. There is an expectation from the tier one contractors that if they push it down the line, this will solve the problem; but its like the tier one contractor emailing members of the supply chain who still only have access to typewriters…. (if you catch my drift)

    Emma – I previously wrote an article on the stumbling blocks for BIM for BIM+ To me – public procurement is a big one. More recently I have found that I’m of the opinion (rightly or wrongly) that the government may welcome larger contractors being that they are only able to bid for the larger jobs; why – because due to the competitive nature of the procurement process, they will first exclude those who cannot provide certain criteria (BIM Level 2/3 for example), such that they can narrow the list of possible contractors significantly. When it gets to this narrow list, it comes down to cost. Regardless of the cost/quality ratio in any process, it comes down to cost! (for the most part anyway). So through reports and guidance, the government thinks they will save money through exclusion and competition. They will also save in having to bootstrap and pay to support, educate and develop access to technology for SMEs – this will lead to savings as there will be fewer Contractors, and they can afford to innovate and pass on more savings. To me, this does not lead to a better most cost effective industry, this leads to Carillions…..

    Jon – again, you’ve hit the nail on the head. The issue for getting started to develop BIM across the board is identifying what needs to be done, what can be done, and how can we ensure that it is done. At this stage, BIM seems to be more rhetoric than reality, and it is causing some SMEs to be inadvertently excluded – this is why I think the government must take action and implement policy.

    John – expect to hear from me soon!

    (Apologies for the post that is probably longer than the initial article)

  6. David, I am somewhat surprised we are even talking about this. If we consider what people are prepared to pay for those smart phones, why not pay a little more to get them to work for you on a project? Technology has always been pushing business to adopt or die, this is no different and it isn’t up to government to step in and do that. Admittedly, clients, major contractors, those mandating the use of the technology should be consulting with the SMEs but then those SMEs should also be saying they need assistance and how can we accommodate for this. 10 years ago I worked on a project where ‘BIM’ was mandated and as a result SMEs had a software licence provided for them, but how many were prepared to spend some money to upskill someone to use it? Therein lies the problem, too short sighted to see the potential to set themselves apart from the crowd and as a result potentially increase their work as a result.

  7. All,

    I am writing an MSc dissertation relating to the awareness of BIM within UK based SME construction companies.

    If you work within the construction industry and find this topic particularly interesting please could you spare 5 minutes to complete the below online survey.

    Kind Regards,


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