The leadership challenge in a digital age

In an ever-changing climate driven by technological innovation, George Dobbins from executive search firm Berwick Partners, examines the leadership challenges facing the built environment sector, the mix of skills in demand and where this expertise can be found.

Driven by digital transformation and continued innovation, the face of the UK’s construction and built environment sectors is ever-changing. Organisations are drawing on a wider and more comprehensive set of factors to make better decisions and achieve their strategic goals.

BIM in particular has transformed the way in which construction projects are designed and delivered, but technologies such as this are also changing the traditional skillsets of leadership within the sector.

With a greater emphasis on data comes a greater requirement for individuals who can collate, analyse and disseminate this data. What is technically possible is not always simply achievable and the challenge is to introduce the right people to act as “enablers” for technological innovation.

Organisations that have the ability to seek, introduce and develop these new skills will no doubt thrive and pave the way for a sector fit for the future.

Construction challenges

As with any sector in a period of change, there are a number of key concerns for construction leaders – collaboration, agility and emotional intelligence among them.

Collaboration reflects an increasing need for the construction sector to work together as one to support the introduction of automation and smart technologies, but also refers to the partnerships between organisations (or even individual business units) to help deliver and maintain assets.

Moving away from the traditional “authoritarian” approach of the construction sector, more companies are bringing specialist talent with a track record for enabling these collaborations into their team.

Agility is also moving up the agenda, especially for large corporates as they try to navigate their way through the changing environment and keep up with new and innovative developments. Leaders must be agile and so too must their organisation – those who can build adaptive and flexible businesses that can embrace change effectively and efficiently will benefit most from the opportunities presented by digital transformation.

A further consideration is emotional intelligence or “EQ”. This highlights the growing importance of softer skills, set to become more vital than ever as commoditised tasks are automated. Leaders now and in the future need to possess high EQ such as empathy, motivation and self-regulation and awareness to succeed.

As a result, the role of HR directors is becoming even more integral to a business’s strategy, as well as the significance of the HR function within a managing director’s remit.

The common thread among these three factors is the need to source, attract and develop new skillsets – at all levels of an organisation – to facilitate and maximise the use of digital technology.

Yet, beyond technological innovation, success lies in having leadership teams with a combination of abilities needed to utilise these emerging industry models and ensure effective, efficient and profitable delivery – from experience in dealing with external factors such as the weather to ensuring a production line is as productive as possible. An organisation is only as strong as its weakest link.

Changing skillsets

One of the most significant additions to the role profile of modern construction leadership talent is data analysis. The sector is rightly asking the Construction Industry Training Board to do more on training, but staff and leaders of tomorrow need to take steps of their own to understand and make use of the high levels of data they will be able to generate.

Inevitably, this leads to another area of growth – IT and data security, which has also become critical to ensure the resilience of these new systems and technologies.

However, in an industry that is still seen by many as archaic and lacking innovation, organisations must work hard to attract data analysis, IT and data security talent away from more fashionable, tech organisations such as Google, Microsoft and Apple.

While a challenge, it seems there is significant reward available for those organisations willing to take the sector lead. A case in point is Arcadis, which hired David Glennon as director of digital and James Bryce as strategic workforce planning director. Bryce’s role is to identify gaps in talent across the business in the medium and long term and then develop hiring and training plans to fill them. 

Learning from others

Another promising approach is to attract talent from sectors that lend themselves well to the changing skills needs of the UK’s built environment. Areas such as manufacturing, which have been through their own digital transformation, have generated leadership able to operate smart factories and lean manufacturing principles effectively.

A prime example is Graham Herries, director of digital technologies at Laing O’Rourke. Herries is utilising his PhD and background in working with some of the world’s leading centres of manufacturing excellence to introduce innovative manufacturing principles – including incorporating BIM – to enhance the productivity and efficiency of projects. Using data insights from site to alter production schedules offsite, for example, can drive huge efficiencies.

Of course, Laing O’Rourke is not the only organisation to have taken this approach. Construction leaders are recognising the opportunity to tap into that experience and apply the same skills to their organisation.

Above all else, the most important thing is to act fast. The industry may still be understanding the true value of big data and technological changes, but digital innovation moves at such a pace, and those who delay will be left behind. There has never been a more important time to source the right talent that can understand and model information to drive commercial advantage.

Image: Kirill Ivanov/Dreamstime

The common thread is the need to source, attract and develop new skillsets – at all levels of an organisation – to facilitate and maximise the use of digital technology.

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