Consolidating software running within a company and ensuring digital innovators are kept in-house are key issues as construction companies digitalise
We asked recently a group of digital construction experts what their biggest challenges were in the industry. Some answers were in line with our expectations. Better use of digital twins was raised – and it brought about the discussion on the definition of the technology, and a general view that it is too loose.
Carbon reduction strategies came through strongly. This is a change on previous years, where it has been flagged by the few, but not the majority. It has now landed firmly on company agendas, and will continue to be a significant issue in future. Construction will be expected to know its emissions levels and where these can be cut. Technology – both digital and in materials use – will become a significant factor in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The growing importance of construction sustainability strategies will be covered in depth in our next edition of the Construction Technology Festival, focusing on both construction and building operations post-handover.
Two other subjects mentioned frequently were less expected. Our expert group said integrating technologies that are in use in a company was becoming an issue. Too often, organisations find that, through their various contracts, they have multiple versions of a software running, often from competing vendors. It costs the company money and can prevent information becoming integrated so that it is ultimately lost.
It takes time and effort to audit the systems in use, but is required to consolidate or reduce the number of programs running.
There can be dissatisfaction with the quality of output from the software being used. Productivity, efficiency, cheaper costs, sustainability – all of these are real problems. Companies want to differentiate themselves from competitors, whilst also being cheaper, with greater productivity and efficiency. Digitalisation is a route to this.
This is leading to some companies developing in-house systems to provide the information and analysis they need from the systems they have running.
Construction is far from alone in this. I recently interviewed the CEO of a solar energy company that provides temporary power to a range of sectors, including construction. His company had struggled to find an off-the-shelf software system that could manage the data collected and enable the detailed analysis it required to better understand how its solar systems operated – important for sizing, pricing, and providing feedback to customers.
Ultimately, a bespoke system has been developed in-house, and they now plan to create a new revenue stream by selling that specialised software to other companies that need similar insights.
It is entirely possible that some construction companies could find themselves taking a similar path, developing software tailored to their requirements to better understand their data, and once proven, selling the system to other companies.
Another key challenge highlighted is keeping skilled staff. The skillsets required on projects are changing and the digital dexterity of teams is also shifting.
Leveraging digital skills has to start from a grass-roots level, so that all roles are using digital tools and apply digital innovation to what they do. And that requires a mindset change for teams, their line managers and their managers.
Whilst there is the cultural shift that has to be managed, once an employee is an expert with a technology they become attractive to competitors. This is natural the business world over, and the group said more needs to be done to keep those people.
As a person’s expertise grows, they want to flex those skills in more innovative ways and if the company holds them back, it can be demoralising and lead them to look elsewhere.
Related to this is succession planning and ongoing training within a team. Last year an event looking at how to progress within a company stressed the importance of employees succession planning their role. The argument was that when you are promoted, someone needs to step into your previous role. Having a ready-baked member of the team able to easily take that role makes that step up easier. Not ensuring the people around you are properly trained reflects poorly on leadership skills and makes it harder for the person above to make that decision, they said.
Managing the digital infrastructure of an organisation is becoming more complex, and will continue to do so as more processes are digitalised. For most organisations, it is work-in-progress that will probably always continue to ensure that skillsets are always high.
But take your eye off this, and the best people will be poached by a competitor. That is a real challenge – finding and keeping key people who can make a real difference to an organisation’s practices, processes and innovation – and ultimately their competitive edge.