Construction project performance: BIM

Culture for success

5 February 2016

Technology presents major opportunities, but it will have little impact on project performance without the buy-in of people and teams, argues Wes Beaumont

New technology can be an emotive topic, leading to heated exchanges from the site to the boardroom. While evangelists argue passionately for change, managers complain of disruption, directors agonise over risk and workers feel anxious about the uncertainty.

The right technology, introduced carefully, can transform construction programmes and asset management. But if not properly understood, technology can lead to frustration, distrust and the deterioration of relationships between stakeholders – the very things it is supposed to dispel.

The problem is not the technology, but attitudes to it. Collaboration tools and data capture are just a means to an end. They are not a cure-all for company woes, nor will they automatically improve the working environment. To be effective, they must be embedded in a strong culture and win the buy-in of everyone involved.

Building information modelling (BIM) on construction projects is one such technology, the use of which was written into the EU's public procurement directive for the first time in 2014.

But when legal firm Pinsent Masons surveyed more than 70 construction professionals last year, two thirds believed that the UK government would miss its target, citing lack of collaboration as a key barrier to progress.

This widespread pessimism is indicative of the deeply entrenched problems within the psychology of the workforce; the people on the ground are not understanding the benefits it can bring.

Incentives for change

Cultural change is essential in paving the way for new technology. But mindsets will only shift if individuals and teams are given the right incentives. Traditional contracting, based on low tenders and segregated working, is a breeding ground for distrust. Working to low margins, contractors can be reluctant to cooperate and find solutions. Adopting new technology is perceived to be risky. Relationships are adversarial by default. Try imposing new processes on this cultural quagmire, and you may find it sinking under the resistance of organisations and individuals.

For example, BIM can save project teams thousands of hours by creating just 1 integrated 3D model that is shared by all parties. This represents an improvement on the old ways of working, with each party producing its own information and drawings in isolation.

Traditional contracting, based on low tenders and segregated working, is a breeding ground for distrust

But contractors with a traditional mindset may resist adopting BIM, preferring the duplication of tasks, even at the risk of adding errors. They can also blame new tools for late handover of tasks, using it as a scapegoat for internal failures. This adversarial mindset can be swept away by shifting the focus of the delivery strategy.

Reshaping project teams

For the built environment sector, new technology will have a profound impact on the structure of teams and skill requirements. The Built environment 2050 report produced by the Construction Industry Council’s BIM2050 group predicts that automated collection of data will render many administrative roles redundant. As a result, construction management teams are expected to halve in size over the next 3 decades.

Roles will no longer focus on the collection of historical information, but will shift towards real-time predictions and rapid decision-making. As a result, managers will need to become competent in handling and interpreting data. There will be increasing demand for software programmers, as well as technologists who can present information in a variety of visual formats.

More integrated teams will require professionals, such as estimators, surveyors, architects and designers, to have a broad understanding of other disciplines in order to better communicate and collaborate. Exciting developments in smart cities, integrated infrastructure, the industrial internet of things, sensor technology, additive manufacturing and nanosecond procurement will attract specialists from other industries. As construction becomes more digitally enhanced, it is likely that career paths will become more fluid, allowing easier movement in and out of the sector.

An integrated project team can have a transformative effect on organisations as well as individuals

Traditionally, it has been difficult for small companies to break into the built environment arena, because of the perceived risks and high costs of entry. Now digital construction is paving the way for entrepreneurial start-ups, bringing with them exciting new ways of working.

An integrated project team – where all players are working towards common goals, costs are transparent and profits shared – can have a transformative effect on organisations as well as individuals. In this harmonious environment, it becomes more important to use technology to collaborate than to blame. Former foes become allies. Knowledge and data are shared, and problems jointly solved.

Within organisations, reluctance to embrace new technology is often due to lack of employee engagement. Although education, communication and awareness-raising initiatives may seem obvious, these activities are inadequate or surprisingly often overlooked.

Shifting the focus

If the roll-out of technology fails, the reasons can often be traced back to lack of understanding by senior directors.

One contractor recently complained that he had invested considerable sums on BIM tools, but had seen none of the efficiencies that they were supposed to bring. When asked how he had implemented the technology, he admitted that he had just bought a series of software licences. Staff remained unenlightened. Another director was mystified that, despite introducing BIM, the structural steel components did not fit together on one of his projects. On investigation it emerged that the project manager had assumed that the collaborative software would automatically do his job for him. He did not realise that human interpretation of the data was still essential.

As teams become smaller, reporting structures will shorten and managers will become more accountable

Lack of understanding about why BIM is being implemented can also lead to resistance. Programme managers may view the software as adding to a long list of problems, forcing them to learn new skills and unlearn old ones. Therefore, clear communication is vital. Rather than seeing BIM as an added chore, project managers need to be shown that collaboration tools can save them hours of administrative drudgery, giving more time for problem-solving.

If the transition to integrated working is to take effect, it is essential to demystify the process for smaller companies. BIM can seem so intimidating to risk-averse third- or fourth-tier suppliers that many are steering away from contracts that demand it. Others worry that, without investing in expensive software modelling tools, their business will not survive. At a time of global skills shortage, we cannot afford to lose these specialists from the system.

Power of automation

Automation will reduce the number of administrative tasks carried out by humans. There will be fewer junior and middle managers, and this will force a change in group behaviour.

Traditional teams typically have long chains of command that can lead to inertia and paralysis. Fearing blame, individuals are reluctant to take responsibility. Within such set-ups, decision-making can be slow. As teams become smaller, reporting structures will shorten and managers will become more accountable. Hierarchies will become flatter. This should pave the way for a more dynamic, blame-free culture.

Automated data collection will also liberate managers to do more interesting work: instead of time-consuming compiling of progress reports, they can turn their energies to real-time predictions and rapid decision-making. Ultimately, we need to communicate that technology does not just benefit corporations, it also helps people to feel empowered, and understand how they can add value to a project, bringing powerful psychological benefits.

There is still much to do. Teams of the future will require more leaders than managers and we need to ensure these skills are properly nurtured.

Wes Beaumont is a Senior Project Manager at Turner & Townsend

Further information

Related competencies include: Project administration