Contractors have learned some important lessons through navigating the effects of COVID this past year. Whether it was discovering that their technology disaster recovery plan was not designed well enough to account for a global disaster, realizing that their IT cloud strategy was not established to handle the mass migration from office to remote workers adequately, or lacking the agility to adapt to rapidly changing conditions, most contractors (if not all) have experienced some impact in their technology use.
Contractors needed to suddenly increase their technology spending and make decisions faster than normal. Yet for an industry where most of the staff already work remotely, there is no excuse for not being better prepared for the effects of the pandemic. The days of not being able to deliver connectivity to remote workers are largely over. Even in those instances where connectivity is unreliable, the applications that are critical in field usage, such as capturing time and equipment usage, field reports, access to drawings, project-related documents, and email, can all handle outages. Modern construction applications are designed to be deployed remotely, scalable on-demand, secure and available for multiple form factors (i.e., PC, Tablet, or Handheld) regardless of whether you are working in the field or at home. Despite this, many contractors still maintain outmoded technology departments and use outdated legacy applications that must be deployed from a data center (typically on-premise). These are recognizable by the fact that they are heavily focused on managing and maintaining data centers rather than working with end-users, which would better enable them to be innovative with their use of technology.
The sudden adoption of collaborative tools (e.g., video conferencing, project collaboration tools), remote monitoring for the job site (e.g., Drone technology), remote document access (e.g., online document storage), remote device management (e.g., Unified Endpoint Management/Mobile Device Management), and the Internet of Things (e.g., telematics, contractor presence indicators) have mostly been driven out of necessity due to the impact of COVID rather than as part of a larger strategic plan.
Contractors could have been getting value from any one or more of these technologies for the past few years, rather than reacting to a need derived from the pandemic. This is COVID’s wake up call.
So, what lessons should the Construction Industry take from this?
First and foremost, technology can no longer be regarded purely as an overhead. Technology should be treated as a key strategic investment. IT needs to be an enabling resource for a construction company rather than a source of friction within the organization. In some cases, technology spending needs to increase, which can be accomplished without significantly impacting the “bottom line”. The efficiencies gained and the risks reduced through the strategic application of technology can offset the cost of increased technology spending. Re-evaluate the total cost of ownership of individual applications by not just looking at the license and support costs, but also the costs associated with managing and maintaining the application. This may include the equipment required to deploy the application, the user frustration associated with poorly designed or implemented technology, the level of effort when trying to pull data, the challenges whenever updates are required and the number of processes that are managed outside of the application. Over time these have a significant financial burden that is not immediately visible. Although there is a level of disruption when replacing core applications that cannot be ignored, there is also opportunity. Replacing core applications can provide the opportunity to access better data, empower end-users to be more innovative in their use of technology, support a remote workforce more efficiently, gain efficiencies both internally and externally and provide the ability to collaborate with business partners and clients more easily. All of which contribute to an ROI.
The second lesson is that the structure of IT organizations needs to change. As contractors leverage more externally hosted applications and technologies, the roles and skills required within IT need to change too. IT departments no longer need to manage and maintain the data centers, server infrastructure, operating systems and applications. With cybersecurity threats continually rising, the layers of security required to counter these continue to increase. Security threads through all layers of technology, the hardware, network, operating system, database and application; and the skills required to counter these threats become more and more specialized and go beyond the capabilities that most IT departments can economically support internally. Instead of managing infrastructure and security, IT needs to manage vendors. This requires a completely different skillset and, in most cases, will require training or retooling of existing staff within IT. Instead of creating barriers to end-user adoption of technology (either due to non-intuitive applications, complex security, multiple steps required to access an application, rekeying data in multiple systems, etc.), IT needs to work more closely with end-users. IT departments need to provide venues for innovation, helping users identify the tools that meet their needs the best and provide the necessary infrastructure as a foundation, rather than the barrier that has been the past issue. This means more rapidly scalable storage, middleware that supports the integration of data more easily between systems, and automation tools that can support the creation of new workflows, human and/or robotic.
The third lesson is that contractor organizations, their employees, colleagues and partners are more resilient to change than anticipated. When disaster strikes, collaboration across the organization becomes critical. Many contractors realized that the rapid adoption of new technology could be achieved without significant disruption when everyone worked together. When people’s needs are taken into consideration, when they are included in the process, when a cross-functional team collaborates, Contractors can be more adaptable to change. To support them, IT needs to be more agile. Strategic plans need to be structured around a framework that supports a level of flexibility, focusing on technologies that allow an organization to pivot quickly to take advantage of innovations without disruption.
Contractors need to embrace the wakeup call that came in navigating their responses to COVID over the last year. They need to embrace the lessons learned to be ready for change, whatever the driver.