Digital Transformation in Construction Technology

Cameron Mills, Director, Project Controls.  Victorian Government, Major Transport Infrastructure Authority North East Link Project.
Cameron Mills, Director, Project Controls. Victorian Government, Major Transport Infrastructure Authority North East Link Project.
Historically, the construction industry has not been a leading example of technology growth and has often been referred to as one of the least digitized.
In recent years, however, there have been significant advancements in the development and application of construction technology globally, from both an organizational (strategic) and project (tactical) perspective. Project owners, consultants, technology providers and contractors of all sizes have been investing millions of dollars, seeking to modernize their approaches and gain more control, security and efficiency over their data and information management practices.
The scale of the global construction infrastructure industry is vast, with some predictions on required investment over the next 20 years to be in excess of $100 trillion.
The recent experience with the Covid-19 pandemic has also contributed to an increase yet to be forecast, on global infrastructure investment, as many countries are seeking to utilize the industry as a means to stimulate their economies by investing as much as they possibly can into projects that can be progressed quickly.
Another result of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a heightened reliance on technology, with vast numbers of individuals required to work remotely, making project applications and communication platforms such as Skype, Zoom and Microsoft Teams for example, universally influential.
Even with such increased rates of investment, there are still many organizations who are unsure of what problem they are trying to solve with the use of construction technology particularly from a strategic and tactical viewpoint. When implementing technology at a strategic level, a number of organizations typically lose sight of the fact they are project based institutions and tend to select options that support the overarching business requirements, often to the consternation of the projects who are the essence of their existence.
Focus is particularly drawn to Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, which can be effective at a strategic level, however, tend to not cover all the detailed requirements necessary at a tactical level. This approach often results in a hybrid mixture of legacy systems, standalone proprietary products and in house “workaround” solutions at the tactical level.
Legacy systems, which are defined as potentially outdated technology that have been unchanged within an organization for more than 5 years, can be challenging. Often these have been special projects implemented by a senior executive within an organization and can be extremely difficult to replace, remove or adjust due to the potential bias held towards the product. There are examples of some organizations using legacy systems for over 10 years, ambivalent to changing market conditions and new emerging technologies.
Proprietary systems offer access to the latest available market technology, enhanced data security, heightened likelihood of data integrity and leverage other industry applications, the challenge is that often there is little integration adopted and so many are required to perform multiple functional tasks. This is often due mostly to a lack of foresight and understanding from the strategic level. Furthermore, whilst many technology providers advocate end to end solutions very few are yet to achieve this in practice and fewer still can provided documented evidence of sustainable application, to support their assertions.
In house workaround solutions are typically excel based and are normally generated to fill the tactical gaps as a result of an organizations strategic approach. These solutions are often error prone and not particularly efficient.
Due to the issues associated with the implementation of tactical technology, it is not uncommon to have in excess of 30 different systems and applications on an infrastructure project, with very little data integration. This can cause significant issues around data integrity as well as be extremely arduous and labour intensive to maintain.
The concept of a connected site or an end to end technological approach at a project level is not new and is now beginning to gain significant momentum with practitioners, desperate to find efficient means to manage an ever increasing amount of data being generated, as well as to comply with the increasing demand of reporting and analytical information from their own entities, project owners and key stakeholders.
So, what is the right direction to take? The starting point is building the business case for a digital transformation project that should be focused on adopting a solution that aligns a project entities strategic and tactical requirements, comprehensively understanding the organizations current state, leveraging the latest available technology with a heightened focus on integration, automation, data integrity and information security.
This can be achieved by progressively overhauling an organizations existing technology, with a combination of incumbent and new products, or a targeted clean slate approach whereby the incumbent technology is completely replaced by a new solution or solutions, in a phased manner to maintain the organizations operational capacity. With either approach, the time frame for such a transformation is typically a minimum of 2 years and should seek to maximize integration and automation where practicable.
The difficulty in achieving executive approval for digital transformation is very challenging and at times, seemingly impossible. Seeking endorsement from individuals who hold the relevant approval status and the keys to the funding sources, who will almost never have anything to do with the selected technology is one of the most trying activities the transformation team will face.
Effective methods available to assist the team to frame the business case for endorsement include defining the problem the team is trying to solve through the digital transformation project. Go, see and assess the existing environment and understand the root causes of what is contributing to the problem. Prepare alternative solutions that offer flexibility in scale, cost, complexity and performance (never go in with just one option). Finally, embark on a comprehensive stakeholder engagement process that ensures total inclusion and ultimately, acceptance of the whole organization for the project.
Every organization will go on a digital transformation journey at some stage, the key to a successful outcome rests with understanding why it is necessary and also in the willingness to accept and contribute to the process.