Digital Transformation in Engineering & Construction

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Paul Wilkinson is a leading authority on the use of construction collaboration technology platforms. He has been working in the marketing and public relations side of the construction industry since 1987, with some of the sector’s best-known names in professional services and information technology.
Paul is a regular speaker at academic institutions and industry events. As an author, he has written numerous articles, book chapters, and a book about construction collaboration technologies.

In this episode, Paul discusses: “Digital Transformation in Engineering & Construction”.

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Highlights from Episode 139: “Digital Transformation in Engineering & Construction”

So, tell us how a doctor in criminology is now in the engineering and construction sector?

I did public administration as a first degree, then got interested in an aspect of the criminal justice system and started to do a PhD at the London School of Economics. And because you have to do a bit of fieldwork, I couldn’t do it as a full-time job. So I went part-time and my first part-time job was as a temp. I was a copy-type pistol, almost a Kelly girl.

One of the temp agencies in London took me into a consulting engineering business. I spent two weeks there, but then my next assignment was two weeks at another consulting engineering firm. So, I ended up spending seven years there. Ultimately, I became initially a permanent employee, but still part-time.

When I finished my PhD fieldwork, sadly Margaret Thatcher had decided there was no such thing as a society which for a sociologist is a bit death knell, for your future career as a sociologist. But by then I was already working for this consulting engineering. I was enjoying the work. And so it wasn’t a painful decision for me to focus full-time on becoming more of a PR and marketeer because that’s the department I was working it within that organization.

Why does this sector, the engineering, and construction sector, lag behind in digital transformation?

Because of a number of factors. Traditionally, construction has been a low tech industry. It was very manual, very contractual, very adversarial, with low margins. When you’ve got low margins, overheads like IT are expensive. And so you tend not to use IT unless it provides you with a cost-saving. So, we’re very cost-conscious as an industry.

We also tend to work in silos. The adversarial relationships often meant that we weren’t very good at sharing information. And so we tended to revert to the lowest common denominator, which is producing paper and sharing paper. And moving paper around, even when computer-aided design techniques started to come in, it was still about reducing everything to paper.

So, if you compare where construction sits in terms of its digital transformation journey with other market sectors, McKinsey did a piece of research about five years ago and identified that in America construction was almost bottom of the league. It was above agriculture and hunting. They did a similar piece of research in Europe and construction was right at the bottom. Even agriculture in Europe is more advanced than construction in terms of its digital transformation.

So that’s where we sit. The consequences of being so far behind does however mean that we can learn lessons from other sectors which have digitized and we have the opportunity then to digitize more quickly, more efficiently and learn from the lessons of people who were the early adopters in some of the marketplaces.

Do you think there’s a transformation behind the actual digitization as well where information will be shared more freely and frequently?

There will be. We’re in the process of going through that journey at the moment. If I think back over the 30 years or so that I’ve been in the industry about every five or six years there’s a major industry report which says construction is hugely inefficient and wasteful and it needs to be better at collaborating.

So we’ve had people talking about partnering, about integrated teams, about the use of collaboration platforms and more and more use of technology to improve how we collaborate, how we move on from being a paper-based, paper-driven industry, and working to the timescales of a paper-driven industry. So we move beyond that and become quicker and slicker in our processing. But it’s been a slow process because this is an industry where people are delivering buildings and assets, roads and bridges, tunnels, transport networks, and so on, upon which people’s lives depend.

So you’re not going to take risks with new IT that’s untested. And in many cases, that kind of conservative risk-averse approach is indicative of many organizations’ approach to new technology. Construction was amongst the slowest to adopt word processing. It was slow to adopt the World Wide Web. Many of its businesses were amongst the slowest to create their first websites.

So it’s been an area of challenge for a long time. If I think about my social media journey over the last 15 years, at one time I was one of a handful of people who were tweeting, many people were effectively banned by their organizations from using any social media at all. It was just seen as not the thing that we do in construction.

Which of those trends do you think would be more important for these sectors in the coming years?

Well, a bit changed that we’ve seen over the last 10 or 11 years has been building information modeling. So BIM, as it’s frequently abbreviated, has been the big push that the UK government started in 2011, and it was looking to establish better ways of doing things. It wanted to create a more efficient industry. And also to address things like climate change through enabling better sharing of open shareable asset information.

We’re still a long way short of delivering upon that vision but we’ve gone a long way forward in terms of getting the industry to adopt BIM as a process. It’s a collaborative process that involves the use of development sharing and use of a lot of structured information. It’s not just about 3D models. It’s about the wealth of other non-geometric information that will often sit behind a process during design through construction, and then beyond handover into future operation of the buildings and assets themselves.

There are some suggestions perhaps that it is a closed book. Why would that be?

There’s been some hesitation from some firms to invest in the technology. There are also issues to do with the technology and the nature of the information they shared. There is a challenge around what we call interoperability, the ability to exchange and use information between different software solutions so that I can send you something and you can immediately open it. But you can only, in the construction case, you might only be able to open it if you have a particular piece of software, the same software that I used to create the original file.

This sometimes poses problems because as a very much silo-based industry, with lots of disciplines working together, firms don’t necessarily use the same software tools. They might use different brands of software, different disciplines might use different tools and sometimes the tools just don’t talk to each other. So we end up with a situation where you have to reduce things to the bare minimum, in some cases actually reducing it almost down to paper again, back to PDF before people can share.

People are also concerned about liabilities. They didn’t want to accept information that came from other disciplines because they might be liable for mistakes that were embedded in those files. They preferred to reconstitute the information so they were comfortable that they wouldn’t be compromised if something went wrong.

If you think about other areas of commerce, the World Wide Web works because there are software protocols and programs, which work to accepted global standards so that you can open an internet browser, whichever browser you, and it will open a website and the website will look the same because everything’s working to the same standards and protocols. It’s the reason that email works. Not everybody has to use Outlook. People can use Gmail and other products, but we can send emails and attachments efficiently to each other because there are these protocols and standards in place.

At the moment construction lags behind in its development of the appropriate open standards that enable that kind of free flow of information between the disciplines. Other industries have tackled the issue, you know, so you can look at how the automotive industry, for example, shares information within their supply chains, much more sophisticated in terms of how they share information, seamlessly just-in-time type information exchanges. That’s where construction needs to get to, in terms of its adoption of new standards to enable that kind of more rapid working.

Do you see any change in that adoption?

We’re beginning to see changes. The UK government is starting to push interoperability as a requirement. So government construction strategy at the moment is captured in a couple of documents, the Construction Playbook which came out in December 2020.

Then in September, last year, we had the Transforming Infrastructure Performance Roadmap to 2030. Sometimes just called the TIP Roadmap now, but the Playbook and the TIP Roadmap, those two documents constitute UK government construction strategy. They talked about the need for greater sharing of better data.

And the TIP Road map includes an Annex, which talks about interoperability. And makes it quite clear that this has to be part of the improvement process for the industry going forward. It’s not an overnight thing. It’s something that’s going to take some years to implement. But that’s why you have a strategy, it helps give the industry a direction and advises on the steps that need to be taken.

Show Notes

Read more of Paul’s thoughts on his blog at

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