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How to solve the information-productivity puzzle

Construction is awash with data, so how could it be better used to jump-start the sector’s flatlining productivity?

In attendance

Paul Clarke, Aecom | Melanie Dawson, Graham | Jill Guthrie, Willmott Dixon| Kenny Ingram, IFS | Chris McDermott, ISG | Andrew Pryke, Bam Design | Colin Ratcliffe, Morgan Sindall | Richard Shennan, Mott MacDonald | Peter Vale, Tideway | Matt Warren, Lendlease Construction | Damon Schünmann, Construction News (chair)

The fact that UK construction is determined to increase its levels of productivity is well known.

While this issue is apparent in the economy as a whole, the problem is far worse in the construction sector, where productivity has flatlined for at least two decades. For this reason, Construction News convened a roundtable discussion at the recent CN Summit in November, in association with IFS, to discuss how the industry could better use the information at its disposal to create more productive companies.

Kicking off the discussion, IFS global industry director of engineering, construction and infrastructure Kenny Ingram set out the possible benefits of doing this.

“Really, we should be thinking about how we can use information to add value to a business,” he said.

“Ultimately, that means [considering] how we can use it to improve our margins and profitability, and also make our businesses more robust and futureproof. We work with low margins, so we have to ensure we make money and stay in business.”

The collapse of Carillion at the start of 2018 provided a textbook example. “It happened for all sorts of reasons, but partly perhaps because they didn’t have the right information to make decisions early enough,” continued Mr Ingram.

“When we talk about data and information, a lot of the agenda these days tends to focus on BIM, but to me, [the issue] is much wider than that. It’s about managing the entire business: every bit of information – from cradle to grave – in an organisation, and managing a project’s lifecycle.”

Curse of Excel

Unfortunately, in his experience, construction still had a long way to go to get the right systems in place to collect and process information, never mind maximising their potential benefits.

“What I see generally is that most of the construction industry has a lack of integrated business systems compared with other sectors,” he said.

“It’s gradually changing, but then there is the dreaded word ’Excel’. With most companies I go into, I find it astounding that they’re running big businesses with spreadsheets, and it’s not very joined up. So I think there are big opportunities to be smarter in what we do.”

Bam Design managing director Andrew Pryke agreed: “In this industry, 50 per cent of projects finish over time and over budget.

“Health and safety is poor, and productivity – however you read the numbers – has either gone up or down by 1 per cent . How does that improve? It’s really about understanding who needs what, when, where and why. At the moment, we are a paper industry still.”

“We’re quite good at capturing a lot of information, but how good is it?”

Melanie Dawson, Graham

Following the opening remarks, the panel was asked to provide some insight into how their organisations were managing information. Graham director of digital construction Melanie Dawson said her company’s approach was “digital-driven” in everything it did.

“It’s about piecing all that together and, at the start, deciding what information you want and what format you want it in,” she said. “The main thing for us is that whatever information you get, it has to be reliable and robust.

“I think, as an industry, we’re quite good at capturing a lot of information, but how good is it?”

Willmott Dixon digital manager Jill Guthrie said her company gathered huge amounts of information during the lifecycle of a project, which was then handed to the client on completion. The trick, she said, was working out which information held lasting value for Willmott Dixon itself.

IFS roundtable nov 18 3

IFS roundtable nov 18 3

“Once we have handed a building over, after a year, we’re not really involved in it anymore,” she said.

“We get asked for a whole host of information and at the moment we’re going through a process of looking at [what] is important to us. So if we need to look at a specification, if we’ve used a particular type of cladding, how are we going to find that information?

“We’re developing our own platform where we can quickly search for a specification and find out which projects it’s been used on.”

Avoiding information bombardment

From a client’s perspective, Tideway engineering information manager Peter Vale said that his organisation thought long and hard about its approach when it went out to tender for a contractor in 2013.

Tideway knew that it would need detailed information once the project was complete, for maintenance purposes, but equally, it didn’t want to be bombarded with information it didn’t need during the construction phase.

“What we are doing is telling the contractors what they need to deliver to us, and they then define how they are going to do it,” he said.

“We’re not going to go down the Crossrail route whereby the client owns everything and [it’s all] completely locked down and undynamic.

“As a client, we say what our scope is and that they need to tell us how they are going to deliver. We then sign it off and monitor and make sure they are doing it.”

“Big data per se is meaningless. A lot of organisations are paralysed by it”

Richard Shennan, Mott MacDonald

Such an approach, said Mr Vale, was vital to ensure that Tideway didn’t end up stifling innovation, while also ensuring that the delivery team was accountable.

“We define what we want, but we do have access to their systems so we can see what they’re doing, and that element is very open,” he added.

“The idea is that they are the experts who are doing it and as long as we have access and are part of the process, we will have removed the potential issues.”

Understanding the value

According to Mott MacDonald group digital business development director Richard Shennan, the experience at Willmott Dixon and Tideway highlighted the need to focus on the value that information can provide. It’s all very well to gather information, he said, but if it isn’t clear how it is going to be used, then what is the point of collecting it in the first place?

“Understanding the value of information and then transforming business models to get something back from it is where we need to be looking,” he said. “So how is that information synthesised into something that is then of value? And who is it of value to?

“Big data per se is meaningless. A lot of organisations are paralysed by it. They’ve got so much data. The focus needs to be on the value through the lifecycle of a project.” 

“[A new platform] came about by working with a company that had never worked in construction before”

Jill Guthrie, Willmott Dixon

Mr Shennan also insisted it was essential for contractors and the rest of the delivery team, as well as clients, to derive value from the information that was collected. Only if this happened would the entire supply chain invest in digitisation and reap the rewards in terms of productivity.

“If we’re the ones who are creating and gathering the information from different sources, where does the value of that come down the line?” he asked.

“In the construction phase, margins are small. It’s about looking at the value of the information and how business models change to enable those involved in design and construction to get some of that value back.

“Because if we don’t get the value back, then you never have the investment available to go into the training and the digital transformation that is required.”

IFS roundtable nov 18 4

IFS roundtable nov 18 4

What was needed to encourage that investment, he believed, were some quick wins. “If we go along to somebody as an owner with a lot of existing assets and say that they need to cleanse all their data and sort it out to get any benefits from it, then they could be launching into a long, complicated programme that could take years and never come to fruition.

“So what we’re doing is looking for speed and what useful information can be extracted from data that is already available. How can we mix that with other open sources of data and blend that together to quickly create new approaches that will lead to better outcomes?

“By showing progress like that, the value of the information will be recognised and the investment required to get information sorted out will get more backing.”

Bespoke platforms

For her part, Ms Guthrie offered up a neat example of a quick win that Willmott Dixon was able to deliver. Not only was the solution valuable to the company’s client, it was also of lasting value to the contractor itself.

“We’ve been working with a tech company in Bangor, and we went to them with a huge amount of data and said that we wanted to do a sustainability platform, and could they help us,” she recalled.

“We had all this data and knowledge, and they could create these incredible platforms. Between us, we created a platform for a customer where it manages the energy use in every room – there are multiple businesses in the building – and it reports back. It’s basically a lifecycle energy platform.

“We didn’t necessarily mean to create it, but we’re now looking to roll that out across our business. That came about by working with a company that had never worked in construction before.”

“We felt the government was pushing us in that [BIM] direction, but actually, things have quietened down since 2016”

Colin Ratcliffe, Morgan Sindall

Morgan Sindall perfect delivery director Colin Ratcliffe agreed that it was important for contractors and the rest of the supply chain to innovate, but pointed out that much of the time, they could only be as forward-thinking as their clients.

“We have to deal with all customers and very often they have heard about BIM, but really, they have no idea about what they want,” he said, adding that things don’t seem to have moved on since 2016, when the government mandated BIM on centrally procured projects.

“We felt the government was pushing us in that direction, but actually, things have quietened down since 2016,” he said.

IFS roundtable nov 18 5

IFS roundtable nov 18 5

Ms Guthrie agreed: “We work on a lot of projects for local authorities and it’s a huge problem. They don’t have the internal infrastructure once we hand over this whole suite of information to make use of it.

“We make huge investments in producing it, but they don’t have the resources to upskill and use the information we are giving them.”

Health and safety applications

While acknowledging that he benefited from effectively acting as both client and contractor, Lendlease Construction business lead Matt Warren said major advances could be made simply by opening up the flow of information in key areas.

“In terms of construction, we now have a system that records health and safety data on a global basis,” he said.

“That means that, at any point in time, I know if there is a near miss. I get instantaneous alerts if something occurs – what went wrong and why it happened and the implications. Everyone in the business sees that information.

“And then we looked at package information. We break our work down by package and we have a really well-defined interface. It means that things that did or did not work with a package are recorded, and it’s open for any member of staff to look at.”

“A lot of the agenda these days tends to focus on BIM, but to me, [the issue] is much wider than that”

Kenny Ingram, IFS

ISG group director of client development Chris McDermott agreed that interventions did not have to be huge in scale to make a difference.

“We’re working for the Department for Education and we’ve worked with its five designers to standardise their design principles, and have captured that in a model,” he said. “We use that now as the starting point for every project. It removes a lot of the waste.”

For his part, Aecom head of intelligent infrastructure Paul Clarke said that productivity gains could also be made simply by taking a bird’s-eye view of a situation and intervening when the potential for a future issue became apparent.

“I sit on the steering group to help define the survey strategy for HS2, and there, a developer was about to commence the management of the data, and they were going to capture all their geospatial data with one system,” he recalled.

“Everybody else in the project had been collecting data using a different referencing system. However, through some intervention, and having the right people have the right conversations at the right time, we were able to intervene and get the developer to capture the data in the same way as everyone else.

“It would have created a huge challenge for everybody if they had proceeded with two different referencing systems.”

So the panel agreed that the construction industry still had a long way to go to make better use of information to boost productivity. But, as their examples show, innovations are being implemented – and perhaps these should be celebrated more.

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