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IT vital to industry's evolution

AGENDA - The construction industry is failing to understand the benefits of IT, argues Mark Sawyer

INFORMATION technology can have a profound impact on the way businesses operate yet there is an irrational tendency within construction to resist it.

The industry views IT as a series of daunting and expensive products that address only specific tasks.

The principal rationale for investment in IT is improving efficiency in individual jobs or departments.This limited view is one that most other industries have abandoned and many are now harnessing the technology to change the way they operate.

Many ask: 'When will construction catch up?'This is often met with the question: 'Why should we?'

The fact is that the construction industry is different.The traditional assets lie in land, materials and people. IT is not seen as as big an asset as it is, for example, in the manufacturing industry.

However different construction might be, it is also true that other industries have addressed similar issues - for instance, reducing risk, meeting time deadlines, saving money and beating client expectations.

Also, the market is changing in terms of expectations of the way projects are managed.With greater collaboration now encouraged, IT has a role in helping various disciplines share information.

According to a recent BRE/CICA survey,73 construction firms said they must invest in IT in order to remain competitive, meet specific project needs and cope with an increasing workload. But there was little indication of how this would be achieved - a measure of the difference between the management aim and the realities of IT application.

There are still many barriers to the integrated use of IT in the construction industry.Most are organisational barriers within a company but, more importantly, within the ways it deals and communicates with the firms it must work with.

What is encouraging is the increase in construction industry IT expenditure in recent years - currently rising at 23 per cent per annum.This places construction as one of the fastest growing IT markets.

But this spend is coming from an extremely low base and in many cases it is simply investment in individual and often poorly integrated applications.This mirrors the early development of IT in other industries and shows they are failing to learn from previous mistakes and failing to apply IT as a basis for driving improvements in the construction sector.

It is in terms of information flow and process management that IT offers the best initial opportunities.Managing the process - the resources used, the time lines to be met, and the risks exposed - will become increasingly difficult as the speed of change of designs and specifications accelerates and clients demand to be better 'engaged'.

From 3D visualisation of the building to specifications that can be revised on the fly, through to ongoing management of the occupied building, IT offers a solution for the whole life of the building. Project extranets and agreed file exchange formats show how IT can help a collaborative working style.

Change will not be easy but most of the barriers are organisational - internally, but also externally in terms of the way current and future roles are seen.

The construction industry must learn from other sectors - once one or two pioneers begin to tread the path, their industry changes for ever.

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