A collaborative paradox: Getting connected in the fragmented construction industry
It’s ironic that construction, which sees more back-and-forth interaction between diverse players than perhaps any other industry, is considered a laggard when it comes to sharing information.
“Construction is one of the most collaborative industries, yet also at the same time extremely fragmented,” says Sidharth Haksar, head of strategy at Autodesk Construction Solutions. “This dichotomy is further compounded by the existence of data trapped in various silos, leading to increased project risk around cost, quality, safety and schedule.”
Historically, the lack of tools for exchanging data between construction apps was partly to blame. “Ten or fifteen years ago, construction apps didn’t have application programming interfaces (APIs), even though it may have been common in other industries,” says Kris Lengieza, vice-president, Global Partnerships & Alliances at Procore. “Today, we have more modern, cloud-based APIs which allow us to move data between those systems.”
Thanks to the recent explosion of job site data collection, many contractors now have significant investments in job site data. “I continue to be astounded by the amount of data we’re collecting, especially the digital imagery (i.e. drone video) collected on job sites,” says Brian Kmet, senior relationship manager at PCL Construction. “With the widespread use of cloud technologies and software, data has further proliferated because it is very economical to store large quantities of data.”
Deriving value from that data, however, requires a company-wide commitment. “Organizations collect a great deal of data and, yes, it is a valuable asset,” Kmet says, “but, like any valuable asset, it requires protection, care and feeding to ensure it adds value.”
The biggest hurdle for most firms is not technology deployment, but the creation of a solid business framework that ensures that information is collected, stored and shared consistently throughout the organization.
“The reason the industry is having difficulty leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) is not because of a shortage of use cases or data, but a shortage of high quality data,” says Rosemarie Lipman, CIO and senior vice-president of Digital and Data Engineering at EllisDon. “So before jumping to the exciting use cases, you really need to establish strong foundations in data management practices in order to set yourself up for success in those innovative areas.»
The requirement applies to firms of all sizes. FNX-INNOV, a Montreal-based 628-employee engineering firm, found consistent data policies were essential to moving its app deployment to the next level.
“We already have company wide policies around collecting, storing and handling data on our traditional file server, including standardized form,” says Louis Charette, head of urban infrastructure at FNX-INNOV. “And right now, what we’re doing is integrating new tools like Autodesk Construction Cloud’s PlanGrid into our existing policies. So having those established policies has been really useful for us in ensuring each office, each team, even across departments and specialties, are working in the same way.”
PCL began its data management journey in 2013. “We recognized that a great deal of our data was siloed,” Kmet says, “and creating an integration framework unlocked those silos and made that data available to the organization so that people and business processes could take advantage of it, either operationally in the field or in business-to-business interactions with vendors and customers.”
Developing the right policies for the organization can be a bit of a balancing act. Inadequate standardization, for example, can create barriers to information sharing, while strict rules about information management can get in the way of entrepreneurial decision-making.
“It’s really about marrying the data strategy with the business’ focus on improving and evolving from an operational perspective,” Lipman says. “And so both of those have to be aligned.”
“Governance programs should match the culture of the organization with how it manages and governs data,” Kmet says. “Our approach is less concerned about the technical aspects of governance, but rather focuses on how data governance supports business processes, construction operations and operational excellence.”
Accordingly, the development of data management policies cannot be delegated to a technology group. “Our business data optimization committee consists of four executives — our CFO, our CIO, and the chief operating officers of each of our divisions for buildings and industrial,” Kmet says. “CIOs embarking on data governance programs must involve business executives to lead and steer these initiatives. Data governance must be focused on business outcomes not technical outcomes.”
Senior management’s role does not end once the basic policies are in place. “The business subject matter expert (SME) stakeholder is the linchpin for any successful data analytic project,” says Patrick To, EllisDon’s director of Insights and Analytics. “They best understand the value drivers, the business processes, rules and constraints, and most importantly, what critical business challenges they are facing — which can potentially be solved by leveraging data and analytics.”
Construction in transition
Data becomes increasingly valuable when it is shared more widely, a phenomenon often described as the network effect, and the principle is starting to take hold in the construction industry as contractors seek to leverage the masses of data they have collected. Minute tracking data from job sites may have little value for record keeping or after-the-fact analysis, for example, but become highly valued when it becomes available to inform a major decision.
“Something is always going to be changing on a job site,” Lengieza says, “and we need to be able to communicate that information. There may, for example, be someone in the organization working on an owner request or change order across the continent, and that decision might be affected by whether a slab was poured or not.”
A common data foundation also allows organizations to leverage the lessons learned from successful technology deployments and apply them in other areas of the business. “We started small,” Charette says, “with just myself and a technician from another office trying different solutions. When we found out what was best for us, we started deploying those solutions in our respective teams.”
A common platform for stakeholders
In construction, information sharing between GCs, subcontractors, owners and suppliers is a key driver of success, and as contractors move forward with connected job site initiatives, interoperability between diverse systems is becoming essential.
“Applications and data operate in an ecosystem of connected applications,” Kmet says. “PCL customers and industry suppliers are moving into interoperability that relies on seamless and frictionless data and application integration capability.”
As they have with other industries, software vendors are making it easier to exchange data between their construction apps and others in order to provide the flexibility contractors need. “You can’t work in a closed ecosystem, so you need to have open APIs,” Haksar says. “We will absolutely champion best of breed offerings at Autodesk with our partner ecosystem and our own connected construction platform, Autodesk Construction Cloud.”
Interoperability, however, will be limited unless stakeholders make the effort to work together towards common objectives. “I think GCs really need to start working and collaborating with subs in ways that are different from the past,” Lipman says. “So really, how can we use technology to get everybody collaborating and creating consistent project data? I think it’s about allocating the appropriate resources, leveraging in-house knowledge and coming up with solutions that work for multiple stakeholders.”
Jacob Stoller is principal of StollerStrategies.
This article first appeared in the June 2021 edition of On-Site. Click here to read through the entire issue.