Closing the data gap
More than their peers in almost any other industry, construction executives rely on disparate sources of data for their make-or-break decisions.
These were key findings of an Autodesk global study released this past September of nearly 4,000 construction executives. Half said that a third of their decisions are compromised by what the study calls bad data, that is, data that is inaccurate, incomplete, inconsistent, or untimely. A third of respondents believe that more than half of their data is bad.
The problem is no small matter for an industry where business owners routinely put a significant proportion of their resources on the line based on predicted outcomes. No decision can be made without predictions, and without good data, the executives charged surmising future outcomes are flying blind.
Construction’s poor track record for completing projects as forecasted bears this out. In a study commissioned by Procore Technologies this past August, research firm IDC found that out of 303 U.S. and 202 Canadian project owners, 75 per cent exceeded their planned budgets on their projects, and 77 per cent were, on average, 70 days late.
This problem exists in spite of an explosion in apps that make it easier to collect data, and the wide usage of smartphones and other data collection devices in the field. The problem is what happens after the data is collected.
“In the last five years, we’ve made the transition from pen, paper, and clipboards to a bunch of apps that collect this data in digital form,” says Kristopher Lengieza, vice-president of global partnerships and alliances at Procore Technologies. “The big challenge has been connecting data from multiple sources.”
“The reason the industry has a history of schedules not being met or budgets always getting increased, or rework, is because information is scattered in so many different formats that people don’t have easy access to,” says Hammad Chaudhry, director of virtual design and construction responsible for EllisDon’s civil and ICI projects in Western Canada.
A PERENNIAL CHALLENGE
Getting data to flow between diverse stakeholders has always been one of IT’s toughest challenges, and one that is amplified in the complex business of construction. The basic problem is that different apps store their data in different formats, and these are often incompatible. A labour management app might not, for example, be able to read data from a scheduling app. On a larger scale, according to Chaudhry, there’s a significant information gap between the information used in design models from engineering and the operational models used in the field.
Until recently, many contractors have relied on tools adapted from other industries, with unsatisfactory results.
“Traditionally in construction, the flow of information between the design phase and the construction phase has been hampered by software adapted from other industries, and consequently, poorly matched for the task,” says Saraw.
An ERP system adapted from manufacturing, for example, might be difficult to connect to the field, leaving manual processes to fill the gaps. “So, I might be relying on three or four disparate sets of reports that tell different stories,” says Saraw. “And as an executive, I simply can’t make a real-time decision based on outdated disparate data – let alone forecast effectively or accurately.”
More often than not, however, the bottleneck isn’t IT. Data strategies have to be sanctioned and reinforced at the highest levels in the organization, and give IT clear guidance on the priorities. So, the real challenge is for executives to see the impact that inadequate data is having on their business, and to appreciate the potential gains from addressing the problem.
“I can sell you the best software on the planet,” says Saraw, “but without executive sponsors who make their expectations clear from a data and KPI perspective, and without a strategic plan that aligns with those expectations, you’re not going to be successful.”
Chaudhry hopes the industry will follow in the footsteps of banking and other industries and create common data environments where all stakeholders are looking at the same picture.
“That single version of the truth, or common data environment, is now something that is being looked at more seriously,” says Chaudhry. “I think that this would unlock a level of efficiency that would lead us as an industry move on to the next step or part of our evolution.”
Jacob Stoller is principal of StollerStrategies. Send comments to email@example.com.