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Bridging Construction’s Digital Divide

Advancing the future of the digitally built environment requires more than process innovation and new technology. In the hyper-competitive construction market, laden with aggressive schedules and tight margins, experts must be afforded the opportunity to step into the role of technology amateurs as they develop the skills required to move forward in their digital journey.



It’s no secret that the construction industry lags in digitization. Pose this statement in a boardroom or in a conference presentation; most in attendance will just shrug and nod. Better yet, peer over the fence of any construction site in your local area. Chances are, you will see a plethora of craft professionals, equipment, tools, and yes, you guessed it, paper.


Construction ranks second to last in digitization across industries; second only to hunting and agriculture (McKinsey, 2017). And while digital tools are making substantial inroads in industry sector pockets, many sector pockets are only slowly moving the needle on change. Just ask any foreman working on a construction project in a petrochemical facility how they feel the digital journey is progressing. Chances are they don’t even have access to a computer.


Industry leaders are painstakingly advocating for digital progress; drones, digital twins, AI, VR, AR, and a multitude of other solutions fill social feeds and dominate topics of discussion at global industry events. Venture capitalists are flooding into the space, injecting a staggering $1.38b USD into construction tech startups in 2018 alone. Industry-wide, there is no shortage of solutions, focus, effort, and capital to facilitate the digital journey. Why, then, is it taking so long for construction project teams to bridge the gap?


Some postulate that construction professionals are tech-resistant; others assume that craft professionals lack the technical skills to effectively use the tools provided. Others claim that this is simply a generational problem; they assume the 'old guard' will retire and make room for the young tech-savvy innovators, expecting massive digital progress as that transition occurs.


While these theories and assumptions circle the discussions amongst networks of industry leaders, the next generation of construction professionals isn't yet completely disrupting the industry with the adoption of innovative tools and technology. Young engineers aren’t walking around construction sites en masse with AR headsets; young construction foremen aren’t yet all toting tablets around the job site. I still hear the next generation of industry leaders complaining about the complexity of solutions and the lack of process alignment to support their workflows. Simply waiting for the next generation to usher in a new era of digitization doesn't appear to be a viable strategy to take bold steps forward in our journey to digitization.


From Amateur to Ace

There is one consistent theme across the industry in the technology space; practical, hands-on, guided training and coaching is lacking. When new solutions are deployed we expect experts to quickly adopt them when we need to embrace amateurs who need to learn core skills. Digital solution development moves quickly; as an industry, we aren’t affording those who must adopt and embrace these tools with the opportunity to learn how to leverage them. To develop new skills, experts must first become students, beginning with foundational skillset development and building upon those skills over time. Until we afford the opportunity for stakeholders to learn, we will continue to witness the lagging digital adoption we have witnessed in the industry to date.


Regardless of age or background, when a new solution is deployed everyone on the team is an amateur. Stepping into the role of amateur can be a scary move, especially for those who are experts in their field. Amateurs require education, support, and coaching; being a coach is the role that these stakeholders are used to playing. One can avoid that uncomfortable pivot to the amateur role, and maintain their expert status, by simply continuing to use tools that they are comfortable and confident in using. In the construction industry, those tools are usually pens and paper. A lack of desire to step into the amateur role can stifle engagement and solution adoption.


In the hyper-competitive construction industry, schedules and cost targets are aggressive; in some cases, far too aggressive. To achieve these goals, construction teams run lean. Beyond the lack of desire to step into the amateur role, there is too often little or no time allocation for digital skill development, exploration, and testing due to resource shortages. Team members are expected to learn ‘on-the-fly’, essentially figuring out how to use these tools on their own. This affords little opportunity for skill development; without those core skills being generated within the team, the solution will likely lack in value generation and may simply be tossed aside in frustration.


Further, training is often viewed as a 'nice-to-have' instead of a 'need-to-have'. It's usually one of the first line items crossed off of proposals when negotiating agreements, when cost reduction is of concern. Failing to deliver necessary training yields stakeholders that don't have the foundational skills to effectively navigate the solutions. These stakeholders remain perpetual amateurs; they are never afforded the opportunity to develop the deep knowledge needed to successfully adopt and sustain the tools. To become an expert, an investment in skill development is required. It takes time, and requires financial investment. But, without it, your chances of solution deployment success are limited.


Construction’s digital divide continues to grow. As solutions become more advanced and complex, the gap between current capabilities and future skill requirements is expanding. As an industry, we continue to invest in further technological development while end users continue to watch the future of project delivery slipping out of reach.


Operators Over Operations

Modern digital tools, regardless of their application, take time to learn; they take exponentially longer to master. The latest solutions are loaded with features and functions, all aiming to create value and drive project performance improvement in the built environment. Launch the application, load a list, filter the list, click some dropdown buttons to segment the data, and tada, you have what you’re searching for. Features and functions drive these solutions. But features and functions don’t design, build, and deliver construction projects; people do.


Technology teams in the built environment are disproportionately focusing investment in operations over operators. Development is the endeavor; maintaining venture capital interest and industry media hype depends on it. Frequent new releases are a necessity to outpace the competition. The latest marketing material found at conferences and within social feeds highlights every buzzword in the industry, from VR to blockchain; from AR to machine learning. But, even with all of those features and functions, digitization continues to lag. Continued investment in complexity won't drive increased use, no matter how much marketing material is published and how many buzzwords the solution encapsulates.


Bridging the digital divide requires a pivot in focus for technology providers to support operators over operations. While not disengaging from development efforts, solution teams must focus on supporting the users that support their products. Simplicity and seamless user interface are key; if a lack of training time and funding continue to be the norm, solutions that are easier to learn and master through self-directed learning will gain wider adoption and industry traction than those that require substantial hands-on training.


Takeaway

Construction continues to lag behind other industries in the digital journey, despite substantial funding investment, product development, focus, and industry engagement. To bridge this gap, organizational and project leaders must begin allocating more funds, time, and requisite effort to educate and train project stakeholders on the use of digital tools. The benefits of digitization may only be achieved if teams are competent and confident in the use of digital solutions. Cutting investment in training, while perhaps improving near-term margins, isn't advancing the long-term solution benefits to the team; it’s stifling their potential.


Without considering or supporting the process of converting a construction technology user from amateur to expert, you’re highly unlikely to gain mass adoption of any solution. Pockets of adoption, stagnation, then ultimate disengagement will continue to hamper the deployment lifecycle. Industry growth requires an alignment of the best tools with leading user training, coaching, and support. Those technology firms and project teams that embrace this model to bridge the gap will be the ones still standing when digitization within the industry reaches critical mass.

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