How should construction companies prepare for the future given today's volatile economic, political, and environmental situation? We can make some educated guesses by first examining where industry leaders are spending their time and treasure. And, crucially, by noting what kinds of talented people they are trying to attract to the industry. There isn't a one to one correspondence here but it breaks down into three main areas of focus:
Technologies that are likely to be both high impact and cost effective.
Current aspects of project governance and culture that need to change or evolve.
Skills and abilities that the next generation of workers and leaders will need.
A break through in any of these three areas would have dramatic ramifications for the industries somewhat notorious track record for delivering projects on time and on budget. Naturally, these are also the areas where leaders in the construction industry and making the most dramatic changes.
Project culture and governance has seen the swiftest change. Processes and controls that have been in place and unchanged, sometimes for decades, are giving way to the digital revolution. There's a long list of low hanging fruit and so many companies have realized that many tried and true processes are due for an upgrade. The results, broadly speaking, have been encouraging so far. It's difficult to argue with the huge amount of time that switching from paper based or hybrid systems to fully digital ones saves. Project manuals and all manner of binders across the construction industry are being steadily replaced with mobile devices, dashboards, automated controls, and real time database access. But as the culture changes the required skills and competencies for leaders are also changing. The limit on how fast the adoption of time saving and enhanced organizational technologies must be set by each companies ability to utilize them effectively. To do otherwise courts disaster and the construction industry is one where a simple error can have severe consequences for both project owners and contractors. The solution then is to actively promote, support, and cultivate a culture of adaptivity and curiosity when it comes to new technology on the construction site. The implementation or adoption phase of any new technology comes with risks but the worst of them can be well mitigated with the right governance approach.
On the other side of the risk balance sheet the ability to view and interpret real-time project data increases the chances that the project will finish on time and on budget. The ability to plot economic trends against project costs or to easily incorporate a variety of forecasts into the project planning phase have huge implications for mitigating risk. Transparent access to accurate, appropriate, and meaningful project data catches errors early and often rather than too late or too expensive. All of which could easily make the difference between success and failure in a low margin environment. It's almost a truism that these abilities are undervalued until it's already too late. It is difficult to measure the value of something that doesn't happen or to create persuasive presentations about tail-end risk exposure but construction companies that do it well have acquired a serious edge against their competition. There's a whole suite of modern technology to choose from and custom build solutions that would have been unheard of even five years ago are becoming common place.
There's more options than ever before but investments in technology must be driven by a proven ability to recover costs. Let's take a quick tour of what's current and what holds promise from this perspective in two rough groups.
Technologies that give companies the ability to respond and change course in the face of evolving conditions and risks, based upon accurate, real-time reporting.
Integrated project management information systems
Use of advanced data analytics
Building information modeling (BIM)
Technologies that promise energy-efficient design, tighter scheduling, improved quality control, higher productivity and safer workplaces.
Robotic process automation
Robot assisted labour
Exoskeletons (wearable machinery)
Drones (remote monitoring, quantity verification)
Smart sensors (security, temperature, humidity, productivity)
VR and/or augmented reality (HUD, blueprint overlays, etc)
While some of these technologies are still years away from being cost effective many of them are already rapidly entering the mainstream. This situation reveals a critical issue for the modern construction company—widespread scarcity of talent. Many organizations are having trouble attracting qualified candidates for traditional roles because of a gap in expectations around technology. To make matters worse they now must also compete with other sectors of the economy for skilled technology workers. To drive technological change in an organization it's critical to have the right people in the right places. Since the construction industry is entering a time of disruptive and volatile technological changes the best way to prepare may be to create a culture of adaptability and curiosity in terms of new technology and to invest in training and attracting tech savvy leaders.