Distributed project teams, working in a digital collaborative environment, have the potential to completely redefine how capital projects are designed, planned, built, commissioned, and operated. In turn, this model could disrupt performance benchmarks in capital project delivery, driving down costs, decreasing schedule durations, and creating opportunities for advancement and innovation in an industry sector that has been slow to adopt new ways of working. Internal and external crowdsourcing could inherently make architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) projects safer, more profitable, and reduce their duration.
Crowdsourcing isn't a new concept. In fact, if you spend any time on social media you likely observe it, or participate, on a daily basis. Friends ask for advice to solve a problem on Facebook, someone launches a crowdsourcing campaign on GoFundMe to raise money for a family member, or an entrepreneur seeks funding for a new venture on Kickstarter. People came together on the satellite photograph analysis site Tomnod to search for MH370, and continue to volunteer their time to facilitate search and rescue efforts on the site. They don't get paid; they participate to solve problems, challenge themselves, help others, and for the pursuit of being part of something bigger than their individual selves.
The concept of crowdsourcing is simple; bring people together, who have different backgrounds, live in different regions, or have different abilities, on a common platform to solve a problem or overcome a challenge. The challenge could be to raise money, to help an individual, or yes, to plan, design, build, and deliver a project. Together, these individuals will achieve more than any one individual could achieve on their own.
If you have read Wikinomics by Tapscott and Williams, you are likely familiar with the concept of crowdsourcing within the gold mining sector already. Rob McEwan, CEO of Goldcorp, leveraged crowdsourcing to address a business problem. The company, facing dwindling profits, was struggling to locate and mine the most lucrative sectors of their leases. In an innovative move, and defying the long-held focus on confidentiality and proprietary data security within the industry, Rob created an opportunity to draw ideas and analysis from a diverse participant pool; he crowdsourced the ability to locate and mine gold in the most cost-effective and profitable manner. It worked.
Wikinomics was first published in 2006; external crowdsourcing was successfully employed in the mining industry over 12 years ago, and we haven't heard much of it since. Considering that the payoff for Goldcorp was billions, as reported by Tapscott and Williams, it is astounding that this approach hasn't been trialed or heavily adopted within the AEC industry. We seem to be missing out on a substantial opportunity.
What's holding us back?
Firstly, as an industry we are rooted in the proprietary nature of data. The prospect of sharing any amount of data with other project stakeholders, or with the public, causes some to throw their arms up in frustration, while others make a run for the door. Data is confidential. It cannot be discussed, shared, or viewed by anyone who has not signed non-disclosure agreements or other legal documentation that forbids them from sharing it with others. Or so we thought until Goldcorp broke the rules.
The greatest challenge that we face is not in determining which data should or should not be shared; it is with the general assumption that every byte of data and every piece of paper is confidential and shouldn't be shared, even with other departments. This belief results in engineering withholding data from procurement, procurement withholding data from construction, and construction withholding data from completions. It's the same commonly held belief that keeps some from serving, or contributing, to industry committees who aim to advance general industry practices and performance; it's the belief that if you provide information to another stakeholder they may use it against you. This is an old school approach, and one that is severely hampering our ability to trial new and innovative ways of working.
Further, the construction industry is hierarchical in organization. We have a plethora of well-educated, experienced professionals, but during project planning activities teams are typically represented by a single individual; a manager or a lead. Understood, the reason for this is to keep meeting sizes smaller; however, the result is the exclusion of the other team members from the planning process, along with 90% of the innovations and ideas that could have been drawn into the project plan. It's no wonder innovation in construction project delivery is lagging other industries.
To move forward, we must leverage the power of people. If we are planning and executing projects leveraging only 10% of the total power of the team, it goes without saying that project planning practices are in need of an overhaul. To accomplish this, teams are investing in platforms that connect each stakeholder in a collaborative environment. When not limited by walls or meeting access, we can harness the power of the collective team.
Have you ever watched termites in action? Termites cannot communicate directly with each other; instead, they sense their environment and act upon it. Through this action, other termites sense the new environmental state, and act upon that. Collectively, their actions create wondrous structures that could not alone be created by any individual termite, or even by a small groups of termites. These structures are the result of massive indirect collaboration, also known as stigmergy.
While a termite mound hardly compares to the scale and scope of a capital project, the concept of stigmergy is one that we can leverage in driving innovation in capital project delivery. Project teams often struggle with resource limitations, deficiencies in skill sets, lack of access to information, and complex processes and procedures that stifle ad hoc collaboration. Termites demonstrate the way to overcome limitations of small groups every day: collaborate.
The first step in evaluating the concept of crowdsourcing in AEC project delivery is to identify whether the concept may be of value. While some may argue that the approach is too far-fetched, it is worth noting that there are documented test and success cases. Being that crowdsourcing is hardly just a theory, it seems logical that trialing it, even in a limited capacity would be valuable to project teams.
Internal or external?
If you pursue a crowdsourcing trial, you must also determine whether you will source external participation. Goldcorp went directly to the public; in an industry that is highly protective of documents and data, that was a bold move. There is risk in publishing data that you hold as competitive, albeit in some instances the rewards far outweigh those risks.
For those that are unable to make the leap to external crowdsourcing, there is an alternative; you may crowdsource internally. Internal crowdsourcing requires broad engagement among employees in varying departments, divisions, and geographic regions. It requires everyone on the team to have platform access to view the plan, evaluate performance, share ideas, solve problems, and suggest alternatives. By opening up participation in project planning and execution to the entire team, you can take advantage of the additional 90% of the team's knowledge and experience.
Crowdsourcing is a viable option for teams that are looking to reinvent their project delivery models. It is innovative and it is progressive; it has been proven to not only enable teams to overcome challenges, but also to increase profitability. It requires building networks of trust, breaking down barriers that have been ingrained in operations, and integrating new technology that empowers teams to connect and collaborate like never before.
The concept is simple; the question is, are you willing to test it? If you would like to explore how Pull Plan can facilitate internal project planning, collaboration, and crowdsourcing, reach out to join our beta group! firstname.lastname@example.org