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 amateur as they develop the skills required to move forward in their digital journey.
It’s no secret that the construction industry lags in digitization. Peer over the fences of any construction site in your local area. Chances are, you will see a plethora of craft professionals, equipment, tools, and paper.
Construction ranks second to last in digitization across industries; second only to hunting and agriculture (McKinsey, 2017). And while digital tools are making positive inroads in industry sectors such as infrastructure and commercial construction, other sectors such as heavy industrial construction are only slowly moving the needle on change. Just ask any foreman working on a construction project in a petrochemical facility. Chances are they don’t even have access to a computer.
While industry leaders are advocating for digital progress, 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 focus, effort, and capital to facilitate the digital journey. Why, then, is it taking so long for construction project teams to bridge the gap?
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 disproportionally focus 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.
Yet, even with innovation, increased investment, startup growth, and all these new features, construction tech adoption continues to lag. 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 culture 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 VR headsets; young construction foremen aren’t yet all toting their tablets around the job site.
So why is tech adoption lagging in the construction industry? Simply put, digitization is lagging because we hire experts when we need amateurs. 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 become students, beginning with foundational skillset development and building upon those skills over time.
Many modern digital solutions are completely new to the construction industry. Regardless of age or background, when a new solution is deployed everyone on the team is an amateur. Amateurs require education, support, and coaching. The problem is, these needs are too often not met. We don’t enable stakeholders to, if only for a brief period of time, step into the role of amateur. We demand experts; those experts maintain that expert status with tools that they are comfortable and confident in using. In the construction industry, those tools are usually pens and paper.
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 enablement to step into the amateur role, there is too often little, if not no, funding or time allocation for digital skill development, exploration, and testing. Team members are expected to learn ‘on-the-fly’, essentially figuring out how to use these tools on their own.
Construction’s digital divide continues to grow. As solutions become more advanced and complex, the gap between current skill sets and future 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.
Bridging the digital divide requires a pivot in focus for technology providers. While not disengaging from development efforts, solution teams must focus on supporting the users that support their products. If teams don’t understand the tool, or can’t use it, the solution isn’t adding value to the industry. Those features and functions won’t serve much purpose when the product loses its user base.
Beyond a pivot in technology provider focus, project owners must begin allocating 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 these solutions. As an industry, the race to the bottom through lowest cost bids and razor-thin margins isn’t advancing the industry; it’s detracting from its potential.
Without considering or supporting the process of converting a construction technology user from amateur to ace, you’re highly unlikely to gain mass adoption of any solution. Pockets of adoption, stagnation, then ultimate disengagement will continue to be the normal product deployment lifecycle. Industry growth requires an alignment of the best tools with leading user support. Those technology firms that embrace this model and bridge the divide will be the ones still standing when digital disruption of the construction industry reaches critical mass.