Colin Mann is a Chartered Engineer and qualified Project Manager. He leads the Project Technology service offering within PwC’s Forensic Services team, with over 10 years of project management experience in sectors ranging from Aerospace and Defence, Energy and Financial Services.
Over the past few years, I’ve noticed an interesting tendency among capital projects clients who say they’re seeking to be innovative and progressive. Reading between the lines, I often find that what they’re really looking for is a new system or piece of technology – usually a whizzy, highly graphical software application that they feel will solve their innovation deficit for them at a stroke.
If only life – and business – were really so simple. The misconception that technology and innovation are the same thing is widespread in many industries, not just major projects. But in every sector, the fact is that technology is just part of the story, and will only drive innovation if it’s combined with wider and deeper change across the organisation, including behaviour, culture, capability and processes.
That said, it isn’t hard to see why project professionals get dazzled by the latest software applications: they’re cool, exciting and great to look at, making increasing use of data visualization and computerised imagery. But however good a piece of technology appears, it’s important to avoid ‘technology push’; the real value lies in the quality and integrity of the data behind any system – and you only get the right data if you have the right behaviours and processes.
We certainly see wrong turnings and blind alleys on the road to innovation in major projects, adding up to missed opportunities to invest in the right technologies. And – while this may sound surprising – I think one of the biggest causes of such missed opportunities can be the way technology is branded.
Why do I say this? By way of example, take Building Information Modelling (BIM). In my view, BIM is one of the most important and ground-breaking developments in major projects for many years, opening the way to profound and sweeping innovation in how the industry operates. But is the take-up of BIM being held back by its name – which suggests that it’s about modelling and only applies to buildings? Or the conception that BIM is a 3D model enabling virtual fly-throughs, great for stakeholder presentations but what else?
Sure, BIM can do that – but it also does so much more. As well as being a digital representation of a building, it has the potential to be the single source of truth for accurate asset data which the various participants can access throughout every phase of the construction lifecycle – all the way from initial conception to demolition.
To visualise what this means, imagine you’re involved in building a new hospital. BIM means you have a digital 3D model of what it’ll look like inside, pick a room, and see exactly what pieces of equipment it’ll contain, who’ll have supplied that equipment, warranties, maintenance policy, etc etc. The result: better information, better decisions at every stage of planning and construction – and the ability for the operators to hit the ground running when they take over.
As ever, the real innovation isn’t in the technology, but in the wider behaviours and processes BIM enables. The construction industry has long been criticised for its so-called “anti-collaboration” culture and aversion to sharing information, in contrast to industries where collaboration is much more embedded, such as automotive manufacturing. BIM can overcome that lack of collaboration by facilitating sharing along the value chain. But I’m afraid the power and value of BIM is not unlocked with 3D rendering; the value is in good data, and to get there you need (amongst other things) to read, understand and apply PAS 1192 to your environment.
Maybe a change in branding could help BIM to take hold in a broader range of applications and industries. I believe in time terminology will naturally change – you only need to watch the difference in an executive’s reaction to the mention of ‘BIM’ as compared to ‘reduced whole life cost through digital engineering…
In summary, I’m hopeful that the industry won’t allow genuine innovation opportunities to fail as a result of the cool technology enabler getting trapped in the Hype curve. In this time of rapid technological advancement, we need to think hard about what each opportunity could mean for culture, behaviours, business models – and ultimately, ability to generate value.