Digital transformation

6 ways your staff can use technology to excel

Business leaders in the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) sector have a pivotal role to play in addressing the biggest challenge on the planet: to create a smarter, safer, fairer and more diverse society.

They are ultimately responsible for decisions will have an impact on the infrastructure of the planet – helping their colleagues design and build the hospitals, schools, offices and homes of tomorrow.


Business leaders in the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) sector have a pivotal role to play in addressing the biggest challenge on the planet: to create a smarter, safer, fairer and more diverse society.

They are ultimately responsible for decisions will have an impact on the infrastructure of the planet – helping their colleagues design and build the hospitals, schools, offices and homes of tomorrow.

One of the keys will be empowering AEC professionals to step up and shape the future by giving them the tools to push boundaries – helping them solve the great new challenges of today with the smart use of technology.

But while digital technologies have already transformed the routines of people around the globe - offering simple, intuitive new ways to move around town, connect with friends and family, get the latest news, and much more – in the AEC industry, their impact has been relatively muted. In one report , the McKinsey Global Institute ranked the sector near the bottom in terms of digitalization, above only agriculture and hunting.

AEC companies increasingly recognize the imperative for digital transformation. But figuring out precisely what this should look like, let alone how to achieve it, can seem overwhelming.

Here are six concepts to consider.

Prioritize value, not gadgets

It’s easy to get caught up in excitement about a new tool, but it’s a mistake to let excitement about particular products drive your investments. The key consideration should be creating value.

In its article “Decoding digital transformation in construction ,” McKinsey writes that one common trait of AEC firms that have successfully digitalized is an emphasis on “fixing pain points, not installing IT solutions.”

By identifying operational changes that can you reach your goals, then finding technology that can enable these changes, you can achieve a better return on your tech investments.

To accomplish this, you need to first step back, take a close look at your current operations, then identify areas that could benefit from a new approach. This kind of analysis doesn’t happen frequently enough, according to Maciej Wypych , CTO of Australian AEC tech consultancy Modmation . “It’s a very dangerous phrase in this industry: ‘We’ve always done it this way,’” he observes. Traditional ways of working tend to have a strong hold over teams’ imaginations even if no one can say precisely why they persist. “Unfortunately that blocks progress, and that blocks transformation.”

Evelyn Lee , a San Francisco-based design strategist whose career straddles architecture, business, and tech, agrees. She thinks companies need to reflect more on how they function and seek opportunities for improvement. “What I really hope that architecture firms do is relook at all their operations and their processes: everything from how they lead meetings to how they track project documents, how they do knowledge management.’”

This self-examination leads back to the larger question of what your company wants to be and achieve. Lee believes this question too often goes unarticulated and unanswered. “For me it’s a true evaluation back to the values of the company,” she says.

Build capacity

For AEC firms embarking on digital transformation, identifying strategically important pain points is one challenge—finding tech solutions to address them is another.

Many firms lack in-house capacity to successfully identify and deploy digital tools. In a 2019 survey of engineers and construction professionals, conducted by software company Bluebeam and the UK-based Institution of Civil Engineers, 55% of respondents cited a lack of skill and expertise to effect change as one of the main hurdles to digitalization in their companies. An even higher number, 63%, said this same weakness was the greatest barrier to BIM (Building Information Modeling) implementation.

Access to tech expertise is vital not only for identifying appropriate digital solutions, but also to ensure that they’re used effectively. Bill Allen , CEO of US tech consultancy EvolveLAB , argues that when it comes to BIM, for example, many firms underestimate its potential, treating it as merely the next phase of CAD. “We’re past this drafting age. We’re now starting to do stuff with data,” he asserts. “If data is a new currency, and it’s more valuable than oil or gold, then what are we doing with that data, and how do we optimize that data?”

Firms are increasingly bringing tech experts in-house to fill these knowledge gaps. In one survey of large US AEC companies conducted by Building Design + Construction Magazine, almost two thirds of all respondents reported hiring staff members from outside the industry to support their technology teams. The top new job titles: software programmer and data analyst.

At global design firm Gensler , building a team of digital experts and seeding their knowledge throughout the firm is viewed as critical to innovation. “We have a large team of dedicated design technology leaders throughout the firm globally,” notes Joseph Joseph , the firm’s global director of design technology. “Some of them are in strategic leadership, process, and development roles, and some are embedded in our projects as enablers to their fellow practitioners, as peers and colleagues.”

For firms that lack the resources to create full digital teams in-house, working with consultants like EvolveLAB or Modmation can be an attractive option. “We support you; we look at what you need, what works for you; and then we basically take this knowledge that we have developed [by working] for many other companies and help you to implement that into your own company,” explains Holger de Groot , Modmation’s CEO. “And that is much cheaper than if you do it on your own.”

Training programs and conferences can also help employees improve their understanding of these topics. Industry organizations like US-based nonprofit Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) are stepping up to help. ABC recently partnered with a number of technology companies to launch its Tech Alliance program, which gives small to mid-sized construction companies access to educational opportunities and free tech tools. The program’s goal: demystify digitalization.

A process known as reverse mentoring can also raise the level of IT skills within firms. In this arrangement, young staff members serve as teachers for more senior employees, helping them gain technical skills as well as glean insight into the worldview of digital natives.

Plan and execute

Once you’ve identified operational changes that will create value for your company and found technologies capable of facilitating those changes, the next step is to develop an implementation plan—and stick to it.

At Granite Construction , a large California-based company focused on infrastructure, chief information officer Malcolm Jack is a firm believer in strategic IT planning. His team works with stakeholders throughout the organization to understand key business objectives, then translate them into digitalization roadmaps. To make sure plans don’t become detached from larger strategic goals as they shift over time, his team has developed a protocol for quick, simple monthly check-ins with business leaders.

For companies just getting started on digital transformation, Matt Abeles , ABC’s vice president of technology and innovation, recommends starting small. Focusing on intuitive, easy-to-understand use cases and testing new tools on one or two projects before implementing them universally can help employees gain confidence with digital technology and build excitement about using it in their day-to-day work.

But starting small still requires thinking through the details. In “Decoding digital transformation in construction,” McKinsey recommends being highly specific when developing plans, considering not only the digital tools required to affect change but also necessary shifts in personnel, contractual requirements, and the like. Setting clear targets is key. “For example, a use case defined as ‘reduce losses from unrecoverable rework on steel–concrete connections by 10 percent by visualizing fabrication details with 3-D¬ models’ is easier to comprehend and act on than a use case defined as ‘provide access to 3-D models from all devices,’” the authors write.

Eric Bugeja, chairperson of AEC tech nonprofit buildingSMART Australasia , believes that developing a schedule is also critical. “You can’t do it overnight, but there needs to be a plan to transition,” he says. “When I ran an architectural and building engineering team . . . we said, ‘OK, within a year, this is the way we’re going to work, and we’re going to have a transition plan in place to start training people to use the new tools and processes.’ We defined who was going to do what and how it was all going to work.”

Consider culture

When developing and implementing a digitalization plan, questions of culture inevitably emerge. Make sure that your tech strategy addresses employee needs and creates consensus around it: Even the best digital tools are a poor investment if they go unused.

At Gensler, this concept is integrated into every aspect of the technology team’s work. “As we’re designing the tools, we’re thinking about the social engineering component of how we incentivize our practitioners,” Joseph explains. “We want them to spend more time and energy on adoption of different workflows, which requires change management from the beginning of a solution’s inception.”

Joseph and his colleagues incorporate end-user ideas and feedback into each stage of the development process. “High level, the process looks like: a hackathon; you create the idea; you put together a project schedule; you begin to mockup products; and you get a lot of consensus,” he says. Collaboration with designers results in clear payoffs. “The adoption trends tell us that the democratization is easier because it was designed by the practitioners, for the practitioners.”

Storytelling is another important tool for digital transformation. Celebrating small wins and communicating about the value of technology can help employees understand how it can improve their jobs and make them eager for more.

Also consider the political dynamics within each organization. Bugeja reports that in some companies, middle managers are the biggest impediment to digital transformation. “The middle management will say to the top level, ‘Don’t worry about that, that’s going to cost you more money—it’s too much of a risk.’ . . . And then the people below trying to demonstrate the change, they’re getting pushed by the middle, saying, ‘No, no, no, don’t do that—keep doing it the way we were doing it before,’” he explains. Finding tech champions within this or other skeptical groups can make a big difference.

Fortunately, once people see the benefit of digitalization for themselves, they’re typically sold, in Bugeja’s experience. “I think architects, engineers, and contractors are starting to realize, by embracing these technologies, it basically gives them superpowers to do more with less,” he says. “It allows them to focus on more of the stuff they love to do and get rid of the stuff that they don’t like to do.”

But companies also need to consider the common fear that tech adoption will lead to job cuts—a fear that’s overblown, according to Modmation’s Maciej Wypych. While it’s true that tomorrow’s AEC jobs may look different, workers who remain open to applying their knowledge and experience in new ways will continue to be in demand as technology advances, he believes.

“The volume [of jobs] I think will actually increase, because the more complex technology you implement, we actually need more people to manage it,” Wypych predicts. “You need to look at it in a more global perspective. Let’s say you’re building a factory that’s going to be fully automated. You’re only going to have five people working in that factory, but all those machines need to be built. You have to have a lot of people actually building those machines, designing the software that will run those machines and do the tracking, etc. So it’s just going to be different kinds of jobs, but it’s still going to be more.”

Be bold

For Steve Fleck , the chief practice and project officer at global design firm Stantec , assertiveness is an important quality for digital transformation. “I think we sometimes tend to be a little too conservative,” he observes. “Sometimes we have to be bolder in terms of moving these things forward.”

The remote work revolution brought about by Covid-19 is a case in point. Over the shutdowns of 2020, Stantec saw the benefits of having a truly distributed global workflow while employees worked from home. Although the company had long understood the potential benefits of a flexible workforce spanning the planet, it took a global pandemic to make it a reality.

“There’s no way we would have been so bold as to move almost 22,000 people home, move everyone onto Teams, had we not been in the necessity of the moment to do so,” Fleck notes. Identifying and proactively embracing opportunities to add value through digital transformation can put companies in a stronger position as technology—and unexpected forces like Covid—continue to reshape the field.

The need to be bold extends to failure, an inevitable component of digital transformation. When trying new things, it’s reasonable to assume that many won’t succeed. It’s important to embrace innovation, but also to stop devoting resources to particular programs once it’s clear they won’t produce the desired benefits.

“Sometimes, whether it’s because you don’t want to admit you were wrong, or whether it’s ego or fear, we let these things drag out for too long,” Fleck says.

Think beyond your own firm

As AEC companies embark on digital transformation, it’s useful to keep in mind that in an industry where complex team arrangements are common, raising the level of technological sophistication across the board benefits everyone. The current scattershot scenario heightens the risk of project failure.

“If I’m working on a project and I’m the only company who is using digital tools, that’s going to be a problem, because a mixture of digital and non-digital processes actually introduces more risk or more threats,” warns Karen Blay , a lecturer at Loughborough University who researches BIM and resilience.

Despite this, AEC firms tend to forge their own paths rather than work together. This is one reason the industry lags behind others in digitalization, Modmation’s Holger de Groot believes. “If you look at, for example, the automobile industry and manufacturing, they are far ahead of our industry. And the reason why? The culture is different, they are more collaborative, so there’s more exchange of experience and knowledge,” he observes. “While in the AEC industry, everyone still has a mentality of, ‘This is mine; I don’t want to share this.’ And that is really an issue for the industry as a whole, because it creates so many silos, instead of sharing and working collaboratively to push the industry forward.”

In “Decoding digital transformation in construction,” McKinsey claims that the most successful digitalization initiatives streamline interactions between different parties. “For example, real-time progress reporting from the construction site can help ensure that subcontractors raise invoices promptly and accurately,” the authors write. Pain points that involve multiple disciplines or companies can be especially difficult to address, but the fragmented nature of the AEC field means that the effort pays off.

In addition to crafting technological solutions for particular coordination problems, one way for companies to increase collaboration while also protecting their own IT investments is to commit to using open formats and APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). This runs contrary to firms’ historic tendency to lock themselves into software with proprietary formats, leaving them with few options to exchange information with other systems. To avoid this problem, AEC companies need to demand that vendors allow data interchange with open formats and provide access to APIs in order to allow more seamless data flows, according to buildingSMART’s Eric Bugeja.

High stakes

Another reason to think beyond your own business when considering digital transformation is that the AEC industry’s end product—the built environment—is critical to the wellbeing and happiness of billions of people around the globe.

As urbanization and climate change reshape the planet, the need for high-quality buildings and infrastructure has never been greater. Bugeja, along with many other observers, believes the AEC industry in its current form isn’t up to the challenge. “The quantum of infrastructure we’ve got to build—there is no way we can meet that demand with current techniques and processes,” he says.

Architecture, engineering and contracting firms are responsible for the biggest challenge on the planet – redesigning and rebuilding the schools, hospitals, offices and public spaces so they’re more sustainable and equitable.

Professionals need the tools to make this transformation of our built environment a reality. Large format print technology gives them a way to collaborate with colleagues seamlessly, securely, and with sustainability in mind. This makes large format print an essential tool for the ultimate task ahead: to redesign and rebuild the world more sustainably and help to achieve a just, inclusive and diverse living and working environment.

Digital transformation within the AEC sector isn’t only a question of helping individual companies thrive in the decades to come. In a very real sense, it’s about enabling humanity to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Let’s remake the future together.

Six ways your staff can use technology to excel

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