How do you gain competitive advantage against your competitors in the construction industry? The answer is simple: talent and technology. In this episode, Eric Anderton sits down with Ronan Collins, Director Digital Delivery of BIM for Design and Construction at The Red Sea Development Company. In their chat, Ronan emphasizes how talent development and technology adoption can be and are interconnected. Organizations can create a win-win scenario by developing their people for management positions while they introduce new concepts and technologies that improve their operations. How? Listen in to their chat to learn more. Watch out for two key insights that will help propel your business to the next level.
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Why Talent Development And Technology Adoption Are Key For Growth In Your Business With Ronan Collins
If you are going to build a successful company, you have to be willing to innovate. You have to innovate in terms of your processes and the technologies you use to build your projects. You even have to innovate in terms of the structure of your company and the people that you employ. You have to be able to not only innovate, but you have to develop those things that you have internally in order to maximize the effectiveness of your company.
My guest in this episode is Ronan Collins. He is a Civil Engineer, Project Information Manager and BIM Director. He is committed to driving innovation and digital engineering processes in the construction industry. He believes that the business value provided by BIM processes transforms the way that we design, construct and maintain our infrastructure and our buildings. We don’t go into a techy and geeky dive into BIM. I know I’m not qualified to have that conversation, but I am qualified to have a conversation with him about human nature and how it plays an essential role in adopting any change in an organization.
To that end, we have a tremendously interesting discussion around why some companies succeed in the technology adoption and development of their organizations and why some companies don’t. If you’re going to do this well, you must set expectations correctly as the senior executive in your company. You can’t fall for the magic pill of technology. You can’t even fall for the magic pill of a new hire who you think is going to transform your company.
You must be committed to the incremental development of your business over time, whether it’s through technology, processes or people. With that in mind, you must be committed to small wins. You must be committed to identifying problems that can be solved with the tools that you have at hand. You must understand how technologies are successfully implemented throughout organizations. Ronan shares two key insights that you want to understand and I’m going to give them to you upfront in a short form so that you can be primed to learn them when we come to them in our conversation.
The first one is this. If you want technology to be adopted throughout your organization, it must be championed and advocated by people in your organization who are able to communicate the benefits of that technology adoption to your organization in a way that people understand and buy into. If you have some tech geeks in your company that understand the complexities of the latest and the greatest and see how it can be used but are unable to communicate those advantages to the rest of your organization, then your technology implementations and innovations will fail. That’s one of the insights that Ronan shares that I think is fundamental and he gets into way more detail on that during our discussion.
The second thing is this. As you’re going through technology innovations or innovations of any kind where you have an internal project manager responsible for that innovation, that person will learn a tremendous amount about your business that goes beyond even just the implementation of the technology that they are responsible for. That learning process will equip them to help your business thrive in ways that go beyond the implementation of that technology.
In other words, when you task someone to implement a new process and technology, what you are doing is preparing them for future leadership roles in your company. That is an essential insight. I’ve primed the pump a little bit because I want to make sure that you read carefully as we go through this interview because Ronan has a tremendous amount of insight to share that is going to be very helpful to you.
If you have any questions about this episode, feel free to reach out to me. You can reach me at [email protected] and reach out to Ronan. He is on LinkedIn. This has been a long introduction, so I hope you’re still with me. Enjoy my conversation with Ronan. You’ll find it tremendously useful.
Ronan, welcome to the show.
Thank you very much, Eric. It’s great to meet you.
I’m very excited to have you on the show because I know that you do a lot of thinking about the importance of talent development in construction companies. Why is it that construction companies struggle to develop the talent that they have?
I think one of the issues that we see repeating itself over and over again is basically construction companies are running at such a pace that they don’t think they have the time to bring up talent. They’re trying to hire the talent they need rather than develop the talent they should be developing internally. For me, the lesson I’ve learned over the years is that it appears to be a lack of willingness to invest time and effort.
The lack of ability to invest the time because people are so busy and then probably a little bit of a lack of understanding of what they should be investing and what talent they should be developing and how they should be doing it? For the most part, people develop their skills independently, sometimes in their own private time. Some people develop skills based on what they think they need. Some people develop them out of curiosity, but it’s not done in any long-term strategic manner. It’s on when it’s needed or on an ad hoc basis.
There are a couple of elements there that I noticed. The first one is the one of time and the second one is understanding, specifically what talents should be developed. I’d like to first address the one right off the gate because people talk about this all the time. “I’m so busy building projects I don’t have time to do,” and then fill in the blank. In this case, it’s talent development. In your experience, how do the best construction companies who do invest in talent development manage that time issue?
They make it a priority. They basically say, “If we’re going to stay ahead of the competition, if we’re going to be effective and efficient, we need to have people in our teams that can do X, Y and Z skills.” I come from the world of digital engineering or BIM or virtual design and construction, whichever acronym or description you like. I’ve got a mandate to get people trained up in things like the use of laser scans and how effective laser scans can be for progress monitoring or simple photography recording. How can you use 360 photographs to create photographic models of buildings?
Not everybody needs to know how to use the technology, but if you’re a site manager, you need to know how that technology works and how it’s going to be useful. You need to know how you can get access to it and how to use it. If you’re a construction company and want to stay ahead of the posse, you need to think about, “I need to train technical guys to do the right thing and collect the right information. I need to train the managers and the project leaders to understand how to go about doing that efficiently and get the right results out of the process.”You need to do some testing, get a project, try it out in a project, figure out what the benefits are, give it to the guys who are forward-thinking and innovators. Click To Tweet
What we see is a lot of people just try it haphazardly or the BIM guy in the trailer on the job site is the guy who is given a 360-camera and a drone and off he goes. No one is quite sure what he’s doing and he’s having a lot of fun with the technology, but the site and project managers don’t know what the benefits are. The way I describe it is you got to get clear on the problem you’re trying to fix. Be able to define what that problem is and then go and look for what is the right solution to fix this problem?
Is it a technology solution? Is it a process change? Is it bringing in new skills and then planning out a strategy to develop the skills and talent required to address that problem, whether that’s bringing up people in the world of BIM or new construction technology? One of the biggest ones now is data analytics and understanding how to build data dashboards and get real-time reporting from construction projects and all of the nuances around that. There’s a whole bunch of areas where people could be developing talent around BIM, construction technology, data and all that good stuff.
I’m familiar with the idea of identifying your problem and finding a solution for that problem. Why is it that.
I’ll give you an example. I was working in Hong Kong and one of the forward-thinking developers started investing in BIM very early on. This was back in 2005 and 2006. They started working with Frank Gehry and the Gehry Technologies platform, which is the forerunner to some of the more sophisticated tools. They were really good and they appeared to be very successful. The other developers and the other contractors saw what was going on and they said, “We need to do the same thing.” They were playing catch-up right off the bat.
I call it the Gucci handbag effect. One person gets the Gucci handbag and then everybody else goes, “I need a Prada,” or I need something else. They’re going to go after the next best thing, but they don’t understand why they’re doing it or what’s the right way of doing it or which brand of things they should be going after.
They see the other guy’s got it, so they’re trying to play catch up. This is the difference between leading the industry and chasing the pack. A lot of people are stuck chasing the pack. They read a blog like yours or they watch a video online or they go to a conference and they see all the latest and greatest stuff and then they go, “I need to get laser scanning. I need to start doing BIM,” but they don’t understand the why and the how.
When you see these new technologies, a couple of things happen. Sometimes the owner of the company sees them and gets pumped up or one of their project folks or someone in the field comes and presents something. How does a construction company know that this is the right direction to take in terms of development, whether it be technology development, talent development or process development?
They don’t know. What they need to do is they need to start working out how they’re going to do some pilot studies and figure out what is going to work or not for their business. No one’s going to know the value of something when it walks in the door, whether I walk in with a great idea or you turn up with a great idea. What I’ve learned is you need to do some testing. Get a project, try it out in a project, figure out what the benefits are and give it to the guys who are forward-thinking or innovators. Very often, the more forward-thinking, innovative types in the business and have them come back and say, “We use it on this project.”
Maybe it’s a residential, commercial or maybe as a school project. It might’ve been a highway. It doesn’t matter. Pick a project, run it, try it out, figure out what it is for your business, and then determine if it will add value. If it’s deemed to be valuable, then come up with a game plan as to how you’re going to roll it out. It could be a six-month or a one-year rollout and then what training is required across the organization.
To give you an example, in Malaysia, I was working with a company called Gamuda Engineering. They were a very large engineering construction company and they had a graduate scheme. Gamuda is heavily invested in training and bringing up talent in their business. It’s part of their core DNA. They’re committed to training people.
One of those graduates came out of university. He is a very smart guy, an electrical engineer, and he was put on the tunneling team. They were drilling tunnels through Malaysia for the underground Metro. One of the projects he took on was, first of all, rearranging the delivery of materials to the yard. He got himself an iPad. He started doing some forms. Immediately, the people could see the benefit. People knew where everything was and he was able to tie it back into some of our systems.
They then took that guy and had him train up other people. It then became a standard way of managing those tunneling construction project sites. That guy joined up with two other guys that were all coming from similar programs and they went forward and developed an actual tunnel driving technology. We call it an autonomous tunneling boring machine.
Those guys were writing codes in the evenings and on the weekends, bringing into the people, but they figured out a way to control the tunneling machine underground remotely rather than be completely relying on a driver in a machine through common-sense engineering, understanding a construction problem and then using technology solves that problem. That’s in the culture of that business.
They’re always looking to train people up and bring those people along. The interesting thing is because they’re so good at training people and bringing up talent when these things work, they’ve been awarded some big global international awards. They’ve used that to then go win business in other countries. Gamuda now expanded into Australia and one of the feathers in their caps was the use of this technology and bringing that new technology into the Australian market. If you have that development mentality of bringing up new talent, especially young talent and giving them the chance to try things out, they’re going to find a nugget that’s hugely valuable to a business because that’s a differentiator when it comes to winning work.
How do you balance the mindset of developing new technologies and testing out new technologies with the need to make money on the project that you’re building? Because a lot of the resistance that you get to try new technologies is, “Maybe the next project or the next project, because of this project we need to execute.”
It’s because they haven’t defined why they’re doing it. If you have a well-defined problem or a well-defined reason for taking on new technology, you’re going to have to put together some kind of business case. You’re going to have to figure out, “If I invest $10,000, $50,000, $100,000 or $1 million, I’m going to get a return here, here and here.” That could be a return on our productivity. It could be a time or material saving.If you haven’t figured out what the business case is or what the impact and the bottom line is, you shouldn’t be investing in that technology or talent development because you don’t know what you’re doing. Click To Tweet
If you haven’t figured out what the business case is or the impact on the bottom line, you shouldn’t be investing in that technology or talent development because you don’t know what you’re doing. It goes back into that proof of concept. If you did a proof of concept, what we discovered on a different one was that we started using digital forms onsite to remove paper processes. We started giving guys tablets. We started having them sign off on material inspections. We started having them sign off on scaffolding inspections using digital devices.
We were trying to speed up processes, but what we ended up finding was it sped up the processes and started spreading to the business quicker because what we discovered was the subcontractors worked out that they could use the system. They get their work certified and they could get paid sooner. We had the benefit that we had much better control over our sites.
We had much better jurisdiction of what was happening and our supply chain were getting a better outcome because they were getting paid faster. Not every construction manager wants to pay their subbies faster, but the message is very clear. If you do a proof of concept, you’re going to find the benefits. You’re going to find the return of the value before you spend a truckload of money.
I’ve made some notes here and I want to feed them to you so that you can feed them back and see if I’m following them here. What you need to do first is you need to define the problem that you’re seeking to solve. Then you have to source the change agent to solve the problem, whether that be a technology, a process change or some sort of development of some kind or maybe a piece of equipment.
You need to bring somebody in to help you out. It could be hired as well.
There’s this idea of a small test of this change or this technology that is supported from the executive level, but it has an advocate. Ideally, one single advocate who’s invested in and committed to making sure that the test is thoroughly done. Did I hear that right?
You are 100% correct.
You’ve got to be willing to do the test and be agnostic as to the result that comes, whether it’s good or bad, so that you can then iterate off of the information that you receive and make more changes as you go along. Am I hearing that right?
What did I miss?
There’s one secret ingredient. If it proves to be successful, both the senior executives and the guy that is so-called sponsoring it needs to be capable of driving it into the future projects because they’re going to come up with resistance. If you take the digital forms that we set up on the construction projects to remove paper off-site, we had the sponsorship of the senior management of the company right up to the board level. You have to have that board-level sponsorship.
We had the guys that were doing the pilot study who were very good at communicating and training. They were able to then go and share their experience and lessons and get other people set up on the system. They then built training materials and built the training sessions and their champions going forward. Don’t just have one guy tested. Make sure that the guy that’s testing is going to be the champion driving it forward into the other businesses because he’s going to be invested in making it grow across the business, but you need to have C-Suite support.
Once it meets the level of resistance and change, “I don’t want that in my project. I haven’t got time for this.” Once those resistance conversations start, if this guy knows that his boss at the, in the, at the C-Suite is going to come down on them, then that’s an absolute necessity. You have to have that management support. Whoever’s doing the pilot needs to be a really good internal sales internal champion to drive it into all the other projects if it’s successful.
I want to talk about this a little bit because you described it earlier on. You bring in this super sharp engineer and let’s say I have an assessment tool that I use with all of my clients and it ranks someone’s thinking style from 1 to 10. Let’s say this guy’s a ten. If you think about the bell curve, you’ve got 2.5% of people up here on the right where they’re super bright and the problem with that is they can have a challenge communicating with everyone else.
They see something crystal clear and when other people don’t see what they see, oftentimes they’re like, “You’re stupid. Why are you missing this?” That communication piece that you’re talking about often falls down at that point because you’ve got your two-percenters over here saying this is obvious and 98% of the company saying, “No, it’s not.”
There are two things in there. First of all, you don’t want a ten doing these pilot studies. You want a 6 or 7 doing it because if you’re relying on a ten to get it to work, they’re going to overcome whatever problems they find. If they have to write code, they’ll write code. If they have to buy hardware, they’ll buy hardware. They will outthink everything and sign to find a solution to the problem, but they’ll end up with a solution that’s so complex and difficult that if they can’t explain it to the 6s and 7s, it’s dead immediately.If he’s not able to sell it to his peers, because it’s too complex or too sophisticated or too difficult, you haven’t got a solution. You’ve just got another headache. Click To Tweet
You have to pick someone who’s middle of the road, normal, a good communicator and understands your core business who is not a genius and an absolute whiz kid. That’s the last thing you want, but a guy you can trust will give it a fair assessment. If he’s not able to sell it to his peers because it’s too complex or too sophisticated or too difficult, you haven’t got a solution. You’ve just got another headache.
You’ve heard the term KISS, Keep It Simple Stupid. If you veer too far off that path and you end up with a complicated solution to what’s already a complicated problem, you’re not going to succeed. It has to be relatively straightforward to rule out and it has to be easy to train people to do. If it’s anything more than that, you’ve got another buckle on your hands because you will have to do a lot more talent development and training to get people up to that bar. You have to improve your company incrementally.
You can’t just go from running around with paper forms and clipboards to doing Microsoft Business Analytics with all your construction projects. You have to walk them down that path. Maybe the ambition is in 3 to 5 years, you want real-time dashboards. You want to have QR codes and all the material coming into the site. You want RFID tags and everything on the machines.
You want GPS trackers on everybody’s helmets and you want to get a whole bunch of data off-site. If that’s the vision, great, but you can set that up on day one. You got to walk the whole business along that journey and you need to be using the 6s, 7s and 8s and not relying on the tens and the superstars because the 6, 7s and 8s are going to give you a much better outcome because it’s more realistic.
That right there is a tremendous insight and I’d like to just explore this a little bit because it seems to me, just from an outside observer of construction companies, that one of the reasons they struggle with this technology adoption is what you’re describing here. They don’t take this incremental approach and the reason why is because they have technology and software salespeople banging on their door all day, every day.
We all know that people buy emotionally and then justify logically. That’s what we do, whether it’s buying a new car or buying a house. What you’re describing is the process of successfully implementing technology runs completely counter to our natural human way of buying things. Do you know what I’m saying?
Yep. The other issue is we live in what I call the microwave culture. We expect this solution to work within three minutes of pressing go. The other problem is that a lot of the technologies that we’re talking about, whether it’s photogrammetry, use of drones or collection of data, it’s not a three-minute solution. It needs thinking. It needs proper process management. It needs proper training. It needs skills development. It’s not going to work out of the box and that’s the other problem.
I’m sitting here at home talking to you on an iPad. It took me two seconds to log in and get this call going and that’s what people want. They expect it to work instantaneously, but when you start talking about a construction project, all of the moving parts and all the moving pieces to get a building built and then you try and instigate a new technology or a new process, it’s not going to work out of the box.
It’s not going to work the first time. It’s going to fall over and you have to expect it to fall over. It’s not going to give you a return the first time. It might be 2 or 3 projects before you start to see a return on your investment. That mentality is also a challenge. People want a quick fix. They want an easy hit. They want to get the results straight out of the gate.
This is tremendous, and I think it’s important that we set appropriate expectations for technology adoption as a construction company. That’s why they have to have a dispassionate consideration of technology adoption, particularly when they’re faced with the latest and greatest thing coming in from the salespeople, whether it be software or a piece of hardware or something like that.
The other thing as well is as you get on in years, you get a chance to reflect. I was invited to a presentation at Hong Kong University. I’m now living in Riyadh. Before that, I was in Malaysia for five years and before that, I spent fifteen years in Hong Kong. While I was in Hong Kong, I was a big advocate and I was one of those guys going around selling technology and ideas. In 2004, 2005 and 2006, I pushed the use of BIM on major projects in Hong Kong. We were talking about things like sharing information, building models and using technology. That’s many years ago and the stuff that I was talking about then is as pertinent now as it was many years ago.
The industry is very slow to change. We all wake up and we hear about the Amazons, the Netflix and the Spotifys and how quickly they’ve become. When you look at the construction industry, we’re doing things that people think are innovative and that we were doing years ago. We’re not doing anything that’s rocket science or transformative. We’re just iterating forwards. Again, it’s a slow process. You’re not going to change a construction business in a 6-month or a 12-month window. You do well to change in a 3 to 5-year window.
You’ve got to start taking the long-term perspective. You’ve got to start mapping out your journey. You got to start looking for the wins now and then look for the bigger wins in the longer term. The more schooled and the more experienced construction business owners will appreciate taking the long-term view, but I remember full well when I was in my twenties, I wanted to hit now. I didn’t want to wait 3 months or 6 months or 9 months. I wanted to win now. I’m a bit older and a bit wiser. Now, I take a bit more of a longer-term perspective on things.
Let’s explore that a little bit. Why do you think the construction industry is so slow to change?
There are a couple of things. One is around the silos that are in our industry. Our industry is very fragmented. You have very specialist trade contractors. You have guys who only do curtain walling, ceilings, piping or cable runs. You have main management contractors who are fighting all the time for work. It’s a very competitive industry. If you’re a specialist sub-contractor and you do good work for 1, 2 or 3 years and then somebody else rocks up and offers a price that’s 5% or 10% lower, the management attracts going to go for the guy that’s 5%, 10% lower because he’s working to margins. He’s working for money. There’s no loyalty.
In an environment where it’s cost-competitive, there’s no loyalty. People don’t invest in R&D and in developing systems. They keep doing the same thing over and over again and they try and figure out ways of doing it as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Our industry is handicapped by the way we procure the work, by the way, that we contract companies and the fact that we don’t have long-term supply and partner agreements.It’s not a 3-minute solution. It needs thinking. It needs proper process management. It needs proper training. It needs skills development. It’s not going to work out of the box. Click To Tweet
We buy the work on the job for the job and if you’re good enough and you’re priced right, you might get the next contract. If not, I’m going to give it to somebody else. We work in that competitive, cutthroat market and it’s counterproductive when it comes to doing tech and technology development. We see improvements. Over the last few years, I have seen things in the industry that is disheartening and people are starting to understand that we have to invest back in the industry. In real terms, we work in an environment that’s very difficult to innovate in because it’s very hard to justify the returns on those investments.
You said you saw improvements. Tell me where you see some of those improvements.
We see a lot more technology on site. It’s becoming more and more obvious. I’ve never worked in the US per se, but if you look at some of the stuff that I keep an eye on and some of the construction projects I’m even involved with now, it’s simple things. Most people on sites now have a smartphone and have the ability to take photographs and allocate them to a GPS location. For example, we have a GIS platform that we’re using in our construction projects. All of our safety and environmental staff can take a photograph. It’ll capture the GPS. It gets shared immediately to our platform and then we can see and start to collect that information at that location.
It’s time-based and geographic-located. By having a smartphone device in everyone’s pockets, there’s a lot more technology on site. With the advent of 4G and 5G, the speed to access information has improved a lot. There are a lot of people with direct access to technology. The other fascinating thing is that if you look at the investment world and look at the money that’s pouring into an investment, there’s so much money going into construction technology startups over the last few years. That’s a clear indicator that the world has moved. A few years ago, I was at a presentation in Singapore. They were talking about that back in the ‘90s, 2000s and even in the 2010s, to invest in construction technology, you would only invest in a company that had already swayed one of the big contractors.
If you were looking at investing in a company, if they hadn’t affected one of the big contractors and they weren’t using the software, it was dead. What’s happened is if you have a small company of 15, 20 people and you’re only selling to 150 subbies, you will still get investment because you have the potential to grow. You don’t need to have huge clients. You can have smaller clients or contractors. If you have a product that is valuable, you will find investors.
Looking at it from two ways and on what I see on the site in terms of what technology is onsite, I’m looking at where the money is because money talks, where the money is pouring in. There’s a fund that I watch and keep an eye on called Brick and Mortar. There’s a lady in there that I know, Allison. You watch what they’re investing in and they find some really clever stuff and technology. Things are much better now than they were ten years ago. While it’s been a disaster, COVID has also accelerated some of these technologies in certain ways, particularly remote working, monitoring and checking of sites. If there is more technology onsite, there are more opportunities.
I’d like to go back a little bit to the idea of the silos in the industry and the way that work is procured. You nailed it with this idea of there’s not this long-term relationship thing where I know I’ve got money coming in for five years and I can apportion some of that money towards R&D, etc. In your experience, which side of the business drives the technology most effectively, the changes? Is it the general contractor side, the guys going out and getting the work or is it the subcontractor side, the guys who are building the work?
It’s probably some blend of both, but it’s probably predominantly led by the general contractors because the general contractors wield the bigger ax. To give an example, if you’re a subcontractor and you’re bidding to work on a project and you go to a GC and you say, “How do I get my shop drawings to you?” We’re using the X, Y and Z platforms. You’re going to have to buy a license to get on that platform. That platform has got some apps running on it and everything else. There are a number of these platforms out there. Depending on what the general contractor is using, all the subbies have to go along those lines.
The general contractors are the ones who can actually sway and drive the market in certain ways. If you’re in a niche environment. Let’s say you’re a steel fabricator. There are a couple of toolsets you can use that are going to be very specific to your business, but at the end of the day, you still got to take that data and that information and give it back to the main contractor in a format that they can then use.
In a rare circumstance, the client will be the tail that wags the dog. If it’s a major infrastructure investment, like maybe a government investment or railway investment, they may say, “This is the platform we’re using and everybody else has to follow suit.” From my experience, it’s the GCs that are the guys who have the biggest sway in terms of who’s doing what, how they’re doing it, which tools they are using and which software you have to buy to play on their projects.
Don’t you think that’ll ultimately be how a lot of the technology is driven from the perspective of government agencies adopting these technologies and seeing them because they have so much power and sway? If the owner isn’t bought into this technology change, it’s tough to even for the GCs and the subs to drive it.
Let’s take information management systems as an example. Let’s say an owner has got an information management system and they’re going to say, “We want you to submit your drawings to this platform. We want you to give us all the information on that platform,” but the contractors are running another platform because that’s what they’ve been using for years and years and years.
What we’re seeing now is it’s getting more straightforward to move data between the platforms. So long as your data is structured the right way and the client knows what they want, you don’t have to be on the client’s platform. What we saw in the UK over the last couple of years started off 5 or maybe 10 years ago where the client would dictate what platform you had to use and everybody had to get on that platform.
They then realized, “We don’t want to be buying all these platforms and we sure as hell don’t want to be paying for all the access for all these users.” They’ve now moved to the point where we have a platform. We’re going to give you a key to the door. You need to open the door and then drop the stuff in and you’re out of here. However you manage your data and your project, that’s entirely up to you. Whatever platform you want, then on you go.
What you see now is that the clients will demand where the information is delivered, but they don’t necessarily demand that you have to operate on their platform. It’s a better way and it makes life easier for everybody. If you’re a contractor, you don’t need to have one platform for one client and another platform for another client. You can choose what you want to use as your business platform. The only thing you got to be clear on is, “Is this a platform that I can rely on to pass information to my clients or pull information from my subs?”
One of the struggles with technology adoption is, “This is going to cost me time. It’s going to cost me money. It’s going to cost me effort.” What is the most persuasive argument or reasoning you have seen and that you’ve spoken to contractors about in terms of how their lack of technology adoption impacts their growth and their ability to thrive as the company goes into the future?You’ve got to start taking the long-term perspective. You’ve got to start mapping out your journey. You’ve got to start looking for the wins now and then look for the bigger wins in the longer term. Click To Tweet
There are a couple of components to that. The obvious one is the competitive advantage in the marketplace. If you’re going into a commercial development owner, you were turning up with papers, clipboards, and the old way of doing it. Your competitor is turning up with iPads. They’ve done a construction simulation. They can show your building in a model and you’re on the back foot straight away. It’s purely from the perception of the owners.
What’s more important to me is to talent war. We started off this conversation by talking about talent development and bringing people up through the business. If you can’t hire people into your business, because they come to an interview and the students now and the graduates know full well which companies are forward-thinking and doing everything. If you can’t bring in talents, you’re never going to overcome the problem.
You’ve got to take the view that if we’re going to be here in a few years’ time as a business, we’re going to need to be bringing people in now and training them up. If our competitors are more attractive in terms of, “They’ve got a better attitude towards technology and they’re more invested in technology,” you’re not going to get the brains coming out of the schools. You’re going to get the 4s and the 5s that are at the bottom of the class. You’re not going to be getting the brightest stars coming out of class. There are two parts. One is a competitive advantage and one is talent attraction.
We’ve already talked about this a little bit, but I want to go back over it because I think it’s important. Let’s talk a little bit more about the connection between culture and the development of talent or just the development of the business in terms of technology that we’ve been covering so far.
When you say culture, do you mean the culture within the business in terms of how the business works?
When you think of culture, what do you mean by culture? What does that word mean to you?
For me, it’s the environment that people are operating and working in. Senior management creates the culture in your business and middle management keeps the culture alive. If you’ve got forward-thinking people in your business and all these great ideas, they need to have people in the organization that keeps that culture going. If you have an innovative style of a culture where people go off and come up with a new idea or suggestion to change things and that idea is welcomed. It’s tested. It’s given a chance to grow. That’s the culture that people want to work in.
If your culture is, “Get the damn thing done. Get it done as quickly as possible. Get it done at the cheapest price. If you have to screw the guys down, screw the guys down for $0.10, but just get me the job done.” If it’s bullish, driven and everything gets done, which is not unusual in our industry, that’s a different culture and typically, it’s not a culture that I would ever be attracted to work in.
Culture, to me, is what it feels like to work and be in a business and whether you’re appreciated or not. I’m an innovative guy by my nature. I love pushing the envelope. I love trying out new things. In my career, I’m very fortunate to work with very good companies and very good projects. Not everybody has the same luxury, but you can see the different cultures and companies we work with. You can see the guys who are showing up with grim looks on their faces. You know they’re just grinding it out and trying to get stuff done and they’re trying to cut corners.
You then can see the companies that ruck up with some clever ideas. They’ve got their hands on some new tech and t some new ideas and they’ve got a spring in their step. That, to me, is the culture. If you have an innovative culture or a company that wants to be trying out new things or at least trying to figure out how to get ahead. They may not be ahead, but they are at least trying to figure it out. That’s a culture that people want to work in.
Let me ask you this. You say that you’ve always had this innovative mindset. Was that the case since your youth that you’ve always thought innovatively?
I can’t remember what I was like in my youth, but I’ve always been pushing the envelope. I’ve always been looking for the newest way of doing things. When I came out of university, computers were the newest thing. I graduated in 1996 and on the first project I was working on, if I wanted to send sketches to the construction team, I got them on the fax. I drew up my engineering sketches the day before and faxed them to the job site. I then started working with the guys there to set up the IT system. I then joined the IT committee of the company I was in called Arup. They are an engineering company in Ireland.
We rolled out PCs on desks and email for everybody. I was the first guy to do 3D modeling in the business. We started doing 3D CAD modeling back in ’98 or ‘99. I’ve always been trying to push the envelope. I’ve always tried to be at the front of the industry and figure out the next best thing and how we can get it to work? I’ve always been keen to try out new things.
You said that culture is created by the senior management. I can picture a construction company. Let’s say you have the top group of people. You’ve got one guy who really knows how to win work. You’ve got another guy who knows how to keep track of the numbers and then you’ve got someone who’s able to build the work. They’re able to get out there, kick some ass and make sure that people are showing up on time and all that kind of stuff. You’ve got those three guys. They bid the work, build the work, and then get paid for it.
You can build a good construction company on those three things and what if you know that none of those three guys are innovative in that natural way that you’re describing. What do you do then? If you’re one of those three, you’re looking at each other and you say, “I know we need to be innovative, but it’s not in our DNA. What do we do then?”
It’s an interesting puzzle to think about because the guy that’s going out winning work cannot win the work if he knows that the guys who are delivering it are going to end up spending a huge amount of money and bring in luxurious sub-contractors and everything else. At the same time, if the guy goes out and buys the work and puts in a price that’s way too low, the guys who are delivering it are going to go, “Hang on a second. We can’t deliver for that.” When it comes to making money, the last guy in the food chain has to make the account stack up. Those three guys, while you’ve painted them as three very individual characters, they’re intertwined at the hip. One guy can’t win work unless the other two guys know what they’re doing.If you have an innovative culture, or a company that wants to be trying out new things, wants to be at least front and figure out how to get ahead, that’s a culture that people want to work in. Click To Tweet
Let me explain to you what I mean. What I mean is that I can be very good at that one thing. Let’s say winning work. I’m good at developing relationships. People know me. They trust and like me. We have delivered in the past. We bought a project on time, under budget and with good quality, even if it wasn’t with the highest technology in the world.
It’s not in our natural way of thinking to be on that cutting edge, to be excited about the new thing and to want to implement it. It’s not a part of my culture, even though I can build a successful construction company without necessarily having someone there who’s always thinking about the next thing coming up.
If you’ve got that outfit and that outfit is running as sleekly as you’ve described it, then there’s no requirement or there’s no reason that they would need to innovate. When that company starts figuring out that Katerra is suddenly winning all their work and there’s no business for them to build houses, something like that comes along with their horizon, so all of a sudden, Katerra are building buildings at 15% or 20% less than you can build them for because they’ve mechanized the whole thing. They’ve come up with a much better system and then you’re stuck because then you can’t innovate fast enough to catch up.
You have to figure out, “Are we able to keep this going for the next 10 to 15 years in the way we’re doing it now or we keep doing what we’re doing and then we look for the 1% or 2% improvement through some kind of innovation?” Maybe there’s a better way of doing the sales or managing the projects. Maybe there’s a better way of reporting to our customers what we’re doing. Maybe there’s a better way of managing our subcontractors and getting a better deal. Maybe there’s a better way to have long-term agreements with the sub-contractors.
If those three guys that you’ve described are doing their 99% and if they’re spending 1% of their time looking for the innovation, looking for the next idea, keeping an eye on the horizon and what’s going on there, they’ll still be here doing the thing in 10, 15 years’ time. If they think now that they’ve got it licked and they don’t have to worry about it, they won’t be around in 10, 15 years’ time. The innovation is going to be driven by the necessity to survive. You can’t just tell somebody, “Go and be innovative.”
People go, “What the heck does that mean? That doesn’t mean anything.” Keep looking for the age, the 1% or the 2%. Keep looking for something that’s going to improve the business year on year on year marginally. You’re never going to find a 15% step-up improvement. There are no magic bullets out there, but start looking for the small gains, the small wins and maybe the next small win helps you win the next project just by having a much better presentation or having a much better story to tell. Maybe the next win is to just cut down your costs and your operational issues, but keep looking for that next saving, that next opportunity.
One of the things that I’m trying to get to here is if we’re all looking around the table, and again, I think this was one of the struggles with technology and technology adoption is for some people, it’s not in their bones. They’re not excited about it and they have to realize that and somehow inject that into their culture. They have to add that into their culture. That’s what I’m trying to get to there.
If it doesn’t come naturally, then you have to manage it.
That is what I’m getting at. I know I need to do it in the back of my head or even in the front of my head, but then how do I inject it in?
There isn’t one way of doing it. If you take those three characters you described, let’s call them the three wise men. One of them has a technology bent. If he’s the guy that’s got a drone that he flies on the weekends or he’s looking into whatever the technology is, then ask him to come up with some clever ideas. Maybe these three wise men are like you and me. They’re getting into their 50s. They’ve got a couple of kids there or maybe there’s a couple of youngsters coming into the business. They’ve got an under manager or junior or a trainee or whatever you want to call them, get them to come up with the ideas and support them.
You can manage the innovation by saying, “I’m a Luddite. I’m not going to bring in new technology, but Joel’s down there on the shop floor or Jim’s out on the site. He’s pretty switched on. He’s always got the latest gadget. He’s a guy walking around with his Fitbit and his Apple Watch. He’s got his AirPods. He’s always on the tech. We get him to look at it and we’ll support him.” That goes back to that C-Suite management. If you’re running the business, if you’re the Luddite, fine. You’re winning already because you’ve acknowledged you’re the Luddite. Just go and find somebody else to do the innovation for you, but when they come up with the good ideas, you’ve got to back it up.
We started talking about talent development. We’ve gotten into the development of the company in terms of innovation and bringing in new technologies. Let’s summarize some of the things that we’ve been saying. If you’re having dinner with a construction company’s CEO and they’re saying, “Ronan, what are the first steps I need to take to begin to systematically develop my business from a talent, technology or process point of view?” What would you tell that person to do?
I would start off with figuring out what you’ve got already. I would go back and say, “What do you think you’ve got already? What technologies are you guys using? What platforms have you got? What access have you got to different things?” I then would go back to that problem definition. I’m going, “What’s bleeding more money than anything else? What are the core problems you are facing?”
You start the conversation there going, “Is there something wrong with our current technology that we’re using that is causing this bleed? Are we missing a piece of it? Have we not paid for the training and implementation that we needed to get the thing working or we just don’t have it? We need to go and acquire that technology.”
If you’re talking to the CEO, they’re driven by productivity, business opportunity and margins. They’re going to know where they’re losing money and it’s getting that defined. The way I did it before when we did the data analytics part, the biggest problem that we had was we had lots of data we were capturing. We had lots of information and we could create all kinds of fantastic dashboards. Our biggest challenge was getting the senior managers to tell us what they wanted to know. What’s the critical information you need to know about this project so we can surface that and give you that in terms of a report?
It’s getting the CEO to ask, “What’s the problem that I’ve got right now that a technology solution or a training program or a skills development initiative could help address?” Define that problem and opportunity. It could be win work strategy. It could be an increase in performance. It could be a profitability strategy. It could be a return to shareholders. Some people are working for shareholders or whatever that win strategy is going to be and then you go looking forward to solutions.
Do I have to buy technology? Do I have to hire people? Do I have to create an academy and upskill my entire workforce to get people to do this correctly? Do I need to go and buy some consulting services to get the things set up correctly? “I bought this cool platform to do all my commercials, but it’s not working because it’s not talking to other platforms. There’s something gone wrong.” All of the technology conversations are completely pointless in the absence of a problem definition.All of that technology conversations are completely pointless in the absence of a problem definition. Click To Tweet
To go back and reiterate what you said. I think it’s so vital for someone who is a CEO or senior leader to set expectations appropriately. This technology that we’re adopting, it’s not a magic pill. It’s not going to change things overnight. Despite what any salespeople might say, we’re going to have bumps in the road. It’s a test, try and iterate approach that helps to smooth the path of technology adoption by setting the right expectations within the organization.
I’ll give you one other nugget for free. One of the things I’ve noticed is that the guys that end up doing these proof of concepts end up learning more about your business than if they go about doing the normal stuff. As a result, they end up becoming really good potential managers or potential business leaders further down the road. Because when you start doing these proof of concepts and have the 6s and 7s doing the work, they start to understand more about the bigger picture, the business, and how a business makes money? How does the business address problems? How do I manage these projects?
The unintended consequence, if you will, if you find the right group of people inside your business, they will learn more about your business and they will learn more about how to run your business. Effectively, what you’re doing is you’re grooming up the next round of leaders or the next managers for your projects. There is a win-win scenario.
They come along and say, “I’ve set the system up and it’s helping us reduce losses here. It’s helping us improve productivity here. Now, I have a better understanding about how we buy this or how we install that or how this works.” The people running the programs very often learn more about your business and not just the immediate problem. Effectively, it’s nearly a management training ground as much as it is a technology development program.
I’ve never thought about that before and I think that is true. I can see the truth in terms of someone learning more about the business and even seeing new opportunities other than just the technology they’re testing out to grow the business. I appreciate that. That’s tremendous. You’ve been very generous with your time here, Ronan. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and how folks can get in touch with you?
I’m now residing in Saudi Arabia in Riyadh and the easiest way to find me is on LinkedIn. I spend a lot of time on LinkedIn and I think that’s how you and I came across it. I’m a big believer in sharing information and knowledge. It’s my honor to be here and talk to you this evening. It’s always great fun to get a chance to share what I know with other people. You simply do a search for Ronan Collins or if it doesn’t pop up immediately, put in BIM and you’ll definitely find me on LinkedIn. That’s the easy way of doing it.
Are there any other websites that you have that you’d like to mention?
My current employer is The Red Sea Development Company. You can look up The Red Sea and you’ll see some of the projects I’m working on. I have an old website that I dabble in from when I was in Hong Kong, but it’s completely out of date. LinkedIn is where it’s at. If you want to find out what I’m up to, get to LinkedIn and you’ll see what I’m up to.
You’ve been very generous. You are in Riyadh there, so I’ve got to ask the question. Let’s say I’m doing my flight across the globe. I’m coming from the United Kingdom. I’m going to Australia. There’s a stop in Riyadh. Where am I going to go eat?
Ideally, you can come to my house because my wife is a brilliant cook. Normally when we go out, there’s an Italian place not too far from where I’m living called Piatto and they’ve got my son’s favorite pizza and my favorite pasta. We normally go to Piatto and have dinner there, though. The only thing you won’t be able to get here is a glass of wine or a beer because it’s a dry country. You can enjoy the food and Lucozade or lemonade, but there are no beers.
Is it legal to eat Italian food without alcohol? I thought those two things went together.
I’m going to be in Italy for a holiday in summer so I’ll make up for when I get to Italy in the summer.
Ronan, you’ve been very generous with your time. I appreciate you coming on and sharing your insights. Thanks for joining us on the show.
You’re welcome. Thanks a lot, Eric.
Thank you for reading. I promise the outro of the episode will be much shorter than my intro. Didn’t you enjoy that conversation with Ronan? I certainly did. He has some fresh insights that were tremendously helpful to me in thinking through how technology adoption can be successful in an organization.
I hope you set your expectations correctly when bringing in new technology. I hope you pick people who are able to communicate the benefits of technology as they understand them and as they are tested and improved in your company. I hope that you see technology adoption as a wonderful opportunity to develop people in your organization into leadership roles.
If you have any questions about the episode, feel free to reach out to me. You can go to ConstructionGenius.com/contact. Reach out to me. Give me some feedback on the episode. Please share this episode with other people. Hit Ronan up on LinkedIn. Let him know that you read this episode and that you appreciated his insights. As always, feel free to give us a rating or review. Thank you for reading.
About Ronan Collins
Civil & structural engineer, Project Information Management Professional, BIM (Building Information Management), VDC (Virtual Design and Construction) specialist, experienced speaker, narrator and keen sailor. Passionate about Construction.
I am committed to driving innovation and digital transformation in the construction industry in Malaysia. I believe that the business benefits provided by a well-planned digital engineering BIM processes will transform the way we design, construct and maintain our infrastructure and buildings.
Throughout my career, I have implemented digital solutions and services for large scale developments including airports, hotels, residential complexes, railway stations, educational facilities, exhibition centres, casinos and complex industrial projects all around the world. As a certified Professional Project Manager, I’m able to provide expert advice on how to specify and how to plan the implementation of BIM processes.
I’m always willing to share my knowledge, experiences (good and bad) and guidance on project specifications, training and technical support for people working with BIM. Given a chance to speak at conferences, I openly share my ideas and suggestions on how to get the maximum value from BIM, digital engineering and virtual construction. Using examples from recent projects, I do my best to provide practical insights on the dos and don’ts of digital transformation for engineering and construction.