A recent roundtable by Construction News and Hitachi Solutions gathered construction experts to discuss the challenges of data sharing. It uncovered a – perhaps surprising – appetite to put aside traditional rivalries to boost collective productivity. Ian Weinfass reports
On the panel
Alex Coles, head of data and insights knowledge management, John Sisk & Son
Daniel Blackman, IT director, McLaren Construction
Rob Bradley, chief executive, Bouygues UK
Matthew Brown, head of strategy and architecture, Landsec
Richard Gray, head of architecture and data, Kier
Nick Leach, director of digital construction, Sir Robert McAlpine
Federico Selmi, director of business intelligence, ISG
Alfi Watts, head of IT operations, Careys Group
David Weaver, business development director, Hitachi Solutions
Chair: Colin Marrs, editor, Construction News
Contrary to popular belief, construction firms are no slouches when it comes to data collection. In recent years, the sector has invested millions of pounds in back-office customer-relationship management platforms, helping them to develop relations with new clients and maintain existing ones.
“You end up with 300 live projects and 300 different, say, health and safety tools being used. One is speaking one language and another is speaking another”
Federico Selmi, ISG
But the industry’s holy grail – boosting historically low levels of productivity by capturing a good quantity and quality of data from activity on construction sites – remains elusive.
“If I could get that right, instead of making 1 per cent profit, I’d make 10 per cent,” says Bouygues UK chief executive Rob Bradley. “To me, that’s where the data is most important; that’s also the hardest area and that’s where the data is poor.”
So how could construction best harness its information to take advantage of the lucrative opportunities that are out there? A roundtable held in London by Construction News, sponsored by Hitachi Solutions – a Microsoft consultancy partner and business-transformation specialist – gathered leading industry figures to discuss a route forward.
Leaping the language barrier
Partnerships are vital to the success of construction projects. Once appointed to a project, a main contractor needs to assemble a team of multiple specialist firms to work on each element of the scheme, all the way from the earliest groundwork operations to final fit-out. But the sheer number of software solutions that have developed ad hoc between project partners is on the verge of becoming unsustainable.
Federico Selmi, director of business intelligence at ISG, says: “In the past, projects just had to do something safely, on time and on budget, and the tools that firms chose to use for their data were completely up to them. So, a few years down the line, you end up with 300 live projects and 300 different, say, health and safety tools being used. One is speaking one language and another is speaking another.”
As with so much in the construction process, ultimate responsibility for driving change rests with clients. The panel discusses this issue at length, examining a range of areas where the needs of both public and private clients shape how data is collected. This includes software requirements, supply chain management and the need to ask for data on a variety of areas, from sustainability to building safety.
Major clients would like to see better standardisation, according to Matthew Brown, head of strategy and architecture at real estate giant Landsec. But doing so is easier said than done. “We’ve tried to enforce a document-management standard [in the past],” he explains. “That kind of failed, and we’ve [since] had to build interfaces between document-management tools and bring them into our standard.”
But even where the most enlightened client possesses the most powerful data platform, it is only as good as the people using it. Nick Leach, director of digital construction at Sir Robert McAlpine, says the plethora of technology platforms used across different projects is a barrier to ensuring staff can use tools properly.
“We’ve got a data warehouse where we are trying to pull and automate data into an ‘essential’ pot,” he says. “It can fall down a little bit where you’ve got multiple different technology tools being used across different projects or sectors due to stipulations by our clients or the impact of our joint ventures. Therefore, the need to ensure consistency in what we use is key; how the technology is adopted through the training we provide and being clear on the outputs we want to harness and utilise becomes fundamental.”
“No matter how much we try to corral the data together, the silos will always exist and the spreadsheets will still be there. AI can make searching that very simple. I think it can speed internal productivity very quickly”
Richard Gray, Kier
Ensuring that construction workers are not overwhelmed by data demands helps to ensure that data is inputted consistently and accurately, according to McLaren Construction IT director Daniel Blackman. “People are always going to make errors. They’re going to forget what they need to do,” he says. “We need to go back to management procedures and make sure they’re slick and that we’re only capturing the data that’s absolutely necessary.”
Where there’s a danger of drowning in a deluge of data, artificial intelligence (AI) offers a potential solution. “As an industry, we capture way too much data that’s of no use and no value further down the line,” Blackman says. AI tools could, in future, help companies sift through existing data to drive efficiency.
“I think there’s an internal role for the large language [AI] models in terms of searching your organisations to find the things that you need – [a task that is] really difficult in our organisation,” says Kier head of architecture and data Richard Gray. “No matter how much we try to corral the data together, the silos will always exist and the spreadsheets will still be there. AI can make searching that very simple. I think it can speed internal productivity very quickly.”
For the foreseeable future, however, data collection is likely to require human involvement. And while it is vital to make it easier for staff to input data, even more fundamental is the need to ensure that staff on the ground understand and buy into the value of the process.
Financial incentives may help here, Selmi suggests: “I’m very much for putting it into people’s bonuses that they, as a department head, need to take care of the data that they produce because it is no longer just being used by them and their team – there will be other teams using it, too. The whole organisation is using everybody’s data; it’s important that it’s clean and consistent.”
But money alone is not enough – it’s also up to managers to reflect on their own attitudes and to use data constructively, to ensure that their employees learn to love, rather than fear, it. Sisk’s head of data and insights knowledge management, Alex Coles, says that, as an industry, the focus has sometimes been wrong in the past.
“Potentially, the first time a project team sees the data laid out nicely in front of them is when somebody comes to their project and beats them with it, essentially,” he says.
“That’s what we’re trying to pivot away from. It’s about getting buy-in from projects, [saying] ‘we’re developing tools and we’ll help you’. That should be our motive. It’s the right thing to do. I’ve entered my role from a project background and brought a collaborative approach into our combined IT-operational data team, and that’s how you get the buy-in in terms of data input.”
The importance of staff empowerment is also raised by the panel. Alfi Watts, Carey Group’s head of IT, says his company has set up a “data council” to maximise and govern its internal data. This involves nominating people to be “stewards” and “owners” of their internal data, with others requiring their data to be validated by the nominated people, “so it brings that culture internally first, and drives the required level of quality that drives business insights”, he says.
Bouygues UK’s Bradley feels that the importance of the data challenge means the time is right to put aside the adversarial relationships between contractors and the supply chain that hold the industry back: “That’s a massive change for our industry because the way we work as main contractors [with] subcontractors, sub-subcontractors, suppliers, clients – there is a lack of transparency and, unfortunately, because of the competitive nature and the contractual nature of our business, we’re all quite defensive.”
Government, which has its eye on more than just the bottom line, has a key role to play in encouraging such collaboration, according to Bradley. “The public sector is in a prime position to create proper collaborative environments with the supply chain where there is no fear of sharing data, leading to true improvements,” he says.
Hearteningly, there was shared enthusiasm around the table about such cooperation extending beyond individual contractors and their supply chains. Some problems are so big that they may only be solved when main contractors put rivalries aside to find solutions. As an example, Selmi says that, ideally, all projects should use the same software – or at least a common data language – for uniformity and interoperability.
“It would be nice if we as contractors got together as Build UK or the CLC and said ‘let’s make this work’. Most captains of industry would want to promote this to work collaboratively because it’s in everybody’s interest”
Rob Bradley, Bouygues UK
Bradley adds that public sector clients could play a major role in helping to break down entrenched barriers. “Government is the biggest employer of construction services and therefore they can lead by example,” he says. “Where there’s good practice, like the government creating alliances of contractors working together on the prisons programme and parts of HS2, there’s a real opportunity for us to help each other because it’s in everybody’s interest.”
But McLaren’s Blackman says the industry must also grab the baton. “We talk about the government creating this common baseline,” he says, “but what is preventing us as contractors, us as IT and data departments, from coming together and developing that ourselves?”
Kier’s Gray agrees: “I think collaboration is key – it’s fundamental to what we’re trying to do. We’ve all got the same problems; we should be trying to solve them together.”
Bradley points to the industry’s representative bodies as a natural focus for such discussions. “It would be nice if we as contractors got together as Build UK or the Construction Leadership Council and said ‘let’s make this work’. There are a number of good practices that have happened through those forums, but this is so big and it’s moving so fast – as an industry, we’re not naturally quick,” he says. “It needs an enlightened leadership to make that happen, but I think most captains of industry would want to promote this to work collaboratively because it’s in everybody’s interest.”
Intense competition is intrinsic to the success of the UK construction industry. But in the area of data collection, there is growing recognition that rival approaches to data collection help nobody. A healthy market thrives when everyone speaks the same language.