Implementation Of Construction Tech – Insights From Industry

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Why?

Since April 2022, I have been interviewing startup founders, CEOs, advisors, investors and decision-makers in construction.  

We are nearly 50 episodes deep, and as with doing anything consistently, your brain forms biases, connects dots, and notices patterns. 

I’ve noticed a lot of recurring themes from radically idealistic viewpoints through the moaning and groaning of a stale industry.

But one of the things that caught my attention the most was the topic of implementation. 

Now, I can’t figure out why this subject fascinates me so much. 

Perhaps it is because it is such a massive challenge with no rule book, which lends itself to creative solutions…

Or maybe it is because after our interview with Will Synott, he introduced the phrase (stolen from Garin Hess, [with a twist]):

“Selling is Hard. Buying Is Harder. Implementation is HARDEST” – Will Synnott, 2022

Will Synott - Implementation Quote

More on this later. But for now, let’s explore the implementation of construction technology.

 

Introduction

Tech As A Solution To Productivity Issues

Whilst nearly every other industry has benefitted from the tech revolution, construction technology is a way off the curve. 

Productivity has mostly stayed the same in construction over the past 50 years:

Labour productivity in construction

 

In addition, we can see that manufacturing productivity has almost doubled in 25 years, whereas construction has increased by only 25%.

 

Productivity has changed little in the construction industry in the past 50 years.pngProductivity growth has been slow in construction industries compared with the whole economy.png

 

This is a significant problem.

With an ageing workforce, an incoming generation of wannabe YouTubers (sorry, Gen Z), increasing population and housing demands, political issues such as Brexit, and a climate crisis…… we can see why we need to take action and get tech adoption and implementation right.

 

A Changing Culture

Despite the challenges, the foundations are in place for an exciting short-mid-term future.

I have been in construction since 2012 and, more recently, saturated myself in the technology side.

In the earlier stages of my career, I was involved in the ‘traditional’ and ‘corporate’ sides. And since slowly transitioning across, I’ve noticed a big difference.

On one side, you have the big corporates with a very stiff mindset and draconian business practices, which include:

  • ‘Subby-bashing’
  • Ridiculous Payment Terms
  • Unethical cashflow practices
  • Risk offsetting
  • Smash and grab adjudications
  • Price fiddling

On the other side, you have an amazing community of entrepreneurs and visionaries. I’ve met incredibly supportive people working together and sharing ideas and, more importantly, willing to go out of their way to help one another for the betterment of the industry.

So out with the old and in with the new? Hopefully. And I think it’s needed.

out with the old
credit GIPHY

 

An Exciting Decade Ahead

Another pattern in our interviews is the excitement around the next decade or so. 

There is a feeling of good momentum and positivity in construction tech. And this is underpinned by increased investment in the industry over the recent years:

Construction Tech Investment
Credit McKinsey

 

As optimistic as I am, I wanted to share the views of those I’ve interviewed, as well as the conclusions I’ve drawn, along with some actionable advice to ensure technology is implemented correctly for a bright future.

 

The Problem With Technology Implementation In Construction

Firstly, when I mention technology in construction, I mean any form of innovation or digital product that attempts to enhance or improve existing workflows and industry. This is an essential point because technology means different things to different people. 

And don’t get me started on the correct term. Is it ConTech? BuiltTech? AECTech? PropTech? ConstructionTech?

Anyway….

The construction industry is like no other. Construction is unique in nearly every way possible, from the siloed project-by-project structure to painfully long sales cycles (hang in there, startup founders… I hear ya).

 

Let’s talk about B*M.

BIM Difficulties
Credit to Nhut Pham

 

Sadly, it’s hard to discuss technology in construction without talking about the dreaded three-letter word BIM.

Luckily for you, we won’t go on about what BIM is or isn’t. But it is the perfect example of how and why technology is so difficult to implement in construction.

I choose BIM because it is a technology we have been trying to implement in construction for at least ten years (maybe longer) and are still waiting to see mass adoption or many successful use cases.

In addition to this, it is thrown in our faces and even enforced upon us by governments. It is also the perfect case study to illustrate the broader problems and challenges of tech adoption in construction. 

BONUS: For a little bit of fun, visit: https://bimbollocks.com/

 

Firstly, let’s look at the coordination

To successfully implement a BIM Model on a project, the model must be coordinated between the people responsible for each building component. I.e. the services need to align with the structure, as do the walls with the windows and doors.

This leads to problems. 

The building components’ manufacturers/designers/suppliers are all different parties. This means you have multiple parties from other companies working on a single model (that relies on accuracy). This is also referred to as ‘working in silos’.

Working in silos is a common occurrence in construction. On each project, there are hundreds of different companies to coordinate, from manufacturers to contractors, through to end users.

I asked chatGPT what the drawbacks of working in silos are:

“Working in silos refers to a lack of communication and collaboration among departments in an organisation. This approach can lead to various problems such as miscommunication, limited perspective, reduced efficiency, conflicts, decreased morale, customer service issues, and hindered innovation. To prevent these issues, it’s important for organisations to promote inter-departmental communication, shared goals, and integrated systems.”

After reading that, I feel that the issue of working in silos alone describes the difficulty with implementing construction technology. Tackling the silo structure could be a great place to start.

 

Risk & Contractual Liability

In our discussion with Daniel Leech, I was also particularly struck (and completely unsurprised) by the actions taken by companies to omit their liability when it comes to the manufacturing data they provide, which is needed for a BIM model.

Here is a clip from the podcast explaining this:

 

In summary, Dan says that the companies providing the data for the BIM models do not want you to use that data because if something is wrong, they get hit with the penalty or slack.

Again, this is a huuuuuge issue! If we are so scared to innovate and implement technology in construction because of the potential impacts of getting it wrong, who is going to take the risk?

And the cost of getting it wrong?

Due to contractual provisions such as liquidated and ascertained damages, the delay on a project can cost a contractor thousands, hundreds of thousands and even millions of pounds. 

Worth the risk? Probably not! I am not sure what the R&D consultants would think of that one.

 

Next – Requirements For Different Sectors

Construction is a vast industry. You have billion-dollar infrastructure and commercial schemes on one end of the sector. Conversely, you have small-scale private residential work with contract values not exceeding £10,000.

When you paint such a broad industry with the same brush, it’s difficult for people’s expectations to differ.

I have worked in residential construction for the last six or so years. The projects range from £100k – £100m, with an average size of around £3m.

During this time, I have yet to work on a single project with a BIM model. Yes, and that still applies today (2023).

How does this relate to implementing construction technology? Well, simply put, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution in construction. People need to be wary of the type of project and in which construction sub-sector they work.

And to relate that to BIM – whilst I agree BIM on a small-scale residential project would be helpful, the client is unlikely to want to use it because of cost, the skillset of the professionals on the project differs, and the project margins for the contractors building these projects often don’t warrant re-training or up-skilling to learn how to use the technologies.

The critical point here is that people must be aware that implementing technology in construction is very different, depending on which part of construction you are discussing.

 

But It’s More Than Just The Problems Related To BIM

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s a plethora of other reasons why, listed below and which I won’t got into detail for the purposes of this post:

  • Risk
  • A Process that works
  • Additional workload
  • Speed
  • Lack of education
  • Skillset
  • Logins 
  • Motivation

 

So Why Is Getting Implementation Right SO Important?

The answer to this should be obvious. But the stakes in construction are way higher. A small mistake can cost thousands of £ or $, or a life in the worst case scenario.

(Compare that to your Uber driver being a minute late, and you can see why implementation is such a hot topic.)

Construction is also a very unforgiving industry. Workers are already stretched to the maximum, so it’s a tough sell unless a piece of technology results in game-changing improvements.

And when the game-changing improvements are over-sold (thanks, marketers), you leave users sceptical and resistant to wanting to experiment with technology in the future.

Additionally, we have tons of problems in construction we need to solve. From climate to the housing crisis, technology will play a huge role in tackling these.

 

Why Is It So Hard?

Earlier, we used three examples from the struggles with BIM to explain why the implementation of construction technology is so hard:

  1. Working in silos
  2. Risk and contractual liability
  3. The Vastness of the industry

Each of these is more than just problems faced with BIM. They are problems that each technology enthusiast has to face.

life is hard
Credit to GIPHY

What Are Some Ways For Better Implementation?

Now onto the juicy stuff; here are the top tips from some of the best podcast episodes.

A prominent place to start would be by removing the siloed construction structure. But, short term, that is not possible as it would demand a huge shake-up. One step at a time, please!

As I mentioned above, through my podcast Bricks & Bytes, I have been exploring this subject since April 2022. In this section, I will outline what I have found to be the most effective and exciting ways of implementing technology.

 

Building Communities

I felt instant resonance when Erin Khan bought this up in our episode. Not only because of what we’re trying to do with our podcast but also our recent attempts to build our Discord community to help spread the word about construction tech.

Here is a clip from the interview where Erin talks about community building:

Here is a quick summary of the clip:

  • Sinking effort into community building is super important
  • Tech champions in SMEs are interested in collaborating and sharing
  • Make a platform, a forum for meeting and discussing regularly

One thing for sure is that the tech community in construction is an amazing bunch of people. People are genuinely willing to share their insights and perspectives, and so setting up a forum for people to do so is a great way to encourage innovation.

I asked ChatGPT to give some advice on how to build communities:

“Building a strong community involves defining its purpose, understanding the target audience, creating a welcoming environment, and setting clear rules. Engaging members actively and providing valuable content is essential. Listening to members’ feedback, promoting the community, celebrating milestones, and nurturing relationships are crucial. The process requires consistency, patience, and a focus on providing value.”

PS If you want to support our community-building efforts, please subscribe and follow our podcast:

 

Raise Awareness

To me, this one seems obvious. But even as someone heavily involved in the construction tech scene, I am unaware of many existing solutions and their effectiveness.

So when mentioning awareness, I don’t just mean awareness of a solution, but awareness of the effectiveness of the solution.

As an industry, we only want solutions that provide game-changing differences to our days. We do not wish to use tech for the sake of using tech.

Some ways to increase your awareness of solutions include:

  • Community building
  • Reviewing resources (I will share mine in another post)
  • Going to events
  • Sign up to great newsletters

But let’s not miss the point. Because while a solution is excellent, customers and users are only interested in the way a solution impacts them:

  • Undertake project case studies
  • Show ROI in terms of additional meta-benefits (not just £/$ gains)
  • Host webinars and leverage social media 
  • Make it relatable
  • Keep it simple – no one cares about your cutting-edge tech

The critical point here: raise awareness of the solutions and the impact these solutions have.

 

Gentle Disruption – 0 to 1, not 0 to 100

Simplicity! What a word. A word that is too often overlooked in construction technology.

Seriously.

As I mentioned above, no one really cares about your cutting-edge technology. Sorry techies. And that’s why having strong domain expertise, getting out on the construction sites, and truly understanding your user are crucial in construction.

I love this anecdote from our episode with Scott Ellison:

Focus on the job to be done. Not the tech that gets there.

What I also love from our episode with Scott is his explanation of the ‘disrupt-respect ratio’:

People in construction are exceptionally busy. It is a very highly pressured environment with strict deadlines. Complexity will result in the opposite of the desired effect.

The bottom line here is keeping construction tech solutions as straightforward as possible. If you add even a single click more to someone’s work day, forget it. It would be best to subtract and add a lot of gains.

 

Combine The Old With The New; Cross Pollinate Teams

The older generation is probably mistreated when it comes to tech adoption in construction. There is a stigma that people over the age of 50 are technophobes who hold their iPhones at least one full arm’s length away whilst reading their text messages.

But that’s not always the case.

“.. this is another data point, I have seen.. the biggest promoters of digital innovation are actually the most experienced construction professionals… because they have suffered decades through really painful work” – Cristoph Betz – Innovation & Venture Consultant.

I want to thank Christoph Betz (innovation and venture consultant) for this paradigm shift and for challenging my mindset on this episode (number #45.. coming soon).

Given that every construction is delivered on a project basis, the great idea is to cross-pollinate teams with tech-savvy and non-tech-savvy people.

An example of this will be to take an older, highly experienced construction manager and pair them with a tech-savvy university graduate (or similar). By combining this expertise, you have a great setup to implement technology while maintaining the experience (and realism!) needed to deliver a project successfully.

This is a compelling way to develop useful technology. And the fact it will be being actively tested on a live project is a great way to test the success.

 

Reward Champions- Culture Change

Lastly, I wanted to focus on the importance of rewarding those who champion construction tech. This is nothing groundbreaking, but it’s overlooked.

You may have heard of a simple psychological concept called Positive Reinforcement

Google Dictionary: “the process of encouraging or establishing a pattern of behaviour by offering a reward when the behaviour is exhibited”.

Positive reinforcement
Diagram showing positive reinforcement. Credit MBASkool.com

 

Basically, reward someone/something (a dog) for good behaviour, and you increase the likelihood of repeating that behaviour in the future.

Moreover, in the popular topic of habit creation, you increase the likelihood of making that habit stick by integrating rewards to build new habits.

So let’s take a minute to think about how we can recognise and reward digital champions rather than slate them because they’re pushing to try new things.

Bonus Point… According to Herzberg’s Motivation – Hygiene Theory, rewards and recognition are key motivators for employees. 

Herzberg two-factor theory
Herzberg two-factor theory – credit Indeed

 

I don’t claim to be an expert in employee motivation but here’s some ways of rewarding employees thanks to ChatGPT:

  • Gifts
  • Benefits
  • Acknowledgement
  • Experiences
  • Professional Development (more construction tech conferences!!!)
  • Lunch with the boss
  • Recognition boards on site
  • Shout-outs on company collateral (including daily stand-ups)

 

My Own Experience

I wanted to add one final piece to this, which is my experience. 

While thinking about this part, I came up with three things I felt were most important. 

Patience, Persistent & Process.

I’ve seen many similar [insert number of P’s here] acronyms for this before. But I’ll take credit for my own ‘three p’s of implementation’.

 

Firstly, Patience

Often overlooked in today’s world of instant gratification and the dream that technology such as one-click checkout sells to us. 

However, in construction, you have to be tremendously patient.

Let’s go back to our example of BIM. Around for over 50 years, been ‘implemented’ for over 20 years, and we’re still not there. Ouch!

In addition, the nature of the project cycle means things take time.

Then, you have the issue of training people to use technology. It’s not going to be easy. Yes, they will revert to Excel spreadsheets. Yes, they will call you rather than click a few buttons on an app. Yes, they will moan. But hang in there! Be the champion responsible for heading up tech adoption in your company.

 

Persistence

Patience is when we accept the time it will take to do something. Persistence is not quitting when it gets tricky.

Back to my point on people reverting to Excel spreadsheets. I can’t blame them.

When you have a tight deadline, or you just need to get something off your desk, it’s way easier to fire up Excel, make a quick change and send it. That maybe took five clicks.

When you have the additional layer of cognitive load logging into a web app, searching your projects, finding the file, and remembering how to do it, it doesn’t quite work… BOOM, 30 clicks and 15 minutes later… you’ve already decided that you will never do that again.

So if you are responsible for technology adoption, persist. 

Show people the benefits. 

Reward employees. 

Make it simple.

Persistence
Credit to GIPHY

Process

If you don’t have a process that works, do not expect technology to work for you.

Lots of people are excited about adopting tech for the sake of adopting tech.

GUILTY!!!

But it’s so sexy… I know.

You should focus on getting your internal processes before tinkering with technology. For example, take the process of putting together a payment application. I’ll keep this simple only to illustrate the point.

A few things need to happen before you can hit send:

  1. You need to create the document
  2. You need to go to the site and inspect the work
  3. You need to check internal accounting data
  4. You need to update the document
  5. You need to check and send it to the QS

If, for example, you haven’t got a good process internal for accessing the account data (to ensure you are maintaining good cashflow), then don’t expect to download a piece of software that will magically send you a monthly report and tell you whether your payment this month is positive or negative.

If you know exactly what needs to be done and how it is done, you can apply technology where it suits and experiment. This way, you can afford to make mistakes as you can revert to old habits.

So get your processes right. And don’t just dive into tech for tech purposes – treat technology as an accelerator (credit Jim Collins – Good to Great:

JC Good to Great
Jim Collins – The Flywheel from Good To Great

 

And a special mention to Jefferson Sanchez for his great post I found on LinkedIn, diving a little deeper into this subject.

Conclusion; An overview of Tech Adoption In Construction

Sooooo… where did we get to!?

Technology implementation in construction is HARD. Mistakes aren’t just costly; they’re dangerous. It’s no wonder we are cautious when we attempt to shake up how things are done.

The construction workers are super busy, so convincing them to adopt new technology is challenging. And when lofty promises crumble into dust, it puts people off from taking the chance in the future.

But let’s remain optimistic.

We have a planet to save and a global housing crisis to address. Tech can be our secret weapon, but we need to tackle the culture and way of working that exists in our industry.

Things won’t change overnight. We can build communities and networks where like-minded people can mingle and exchange ideas. It’s about creating a tech tribe within construction to share and promote innovation.

And let’s scream and shout about it!

It’s not just enough to know something exists. We all need to know about it and see that it works and works very well. By promoting the success of our tools, we can get other players interested (and wish they joined us earlier).

But do remember to keep it simple.

Our construction folk don’t care about the fancy trimmings. They want something that will lighten their load and make their job easier.

Remember, the veterans in our industry can be the biggest cheerleaders for innovation because they have been through the wringer. Partner an OG with fresh-faced tech-savvy graduates to help balance each other and pave the way for smooth tech adoption.

Lastly, on this point, let’s celebrate our tech champions. Reward them. Show them love and recognise those who push the boundaries each day.

It’s bloody tough out there!

Before I go, here’s my offering to the puzzle. My 3P’s of tech implementation (it feels weird writing that). 

Patience, Persistence, Process. Patience is a virtue, especially in construction. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Persistence is about staying the course, even when the going gets rough. And Process that’s about putting your house in order before you welcome technology.

So, that’s all! These are just a few nuggets of wisdom from the podcast and my industry journey. Stick around because this is only the beginning. We’re on an exhilarating tech journey in construction, and I’m excited to see where it takes us. Buckle up, friends! We’re in for quite a ride.

Construction implementation success