The digital debate in the UK built environment has been moving beyond its recent obsession with building information modelling (BIM) and looking more widely at digital transformation and business “digitalisation”. Integration of back office, design and project management systems will be critical to the future success of many design firms, says Deltek.
Some four years after the launch of the UK BIM push in 2011, the Digital Built Britain report was published in February 2015 as industry moved closer to the mandated deadline for BIM adoption across all centrally-funded government projects in April 2016. Often, the assumption was that BIM was mainly about use of BIM authoring software or common data environment (CDE) platforms, but the BIM Task Group and its various regional and sectoral communities consistently urged businesses to regard BIM as a process not a technology. BIM was also seen as a way to help make construction more collaborative, productive and profitable, particularly if it was also integrated with other back-office business processes across suppliers, contracting and professional services firms supporting project delivery.
Productivity and profit
Productivity and profitability among many professional architecture and engineering services businesses remains a challenge, according to a July 2019 Service Performance Insight white paper produced for construction technology provider Deltek (whose product portfolio includes project information management solutions; it acquired Union Square in July 2016). Trends including employee attrition, smaller projects, lower billable utilisation and higher project overruns all had potential to negatively affect businesses. Investing in staff training, improved monitoring of reasons for attrition, selling services more effectively, making projects more profitable and delivering work on time (“on-time delivery is the leading driver of client satisfaction in professional services“) were all advocated.
However, technology also has a key role, SPI said, noting professional services firms are using information-based tools at a higher rate than ever before, with European firms ahead of their north American counterparts. Firms with high levels of information visibility operate much more efficiently and have higher employee satisfaction, as shown by attrition, than those organisations with lower levels of visibility. They also show much greater project and overall profitability, SPI said, recommending greater investment in professional services automation (PSA) tools with their emphasis on project and resource management, time and expense capture, and collaboration:
“PSA is like many of the project management (PM) solutions used by AE [architecture/engineering] firms, but includes greater collaboration tools and the ability to capture time and costs to improve project profitability. It has become a ‘must have’ solution for many AE firms as they work to increase billable utilisation and drive project-based work to meet its time constraints.”
SPI says European AE firms are behind their north American counterparts when it comes to service delivery and financials (US SaaS project management systems often included cost management functionality, but UK-based vendors’ collaboration platforms rarely did; BIW had an optional financial control module in the early 2000s but it remained an isolated UK example until its eventual parent Aconex launched Connected Cost in 2017; since 2016 Deltek has been able to integrate project information management alongside financials).
In order to become world-class, SPI says each firm must analyse their operational procedures and processes, and work to improve in all areas of their business in order to remain productive and profitable. The task won’t be easy, but with the right information backbone, increased visibility and automation will drive these organisations to their highest levels. SPI continues:
“A sophisticated and integrated information infrastructure is paramount to success in AE firms. Integrated [systems] provide AE firms with the necessary automation and visibility to perform at their highest level. They enable greater collaboration among the different organisational units, which will make the firms more productive and profitable in the large, complex and exciting projects that help define the industry.”
Deltek product director Nick Nieder says:
“Deltek’s customers are mainly contractors and architecture/engineering businesses who are looking to integrate their systems, improve their managers’ operational oversight, and deliver better project outcomes to their customers. SPI has confirmed that digital transformation is critical for the continued future success of UK construction businesses.”
Integration the key
The UK government still wants industry to shorten delivery programmes, lower costs, reduce greenhouse emissions, and improve its export performance – little of which can be achieved simply be digitising existing processes. As a result, a wide range of parallel industry changes have also been demanded – notably in Mark Farmer’s 2016 Modernise or Die. He advocates BIM and wider digitalisation, alongside other remedies including higher investment in R&D, greater use of Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) or pre-manufactured solutions, and adoption of whole-life value approaches to built asset delivery. (Digitalisation is using digital technologies to “change a business model and provide new revenue and value-producing opportunities: the process of moving to a digital business,” to quote Gartner’s definition).
Digital Built Britain was produced to map the next steps in the digital journey beyond the April 2016 target of “BIM Level 2” (see March 2015 post: For Level 3 BIM, read Digital Built Britain), and the task of digital transformation in the built environment has now been moved to the government-backed Cambridge University-based Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB), working in partnership with the UK BIM Alliance* and BSI. Their work and Farmer’s recommendations also reflect the direction of UK government departments and agencies. Bodies including the UK Infrastructure and Projects Authority and the National Infrastructure Commission are also seeking more holistic and joined-up approach to planning, delivering and operating the built environment, with ‘digital twins‘ replacing BIM as the hot industry buzzword (read my August 2019 post: Bentley pushes ‘Digital Twin’ into AEC mainstream) – a concept that, vitally, is all about connecting systems.
I will be talking about these themes at Deltek’s half-day conference in London’s Kings Place on 18 September 2019 – more details here.
* I am a UK BIM Alliance ambassador, and in July became an executive director and chair of the Alliance’s Technology Group.