Slow adoption of digital technology on the construction site continues to hamper the productivity of UK construction firms says a PlanGrid report, while another UK report suggests digital transformation is well advanced. The industry’s digital maturity needs to be more rigorously assessed.
A recent survey of UK construction professionals suggests productivity is being held back by the same challenges as 12 months ago, with slow adoption of onsite digital technology a key challenge. Sixty per cent of businesses say that a lack of trust between contractors and subcontractors often impacts their performance.
Conducted in partnership with Construction Manager magazine, the Autodesk report is based on an August 2019 online survey of 251 UK construction professionals, and follows a similar survey undertaken by PlanGrid (prior to its November 2018 US$875m acquisition by Autodesk) in May 2018 (read: Plangrid report highlights industry inertia).
According to Digital Groundwork: Closing the Productivity Gap, half of businesses say that dealing with mistakes remains the most unnecessary resource drain on the business. As in 2018, issues with information-sharing onsite are causing delays and wider operational challenges. Survey responses revealed three in ten firms (28%) are being hindered by a lack of accurate and timely information, with half (55%) of professionals pointing to inefficient processes across the business. Misinformation leads to businesses spending time and money fixing mistakes; half of the firms surveyed day that rework is the single biggest time-waster in the organisation, with errors alone costing the UK industry an estimated £22bn a year (according to the UK’s Get it Right Initiative; see also May 2019 post: PlanGrid tech targets Brexit delays).
Construction firms are still struggling to collaborate effectively, without a source of shared and reliable information; 60% of businesses say that a lack of trust between contractors and subcontractors often impacts their performance. All of this comes at a time when using labour productively has never been more important, as professionals highlight that a lack of skills (40%) and talent shortages (39%) are major barriers to their organisation.
These challenges reflect the slow adoption of digital technology by UK firms. The majority of construction businesses continue to use paper drawings and documentation, as only 13% use digital technology for three quarters of their projects or more. A fifth (19%) say all of their projects are entirely paper-based – a figure that has barely improved since 2018 (22%).
PlanGrid says there has been progress in adopting some technologies, such as file-sharing tools like Dropbox to access drawings (74%; the two graphics below show the survey results for 2018 (top) and 2019 (bottom), albeit from two different samples). However, the tools don’t appear to be making it into the hands of people onsite.
A growing digital divide
Matt Keen, a construction industry strategist with Autodesk Construction Solutions, says:
“Twelve months ago, we saw that sharing key project information on paper was leading to delays, costly mistakes and even conflict at UK construction firms. Unfortunately, these issues continue to hamper productivity. Construction businesses are slow to adopt digital technology where the work is actually done, on live projects. At a time when talent is scarce it’s more important than ever to ensure time – and people – are used productively, not addressing issues or looking for project data.”
There are even signs of a growing digital divide between those construction firms who invest strategically in technology and those who buy technology on an ad hoc basis, if they do so at all. A quarter of businesses (26%) admit to having a complete absence of technology strategy, while most businesses (36%) simply buy tools on an impromptu basis. Meanwhile, only 50% of professionals say that improving digital skills will be a focus for the business over the next three years. Keen continues:
“For our customers, adopting technology across their business can improve productivity on every project – but it can also improve the long-term competitiveness of each UK construction firm. Businesses can deliver thorough, as-built digital handovers with ease, improve how they work with other stakeholders and even use data in their operations to improve profitability. The global construction industry is being transformed by technology. UK firms can reap the benefits, if they look beyond short-term challenges, address their productivity gaps and lay a digital groundwork for the future.”
Bricks, Mortar and Digital Transformation
Such surveys will confirm many industry insiders’ anecdotal views on technology adoption, and this latest PlanGrid report paints a somewhat gloomy view of the construction sector’s digital transformation.
Not all surveys do this though. In August 2019, for example, I received a copy of Rochdale, UK-based IT services provider Zen‘s survey, Bricks, Mortar and Digital Transformation (read blog post). It polled 100 IT decision makers across the UK construction sector (“a spectrum of construction professionals from engineers to house builders and architects to sub-contractors” – again one might query how representative such a survey sample might be). It found four in five (83%) of construction companies had either completed a digital transformation project or had one currently underway, but identified a stark difference between the approaches of SMEs and larger companies, with the latter well ahead on their digital journey (94% vs 72%). It said “almost one in 10 (8%) SMEs are at risk of being left behind”. Two fifths (44%) of construction companies claimed to have completed their digital transformation (how ever that is defined – see right) while 87% believed it will be completed in under five years – as Zen point out, this suggests a short-sighted approach to digitalisation rather than seeing it as a constantly evolving part of business strategy.
The Zen research also polled its sample’s larger businesses about the technologies currently being deployed and those likely to be adopted in the next five years. Cloud computing figures in both the 2019 and 2024 lists, while AI and IoT are already in 2019’s top three, with blockchain not far behind (really?!) – findings which may suggest a certain disconnect between the “IT decision-makers” in larger companies (often career IT people rather than construction professionals) and those working on project sites.
The Extranet Evolution perspective
As previously argued in relation to the NBS Annual BIM Reports and its Technology Report (see Construction Technology Report 2019: the designers’ view), such surveys often stimulate more questions than they answer.
Small and/or unrepresentative samples can wildly skew results in strange directions, and they can rarely be seen as a definitive picture of the current state of an industry comprising 100s of thousands of businesses engaged across a wide range of architecture, engineering, construction and operational activities. Technology adoption also varies within different construction markets (housebuilding is often seen as the least technologically advanced) and at different levels of the supply chain (the Zen report highlights differences between larger firms and SMEs, for example). Attitudes to technology will vary depending upon the company, age, experience and role of the survey respondent; understanding of key terms can vary widely; and it can be difficult to distinguish between answers reflecting current realities and those relating to future aspirations or a desire not to be seen as ‘laggards’.
Moreover, one also has to consider the motivations of the construction technology survey sponsors. They are not engaged in academic research demanding rigorous approaches to sampling, etc; they are usually mainly concerned with achieving enough responses to generate some headlines and maybe to persuade current or prospective customers to invest more in the applications and services they provide (onsite mobile apps, for instance). Successful adoption of digital technologies is not just about the hard/software – it is overwhelmingly influenced by cultural factors: people and process issues are more important (the PlanGrid research rightly highlights trust factors).
More measured approaches are needed to understand the industry’s digital maturity. At the September 2019 National Digital Twin Day at the Institution of Civil Engineers, for example, Mott MacDonald presented findings from its Smart Infrastructure Index toolset presented in a report entitled Common Challenges, Shared Response (read more about the findings and their implications in this October 2019 Infrastructure Intelligence article: A workforce fit for the future?). Mott MacDonald said 70% of respondents believed digital skills gaps were poorly understood. Wider use of such tools to ascertain the digital competency of an organisation’s people and of the industry at large is needed – take the survey here.