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Digital’s role in the road to post-COVID recovery for AEC firms

Mail Manager 20 Aug, 2020

Organisations across the AEC industry have swiftly learned how important technology is to their processes over the last few months. Importantly, most have realised that digital is more than just the software they use to deliver big pieces of work, but a way of working and communicating.

To come out of the COVID-19 crisis stronger, businesses need to win more work, get more done in less time, and be prepared for such an event to occur again. Their digital strategy is vital to making this happen and delivering more work, more profitably.

To explore this issue further, our recent webinar with Gavin Crump, Founder & BIM Consultant at BIM Guru, Jose Oliveira, Founder of DiROots and a BIM and Digital Automation Specialist, Jeames Hanley, National Digital Technology Manager at Gray Puksand, and Suibhne Cullen, Director of Digital Delivery Australia & New Zealand at Mott MacDonald, tackled some of the burning topics right now. See the recap below.

Digital’s role in winning work

The webinar began with a discussion around how AEC firms can use digital to win more work. The key issue holding many businesses back is thinking about technology in terms of cost, rather than using digital as the enabler to deliver projects better, faster, on-time and on-budget. 

Therefore, client education will play an important part in businesses winning work. AEC firms don’t create 3D pictures because it’s cool or because they look great, they do it because it reduces cost and mitigates risk. So having knowledge of technology is useful, but it’s more important for clients to know how 'digital' enhances their processes to meet their desired outcomes.

That said, clients’ go-to-market and market maturity will play a big role in how businesses go about bidding and explaining their digital approach. That comes down to knowing the client, understanding what they’ve asked for and their desired outcomes, and how to respond to it. But businesses also shouldn’t be afraid to challenge a brief, especially given there can be a tendency to say “yes” to everything on the road to recovery.

Businesses need to define their digital culture and ensure it’s known by everyone from graduate architects through to digital strategists. Every employee has to be on the same page and understand what they’re delivering, why they’re doing it, and what the benefits are.

The bidding and onboarding process is also more important than ever. There can, therefore, be a tendency to remove or reduce BIM from the process to avoid any complexity. Instead, the key is to weave it through the narrative of how the project is successfully delivered, which will give clients confidence in digital.

Get more done in less time

The AEC industries are often accused of lacking productivity as many firms tend to try and tailor bespoke offerings to their clients. The webinar panellists discussed some common drains on time, including: 

Unclear briefs: Clients not knowing what they want, not fully understanding BIM and providing unclear briefs can make things complex. There needs to be more consistency in processes to ensure businesses become more proactive and collaborative.

Lack of education: Architectural firms commonly have to plug the gap left by universities not teaching graduate designers how to document processes. Businesses are already struggling to complete documentation, let alone having to learn how to use a new suite of software programs. So internal staff education is vital.

Information loss: The stages between design, communication and construction commonly see information lost or arrange lengthy meetings that end up achieving nothing. An interesting result of the COVID crisis is that businesses have realised they don’t need to hold meetings to get things done.

To counter this, the panel also discussed automation opportunities that can help AEC firms become more productive as we move towards the Industry 4.0 age. For example, the remote working situation has proven that employees don’t need people around them to be productive. They simply need a task and an allocated amount of time. The benefit of digital documents is that everything has its own unique identifier, is auditable and traceable, and nothing is ever lost.

Automation is also crucial to helping businesses carrying out quality checks of models or drawings, which all too often suffer due to human error, as well as find important project information. This, in turn, gives architects and engineers more time to do what they do best, being creative. However, automation is not simply about replacing the tasks or processes that people do but re-packaging and co-ordinating how information gets to people once it’s been generated.

The importance of a digital strategy

It’s often easy for firms to simply throw technology at problems, but the months since the COVID outbreak have proven the importance of change and information strategy. For example, many businesses rely on a ‘move fast and break things’ approach that often results in end-user fatigue. Instead, they need to implement coherent strategies and work directly with end-users to understand what changes they need to be made.

With the world becoming a more litigious place to live, it’s even more important than ever for businesses to educate users on basic data creation, management and usage. For instance, it may often be the case that the project architect knows exactly what’s being delivered but hasn’t clearly communicated it to the rest of the design team.

This is especially important as data levels increase exponentially and new structures and programs emerge to help organisations handle their data. It’s critical to provide frameworks for users so that they generate data with intent and work with other peoples’ data in a way that they can understand.

What if the crisis happened again?

The whole world has just received a crash course in remote working so businesses will undoubtedly be better prepared should a similar crisis occur in the future. Many have learned that the vast amounts of hardware that fills their offices - such as desktop towers and printers - are unnecessary. And they now know the tools that employees need to communicate, hold meetings, and collaborate effectively.

However, while a holistic approach and understanding the importance of IT and digital strategy are important, so is managing people. Businesses need to be agile enough to have a solid infrastructure in place while allowing people to work how they want, when they want.

To do that, they need to implement a digital strategy that reflects multi-modal ways of working. This will help them to get the best value out of remote teams, enable all employees to work seamlessly and have the hardware they need to work without interruptions.

Top post-COVID priorities 

The panellists signed off by providing four key issues for AEC firms to prioritise as they take the road to recovery post-COVID. 

Preparation and learning: Businesses now know they need to be prepared for the unknown, never stop learning and embrace new challenges. It’s also vital to focus on improving processes and workflows that could save time and money and to not be afraid to implement them.

Personal development and teamwork: Businesses’ recovery will be reliant on people taking an avid interest in personal development to become specialists in their field. However, it’s also important to collaborate with colleagues or teams that have specific expertise, such as coding skills, rather than trying to do everything themselves.

Strategy and planning: The current environment has shined the light on some businesses’ digital transformation, digital strategy and infrastructure issues. They need to realise that change matters and can help them to disrupt. However, they also need to take users on the journey at different paces to ensure they don’t leave anyone behind.

Innovation: Businesses need to discover new, more progressive ways to deliver a competitive edge. They must foster a culture that supports innovation and create robust team structures rather than relying on individuals.

For more information on how 'digital' can drive businesses to win more work and improve their processes in the post-COVID recovery watch the webinar in full here.

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