Digital Innovation Is Difficult for Field Operations
We believe the biggest obstacle to digital innovation and adoption in Construction and other hard-hat / safety conscious industries is field operations. Headquarters, more likely than not, is already largely digital. Financial management is about money and necessarily based on data and software applications. Estimating and bidding is largely about data as well with cost estimates derived from algorithms modeling real-world results. Communications is now digital using email, texting, social media, and mobile devices. And when project scope rises beyond a simple punch list, project management software and materials ERP is increasingly digital.
Field operations, in contrast, has no natural affinity with data. Field operation managers oversee real-world physical tasks. Moving physical substances around to build things is much different than moving electrons with a keyboard, mouse and software program. Skilled tradesmen, after all, are not hired because of their digital data abilities. Unlike desk jobs, field work is experiential, performed and evaluated using all our senses, especially sight, sound and touch, bodily coordination and kinesthetics, even smell. And there is no “work from home” for the building trades.
Over time, the difference between desk jobs and field jobs has resulted in a cultural divide which has become almost tribal. To a member of the building trades, if you manage data at a desk, you are not “really” a builder. At best, if you previously worked in the field, you may have some residual credibility. To a desk manager, the resistance of field workers to digital tools seems at times like willful ignorance. Out of frustration, there may be a temptation to talk down to the field, or simply insist on new rules without ongoing consultation and collaboration.
But if construction executives are going to solve their skilled labor shortage, now amplified by wage inflation and restricted immigration, they must improve productivity. And in today’s economy, keeping up with competitors means capturing and using jobsite digital data. Project owners are less and less willing to deal with piles of paper records when digital methods are readily available. Large general contractors have the same expectation of their subcontractors. Insurers and regulators also.
The digital data and cultural divides in the construction ecosystem will be eliminated: Sooner for the winners, later for the rest.
Learning from Big Contractors & Other Industries
Changing entrenched and habitual behaviors never occurs overnight. Innovation and process improvement is a journey requiring management persistence and resilience using a variety of tactics. Everyone involved – managers, workers, subcontractors, supporting business functions like accounting and HR – needs to be able to answer the question “what’s in it for me”.
Construction companies working on the largest, most complex projects have had some success adopting digital. In most cases, economies of scale matter more than cleverness. Bigger firms can afford more digital back office solutions within their overhead budgets, and can even hire consultants familiar with other industries. The bigger the project, the bigger the project overhead budget is, with more money available for innovation research and experimentation. The more employees, the more human resources are available to study digital products and workflow improvements.
Medium size and small firms without economies of scale struggle to adopt any digital at all outside of headquarters, much less potentially transformative technologies. Safety managers at SME firms, for example, are very familiar with these roadblocks. It’s very difficult getting members of multiple building trades to change old habits, even if required for compliance with regulations with financial consequences.
But even at the big contractors, field supervisors resist any change that varies from their prior successes and “gets in the way of building”. Supervisors may in fact support digital solutions, but insist on “their” solution, not one chosen by headquarters. A common result is unnecessary duplication, with multiple products with essentially the same function. It is not unusual to find digital-resistant construction companies buying many more digital products than they need. This increases complexity and complexity is the enemy of digital efficiencies.
Jobsite Management Innovation Topics
Luckily, other industries have crossed into digital already, and Construction can learn cost effective techniques from them, not just the few construction firms who can afford sizable investments in staff time and money. These techniques span management topics such as change management, digital infrastructure, leadership, cultural transformation, even budgeting and financial management.
In this blog series, we hope to make digital transformation easier to adopt for both small and modest size firms. Topics we’ll cover include:
- Create an innovation program plan
- Innovation roles
- Innovation education
- Innovation consultants
- Innovation teams
- Objectives and KPIs
- Incentives (“Carrots”)
- Disincentives (“Sticks”)
- Digital Tech that Drives Digital
The blog series will finish with a table of prioritized “bang for your buck” recommendations suitable for field operations managers at any size firm.