Construction Culture And Digital Innovation

by | Apr 4, 2023

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Conservative or Liberal?

Touching the Third Rail — Culture

I may be new to construction, but I immediately learned there’s a vast difference in how the industry views technology. In most industries, digital is expected, the new normal, and part of every company’s DNA. 

In construction, not so much. Our company launched in 2020 with a digital solution to the CDC’s health directives. My first job after college forty years ago was day labor construction. II felt we were doing good and would be appreciated. Instead, to this very day, we get abusive emails for supporting the “phony liberal pandemic”. What the heck happened over those forty years?

I found that nobody really wants to talk about the culture of the construction industry. Why? Probably because it hits a political nerve. Culture includes the kind of topics you don’t bring up at family gatherings.  Culture defines your identity and your ideas of what “people like me” are like. It’s very personal, and today, very political.

So we need to talk about the culture if the industry is doing to take advantage of today’s digital products and processes. So I ask: Why is construction’s culture so against digital innovation?

The Class Divide

There are good reasons to believe that there is a cultural divide between headquarters and the jobsite that stands in the way of digital adoption. HQ personnel are largely working at desks in front of a computer – they’re office workers and knowledge workers usually with college degrees. The trades and supervisors work at jobsites with tools, and their knowledge is experiential, not book learning.

I heard the words “the class divide”  from an architect who described her typical project team meetings. Owners, engineers, managers and designers all show up with their laptops, data and visualizations. But not the construction supervisors. They showed up with papers and maybe a notebook. All the data they needed was in their head.

Digital Technology is Not What I Do

Field construction is physically experiential. It requires use of all the senses. It requires spatial visualization. It relies a lot on memory for proper and safe use of tools, a mechanical sense of how machines and materials perform. It can, at times, require physical strength, balance, the kind of abilities we associate with athletics. 

In contrast, office work is almost entirely digital and intellectual labor. Reading comprehension and logic are the principal challenges. Office workers use software for almost everything using skills acquired in college.

I’m Valued Less Than The Office

A modern economy values knowledge work over physical labor. The reason is physics: Moving electrons with software is more efficient than building with molecules. Knowledge workers using software can perform more economically useful data processing work with less energy than physical laborers. And knowledge work skills are likely more transferable to other industries than construction skills.

The effects of inequality in our economy are very visible in construction. The owners of capital and high income groups have got richer, and the rest not so much. Knowledge work, which requires education and communication skills, is more female friendly than field work. Macho behavior in the office is less effective. And of course, women usually paid less.

A Male Conservative Culture Dominates the Field

The physicality of field construction work made it male dominated over millennia. Today, that remains true, even though modern tools and building techniques have largely eliminated the need for great strength. (For safety reasons, brute force is actively discouraged.)

Field construction is also much much riskier than office work. Construction is the third most dangerous industry according to OSHA, and that danger is entirely in the field.  Facing up to those risks is often a point of pride. There’s a reason the industry likes to show photos of laborers eating lunch on a naked beam high up above city streets. 

Construction before OSHA was certainly much more dangerous. But taking pride in risk leads to poor safety. The industry’s safety record has not significantly improved in decades. And high risk industries have a higher incidence of suicide. The experience of risk over time can take its toll. 

Beyond preferring men, the industry also has a poor history of welcoming the few women that work in the field. Field work has also been racially discriminatory, especially against Blacks. Hispanic workers perhaps less so, because of the demand for often lower cost labor. But hiring Hispanics has been no less male dominated.

Only a generational shortage of labor is causing managers to convincingly push to recruit, train and hire women and minorities. EEOC fines may have helped a little, but they haven’t changed the field’s macho culture.

Conservative Culture Resents Digital

The politicization of the pandemic health directives is a great example of how cultural factors work against digital innovation. The resentment of “elites”, scientists, intellectuals, the college educated, and knowledge workers of all kinds boiled over. Ignoring health directives was a way to prove strength and a willingness to endure risk, even as over a million citizens died,

Our product’s history shows it too: We built a great affordable solution to mitigate a terrible disease, prevent illness and death. Over time, we added many more features to improve efficiency and safety. Yet many of our customers feared their own field workers more than they wanted to improve their businesses. Rather than explain the benefits of digital solutions to the field, they returned to paper solutions as soon as the risk of fines disappeared.

Of course, understanding the resistance to digital innovation is a big concern of my software firm. But the entire industry must overcome a culture that impedes innovation. Otherwise, there’s no solving its historic skilled labor shortage, poor overall productivity and stagnant safety record.