Barrow’s Law


I recently went on holiday with some friends that have 2 young children aged 7 and 10 – given I have recently had a young baby think of it as a ‘glimpse of the future’! That in itself whilst a thoroughly enjoyable event doesn’t really justify these column inches however bear with me. Spending time with the kids was truly a revelatory and enlightening experience. The reason you see is the peep into the psyche and thoughts of what are the next generation of workers. Allow me to elaborate. Whilst on this holiday in South Wales the weather proved to be a fairly typical for an English Summer resulting in a fair amount of time being spent indoors. Far from being disappointed the kids immediately plonked themselves down, fired up I-Pads, found the hotel wireless network (themselves) logged on (with Dads permission) and sought out an instance of the game Minecraft. For those of you not aware of Minecraft it is an environment that allows players to build constructions out of textured cubes in a 3D procedurally generated world. Put simply you exist in a virtualised world where you collaborate with and compete against a myriad of other players to solve problems, build complex structures and develop strategies for success. Role based games like Minecraft aren’t new but what surprised me was the speed and ease of adoption of this particular game by young players – 54 million by Feb 2014.

Think of them as our future workforce. With no guidance or instruction booklet my two young friends not only found and entered into a new virtual world away from the Welsh rain but actually started communicating with other children in the same predicament, in the same hotel. The social niceties and etiquette of the virtual world were observed and within a few moments the kids were collaborating and exchanging information to construct a joint project. Nobody gave them a training course. The tool of choice for the kids was an IPad – again this ships with no instruction manual. The speed of adoption, interaction and the forming of likeminded communities was astonishing. Now this was of course a simplistic game that the kids were enjoying but the rules for the exchange of information and the culture of collaboration are no different to the working world. When these kids enter into the adult workforce they will already be better equipped than we are to deal with the highly evolved, complex communication model our industry demands. These tech savvy youngsters are known as digital natives and they are already wired to think collaboratively. The challenge we as business face is to make sure that when these revolutionaries turn up we don’t force them to back into the dark ages. In an age where the hard work of educating an enlightened workforce about the benefits of technology that is not only understood, embraced and used in the home is being done for us by Apple, Google, Facebook etc. are we guilty of forcing them to check those skills in when they get to the office front door!

When I say that digital natives are wired for collaboration I mean exactly that. Physically! The brain develops in line with requirement and repetition or habit. In order for it to operate in a highly effective manner as it develops and evolves as we grow it ‘prunes’ itself in how it processes information. Many studies have been conducted about whether the emergence of these technologies are having a detrimental effect on our overall intelligence (one journalist posed the question “is Google making us stupid?”). But that’s to miss the point. If we focus on the outcome; the decision or action we take as a consequence of the information at our disposal we see the technology for what it is – simply a way for us to flex our collective wisdom or knowledge about a topic faster and more efficiently through the use of the best possible tools.

Easy to use technology and speed of adoption isn’t the full answer though. There is an old axiom in the telecommunications industry that the value of a telecommunications network is the square of the devices connected to it. The same is true of Content Management (Collaboration?) solutions. The premise of a centralised, collaboration platform to facilitate the exchange of information in complex construction projects is well understood and not new. That is to undersell and ignore the real promise and benefit of these kinds of technologies. I would suggest that the real value of a Content Management platform is the sum of the cube of all of the PEOPLE, APPLICATIONs & PROCESSES that are connected to the common data environment provided by solution. I like to think of this as Content in Context.

Think of the ‘many-to-many’ relationship of the kids playing Minecraft each with their own skills and ‘inventory of tools and objects’ that they can combine to solve problems rapidly. The ability to provide the right information to the right people at the right time is a given but what is critical is being able to deliver that information in the context of the individuals role. The capture and re-use of the shared information should be a natural consequence of doing your day job with effective, familiar tools that allow for the enrichment of the processes and actions you take on a daily basis. If you like you could think of this as a sort of Construction Information Management model where all parties involved in the eco-system of a project have access to the information and data that they need but have the choice of how and why they use and benefit from it. The collective wisdom of our highly skilled engineers can be implicitly captured to make better decisions for the future and to pass the baton to the next generation.

How is this achieved? Well as a starting point it is imperative to offer seductive and easy to use options for the capture and sharing of documents and information. Drop box like capability is now a familiar & understood tool for the quick dissemination of information in everyday use but it’s not without its problems. In the business world the control of information and intellectual property in a structured way to eliminate corporate risk and exposure to error or worse litigation is paramount. Efficiency gains and cost savings derived from the re-use of key learning by inherently understanding the project information is where gold can be mined.

If you like the ‘lingua franca’ at the core of our industry are projects; this is where profit is made and lost, businesses prosper or fail. Construction project are complex and costly there are lots of moving parts – materials, labour and plant all need to be in the right place doing the right thing at the right time & mistakes can be costly.

With industry margins averaging 1.3% across the top 100 UK construction companies in 2013* every effort needs to be made to optimise project performance. Effective project collaboration ensures optimal co-ordination across the supply-chain ensuring the best possible project delivery.

Having a well-structured common data environment, which relies on users to always go and find the information they think is desired doesn’t really solve the problem. Human Error will always happen, people will forget to check if anything has changed, or will review the wrong information.

What’s the last thing you do at night and the first thing you do in the morning? Well if you are one of the 4.55 BILLION mobile phone users in the world today it might be sending that one last or very first email, checking your schedule or actioning a workflow task. 1.75 Billion of us are smartphone users with a further 500 Million of us using ‘tablet’ devices. The inherent capability of these devices such as GPS, accelerometers and web browser support offer the promise of the ‘global office’ where information is always available in an intelligent fashion connected to the context of being in the field. These devices at work and in the home are becoming indispensable productivity tools and lifestyle choices.

Now it’s not enough to have a mobile device you simply carry with you. Recent innovations in the areas of augmented reality and ‘wearable devices’ take that promise right in to the field where Health & Safety and ergonomics are critical. The likes of Siri and other voice activation tools combined with wearable technology such as Google Glass means hands free, effective field operation can really be delivered. Contractors on site can have content delivered and read to them based on location or triggered by other events such as plant arriving on site. The real value of these ‘emergent’ technologies however is the ability to deliver the information required, regardless of information type (document, schematics, BIM models etc) in the CONTEXT of the role of the person using it. Google glass without the magic of the data to support are just funky eyewear!

At the begging of the piece I suggested that true value of any collaboration environment is exponentially increased by the linkages to PEOPLE, APPLICATIONS and PROCESS. The context aware push of Content to the correct ‘device’ –  mobile, desktop, ‘wearable’ etc covers the People element. The second and third pieces of APPLICATIONS and PROCESS are intrinsically linked. If you strip down most businesses what you really have is a series of processes which deliver the end business outcome this is particularly true within construction. Most processes are often a series of decisions and actions, making the best decision delivers the best action. Making as many as possible optimal decisions and actions is how to optimise a process.

In order begin this optimisation most organisations automate these processes in key lead applications, such as commercial management tools, Facility Management, job scheduling ERP, CRM etc.. However this can often just increase the speed in which poor decisions are made. By adding context in the form on Content you enrich these processes and end up with a Knowledge/Information where individuals and organisations make the right decision more often, minimise repetition and avoid costly mistakes.

A real life example of this in the context of project collaboration could be variation tracking, where the variation is captured in the collaboration tool and the invoice generated by the commercial management or finance system. By automatically triggering a process with the creation of a variation form which flows all the way through to the invoicing, the client is much more likely to make the decision to pay sooner, if all of the support information is packaged together with the invoice.

In addition adding content to applications in the context of a structured process helps deliver improved decision making, it is also important to recognise not all activities within an organisation follow such a formal process driven by an application. By linking a common data environment to the core business applications via a common structure it is possible to create one information and knowledge repository, exploited by the myriad of applications that could benefit from that information and flow processes across the entire construction project value chain.

Information is now persistent and all pervasive. A photo you take on your iphone is instantaneously available to show on your Apple TV 400 miles away through the use of ICloud. For many the ‘cloud’ is considered the answer to everything – for others its regarded with deep suspicion and a lack of confidence evidenced by Apples recent embarrassments. There is no escaping the agility and power that it provides but is it the only (and always the best) answer? Much like buying a suit there is no such thing as one size fits all, more like one size fits none. Each case (or person) is different and the ability to ‘cut your suit according to your cloth is paramount. Environmental performance concerns, Data Sovereignty, confidentialty or just plain old prudent management may dictate that the ideal strategy is may be to blend different models together. This is why we don’t think all the answers are always in the Cloud but sometimes rather a Hybrid combination. This provides the ultimate flexibility; Cloud to deliver the quick project team sites and extranet, combined with on premise to manage pre-project information and work with those other core applications driving the processes which run the business. The key word here is agility. Look for a solution putting you in the driving seat to make business decisions based on policy, efficiency and your organisations business model rather than imposing one dictated by an IT straitjacket.

Author: Nick Barrow

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