Many Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) organisations have begun to develop their own in-house digital tools. These tools may improve operational effectiveness by automating discrete tasks. Or, they may be more extensive tools to create a competitive advantage. Regardless of their purpose, we’ve witnessed two systemic issues preventing organisations from reaping the benefits – they are incomplete and unused.
Recently, the AEC Magazine claimed that “with the increasing digitisation of the AEC design process, more firms are either developing their own bespoke BIM software or paying for the creation of custom tools to refine their projects through computation.”1 As an organisation helping businesses do better things by developing new tools, we’ve certainly witnessed this. Organisations, both large and small, are turning to automated solutions to streamline their workflows. To support this claim, consider the recent Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) design technology report.
BIM and beyond
The AIA report titled ‘BIM and Beyond: Design technology in architecture‘ sought to examine the usage of design technology in Australian architecture practices. As co-author, Parametric Monkey was involved in synthesising survey responses and contextualising the results. Chapter 7 of the report explored practice strategy and future opportunities, including the extent of customised tools. 85% of respondents believed digital tools should be adopted to “fast track unwanted grunt work”, with 53% actively buying or developing design automation tools to satisfy this need.2 Somewhat concerningly is that 15% of respondents seem to believe grunt work should be done manually, presumably as some sort of rite of passage.
But the report failed to identify how effective the buying or development process was. In other words, did the investment bring value to the organisation? Through our consulting work, it is clear that organisations are not reaping the full value of their investment. Those attempting to develop their own in-house solutions often result in perpetually incomplete products. And those with working products find that they are unused.
Scenario 1: Incomplete
In the first scenario, the tool is in a perpetual state of incompleteness. Either the original developer doesn’t have time to complete the tool due to other commitments, namely project-based deadlines. Or, the original developer has moved jobs, and the tool has been left to die. In either case, the outcome highlights failings in the organisation’s innovation strategy. Rather than establishing a coalition to drive the project forward, it is left to the sole individual to develop, usually in their ‘spare’ time, as a side project. Ironically, most of the tools in development are aimed at reducing technical debt to make project teams more efficient, but which can’t be completed as they need to ‘help out the project team’.
Scenario 2: Unused
In the second scenario, the tool is finished and has been packaged and deployed across the organisation but remains unused. No one in the organisation knows how to use it or that it even exists. The technical term is known as ‘non-consumption’ and to understand the magnitude of the problem, consider this case in point.
When working with organisations to define their digital transformation roadmap, one of the questions we ask the leadership team is what existing tools have been developed? It’s a simple question, but one that can illuminate systemic issues. The question is usually delegated to the BIM Manager, and without fail, an extensive list comes back outlining all of the tools that have been created, as well as their level of development. On the surface, everything appears fine. But dig a bit deeper, and a less rosy picture emerges.
In one large organisation, two-thirds of managers and project leaders responded that they had no idea if there was a central repository of tools and where to find them. Contemplate that for a second. The majority of staff charged to write fee proposals, develop resource plans, and manage team deadlines, have no idea whatsoever of the tools at their disposal. And what’s of even greater concern is that many within leadership don’t see it as their responsibility to even know about design technology.
Innovation is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.Thomas Edison, 1901
Both scenarios highlight the ongoing challenge organisations face in maintaining momentum with digital transformation. In the first scenario, momentum is stalled as it rests on a single individual – continually starting and stopping around project-based deadlines. In the second scenario, momentum grinds to a halt once the tool is developed due to the ‘build it and they will come’ mentality.
Ask a professional athlete what the key to their success is, and often they will respond with hard work and consistency. Hard work is a prerequisite, but much like compound interest, it is the discipline of consistency that reaps the greatest rewards. In sports, this concept is known as marginal gains and continuous improvements. While AEC organisations certainly have the hard work part, many lack the consistency. But to succeed and overcome what Steve Blank terms ‘innovation theatre’,3 organisations must put aside project deadlines and staff fluctuations and maintain consistency over time.
In Jim Collins‘ seminal book ‘Good to great’, his research highlights how ‘good to great comes about a cumulative process – step by step, action by action, decision by decision…’.4 He terms this the flywheel concept, where each turn builds upon work done earlier, compounding your investment of effort. Put another way, it is about consistency. And it is only through consistency over time, through multiple generations, that you get maximum results.
In contrast to the flywheel is what Collins calls the doom loop. He describes how the comparison companies would ‘push the flywheel in one direction, then stop, change course, and throw it in a new direction – and then they would stop, change course, and throw it into yet another direction. After years of lurching back and forth, the comparison companies failed to build sustained momentum and fell into what we came to call the doom loop.’6
Technology is just the beginning
If our industry is to become more digitalised, we need to get better in not only buying and developing design automation tools but how we use them. It doesn’t matter how advanced or powerful a tool is; if no one knows it exists, it may as well not exist at all. There are certainly tools on the market that can help track software utilisation. But what they can’t do, is champion the technology. This job needs to be tasked to at least one person, preferably more. And most importantly, it needs to occur frequently.
When I ask organisations how they disseminate knowledge about the tools they’ve purchased or developed, many say they posted on the intranet or did an organisation-wide email. OK, great, but what else? But all too often, that’s it. It’s no wonder staff have no idea that the tool even exists. In a world where staff don’t work in a single company all their life and have limited knowledge of the organisation’s history, where many are working from home and may have never met the BIM manager, and where staff are so overwhelmed by project deadlines that all other email correspondence is simply ignored, a single intranet post or email simply doesn’t pass muster. We must do better.
Research into how we learn shows that only a fraction of what we hear or read is absorbed. Put simply, if you want someone to absorb content fully, you need to over-communicate. Marketers have known about the power of repetition for years. One only has to look at Katy Perry’s Menulog ad during the recent State of Origin series, in which the ad appeared in – every – single – ad – break. Repetition can build familiarity, but as with Menulog, it can also lead to fatigue, where consumers become so tired of an ad that they tune out or actively avoid the product. Luckily for AEC organisations, I think we are some way off message saturation.
Many AEC organisations have embraced the need to buy or develop design automation tools as a need to keep up with their competitors. However, organisations must become more consistent to reap the benefit of these tools. Consistent in building a cumulative process – step by step, action by action, decision by decision. And consistent is sharing, educating and training colleagues in its use. Much like compound interest, it is only through consistency over time, through multiple generations, that organisations will see maximum results.
1 Day, M. (1 Feb 2021). Bespoke BIM software workflows. In AEC Magazine.
2 Australia Institute of Architects (2021) ‘BIM and Beyond: Design technology in architecture‘, p.26.
3 Blank, S. (7 Oct 2019). Why companies do “Innovation Theater” instead of actual innovation. In Harvard Business Review.
4 Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap…and others don’t. Random House, London, p.165.
5 Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap…and others don’t. Random House, London, p.175.
6 Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap…and others don’t. Random House, London, p.178.
7 Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap…and others don’t. Random House, London, p.179.