The construction industry might seem an unlikely place to learn about digital transformation, yet there are major changes taking place in the way construction operates, all enabled by advances in networking, cloud and mobile technologies.
135 year old Woollam Constructions, based in Queensland, Australia, has been transforming from a heavily paper-based organisation that relied on manual handling to a more digital and online business.
“People would save stuff locally, print on a local printer, and take a printed copy and fax or actually drive it to another office,” said Emile Cloete, Digital Lead – Construction at Woollam Constructions.
Woollam was able to streamline its operations considerably by moving to a centralised cloud system from construction management software provider Procore.
“Specifications, contracts, the various building disciplines like architecture and structural engineering drawings, etc., all those documents were now stored, and not only immediately available, they were also organised so that the most current information was always at hand,” Cloete said.
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Transforming People and Process
Changing the business required more than just adding technology. People needed to be supported to make changes to the way they worked.
“A lot of our site managers and project managers have a trade qualification background, with hands on experience, so they trust and know a particular way of doing something manually,” Cloete said. “The whole idea of computers and technology has historically been outside of their essential skill set.”
Staff who have never needed to use technology to be successful need support to change a lifetime of working in a particular way. While they may be reluctant to adopt technology that is outside of their comfort zone, they respond positively when coached and supported. That required Woollam to review its approach and adapt its methods based on feedback from the people affected.
“We took a look back at how we’d transitioned from paper to digital and we realised that the platform was still heavily underutilised, and we needed to provide more support,” said Cloete. “In the last 12 months, we’ve set up the Microsoft Office environment with video conferencing and Microsoft Teams that’s further alleviated the pressure on using paper. A lot of phone calls now happen via Teams and we’ve done away with our landlines.”
“Often it comes down to opening a window of possibility for somebody by sitting with them, and walking them through the process,” Cloete added.
Change has come incrementally and at different rates in different parts of the business, but taking a people-centric approach is bearing fruit for Woollam.
“We’ve got some projects that are really progressive and organically advancing some of these digital solutions without actually being asked to,” says Cloete.
Rise of the Mobile Cloud
In the construction industry, general contractors are at the forefront of technology adoption, but the industry overall is still only midway through its transition away from paper-based, manual systems to greater use of technology. Unlike many other industries where office-based work is more common, construction didn’t easily lend itself to the kind of digital transformation the tech industry likes to focus on.
“People didn’t want to take their laptop onto a worksite, but a tablet was easy. The iPad was huge,” said Kris Lengieza, Senior Director of Global Partnerships and Alliances at Procore. The ease-of-use afforded by gesture-based interfaces on tablets and smartphones combined with cheaper, faster wireless network access to cloud-based systems to create the right conditions for change.
“What really accelerated it even more was people started to use devices like iPhones and Android phones in their personal lives for other things,” said Lengieza. “They were like ‘Whoa, wait a minute! I got this thing that I use for everything else in my life, how come I’m not using this on the job site?’ That’s when I think people became more comfortable with the technology in general.”
The industry is now trying to move beyond simply digitising a paper-based process towards designing digital-native processes based on common standards. Online systems tend to be more standardised than the old paper processes, which helps to improve data quality, a vital pre-requisite for reporting and analysis. Without good data to work with, any attempts at reporting, let alone more advanced techniques like machine-learning, are doomed to fail.
“You can’t just take what you have and put it in the cloud,” said Lengieza. “That won’t provide the benefits you’re actually trying to achieve.”
Construction is well-positioned to learn from the early adopters who took a lift-and-shift approach to moving workloads to the cloud. By skipping early mistakes, they can leap directly to the end benefits without wasting time and money on the intervening stages.
An Ecosystem Approach
“We found a lot of variety in willingness to adopt the technology,” said Lengieza. “Some customers would need to build trust in the technology over time, and others would immediately see the value of changing things and make the leap all at once.”
This variety in customer needs has lead Procore towards an ecosystem approach to building out its software platform, rather than trying to be all things to all people.
“The platform today has an approach of really looking for opportunities to connect all of the different solutions that you use to run your business, not just what Procore does, but what all of the other construction technology does,” said Lengieza. “That’s out in the industry, because we realise that we can’t build absolutely every tool that the industry needs to operate.”
The agility provided by supporting an open ecosystem of partners that can build viable businesses, not merely technology, on top of Procore is proving popular with partners like SignOnSite.
“The Procore-SignOnSite relationship is complementary; both of us grow with one another,” said Mitch Harmer, CEO and co-founder of SignOnSite. “Both products deliver a lot of standalone value, but the combination of them together delivers a tremendous value for customers.”
“The pandemic has enforced on all of us a new world and a number of constraints, but through Procore and some of the integrations, particularly SignOnSite, we’ve been able to deploy a paperless Covid safe system that has allowed a lot of our sites to remain open during the broader lockdowns,” said Cloete. “That’s been really valuable for us.”
We can expect to see more of these collaborative, ecosystem approaches for true software platforms. Indeed, a key feature of a platform is that they can be built upon, not merely used. As even relative laggards like the construction industry start to adopt cloud in earnest, the growth of cloud businesses of all kinds can be expected to continue for the foreseeable future.