HOW DO SAVVY CONTRACTORS KEEP UP WHEN TECHNOLOGY EVOLVES FASTER THAN LIGHT? BY KEEPING IT SIMPLE, SAY THE FOLKS IN THE FIELD.
BY AMY DREW THOMPSON
Construction professionals will tell you that technology is the future, but what does that really mean?
To Alice Leung, an associate at Brick & Mortar Ventures, it means “adoptable, simple technology.”
Leung already had a field construction background when she arrived at the venture capital firm – and as Brick & Mortar invests solely in the construction space, she’s been able to help evaluate many of the companies and products that seek to solve the industry’s bigger issues, assessing BIM-related tools that encompass 3D models, information management and other technologies.
Simple is best, she says, because there’s a bit of a generation gap in this industry.
“In construction, the majority of the people with the expertise and greatest experience tend to be older,” she explains. “They didn’t grow up with computers and iPhones and things like that. And so, one of the bigger challenges is that the people who are building many of these technologies are from a different generation – and the way people use and understand technology differs across generations.”
And as the generational gap changes, says Brian Filkins, operational technology manager, The Beck Group, a member of multiple AGC chapters, so does the usage of technology. “It is a must-have now. The new talent that is fresh out of school grew up immersed in technology – if we’re not embracing that same technology, we cannot attract top talent.”
Years back, Constructor reported on the proliferation of tablets and other wireless, paperless practices on jobsites. Today it’s common practice, among so many similar technologies that followed, but back then – not everyone was thrilled. “But we’ve always done it this way” was a war cry of resistance.
The tablet’s simplicity, however (along with mandates from management, no doubt), eventually wore down the naysayers. Things haven’t changed much since then.
“And so if someone who is not super familiar with computers is able to pick it up easily,” Leung says, explaining why some tech makes the investment cut while other don’t, “that’s usually a pretty good sense of user interface and a possible indicator for a technology that is helping to improve processes rather than making them more complicated.”
And change is difficult, says Filkins. “Change solely for the sake of change is never a smart idea,” he says. However, for the Beck Group “using technology allows us to stream-line, and in some cases eliminate, processes, freeing up time to focus on other items.”
REPORTS ON REPORTING
When Kyle Slager and his partners were gearing up to focus on mobile technology for the construction industry, they polled more than 120 companies about their biggest pain points and compiled data that falls right in line with Leung’s assessment.
Daily reporting was their biggest issue, but how employees did it – and at this point, the majority were doing so with pen and paper – was the sticking point.
“Eighty percent of the people employed in the construction industry work in the field,” says Slager, the founder and CEO of Raken, an AGC of California and San Diego Chapter member, which created an app for construction industry reporting. “For the folks who were doing the reporting that way for 20-plus years, it might not seem an issue, but from the office perspective – they had no way of accessing that information.”
Emailing written pages? Inefficient. Outdated. And often hard to read on top of it.
“And in the event a job went into litigation?” Slager points out. “Companies had virtually no protection, because reports were often incomplete or even illegible.”
Solutions at that time were big and clumsy project management programs and even more streamlined versions hit a wall with workers in the field.
“I’d ask why people weren’t using them and the office personnel would just laugh. They’d say things like, ‘You must not understand. Our guys have gone through so many training sessions and we’ve just never been able to get them to adopt this technology.’”
The more he looked into it, the more he saw that the available tech wasn’t built for the field.
“They were accounting solutions made for the office with add-ons and checkboxes for people in the field, but it was insufficient. People in the field are mobile. They need mobile technology, so that’s what we set out to do.”
The generation gap Leung mentions figured into the mix.
“Some workers grew up with smartphones in their hands,” Slager notes. “They’d been using mobile apps for 10 years before they even got into the industry – whereas others who have been working in construction for 20 or 30 years never used a smartphone for anything work-related.”
Since Raken’s app was implemented, Slager has found that some of its biggest advocates are 35-year construction veterans who up until using it had been made to feel stupid for not understanding clumsy tech that made communicating harder, not easier.
TAKING THE FIRST STEP
“Start small,” says Filkins. “Do not try to tackle everything at once. Evaluate and dissect your current processes and needs to understand what is broken before fixing it. From there, prioritize objectives and execute the most critical items.”
Beck conducts process triages to map out most of the company’s standard workflows, then thoroughly analyzes those process maps to identify pain points and prioritize them.
“It is also important not to gravitate to the latest and greatest shiny object; instead implement technology through rigorous analysis — being proactive rather than reactive,” continues Filkins. “It is also vital to generate a culture that embraces change and innovation. One of our core values is innovation, and we culturally strive to move the needle forward and improve our processes – even small improvements can have a significant overall impact.”
THE FACEBOOK FACTOR
Leung highlights some of tech’s brightest bells and whistles, but notes that using tech to share ideas and information could be one of the best investments a company could make.
“I’ve seen teams do amazingly well in their bid interviews because they’re able to bring flashy technologies – they have 3D models and make videos – but when it comes down to it, their execution plan or their pricing, may be off. If, during the overall process, they’re able to communicate better and be more transparent in the bid process, they’d have greater success.”
The tech that construction companies should be investing in, says Slager, should have similar features to consumer apps.
“Historically, you had apps like Facebook or tools like text messaging – these were easy to figure out – but then the enterprise software for their jobs was incredibly complicated. Now the two are starting to move together; we’re seeing consumer-like user experiences within industry-based programs … and this is only going to increase the velocity of the role technology is playing.”
Many folks in construction are excited about the Internet of Things (IoT) – it’s in this space where things like tracking equipment are really starting to take off.
“Right now, the current needs are just tracking general equipment, location and use on a construction site,” Leung says, noting its prevalence in mining and large civil projects. “On these projects you have many types of equipment and the sites are often quite large … there are a lot of startups trying to get into this space.”
Like Leung, Slager has found that simplicity largely at the root of his customers’ satisfaction, and it comes in clients feeling good about themselves as the tech gets incorporated into their day-to-day.
“What we’ve found is that if a person can figure things out, if the technology is easy for them, they feel like a rock star – they’re doing it on their own.”
At the end of the day, he notes – regardless of the sort of technology construction professionals are choosing to adopt, they should be incentivized to empower their employees.
“By providing tools that save time, people are able to be more successful, happier in their jobs, which will tend to be more often on time and on budget.”