Ever noticed this peculiar dynamic going on at a construction site? Some construction technologies are mandated to use on a project, be it BIM, CAD, scheduling software — what have you — but the people on-site (project managers, construction managers, superintendents, etc.) do the absolute minimum to keep those systems current.
Which in practice means they are not up to date at all. The relevance of those digital tools plummets as soon as building gets underway. What good is a monthly schedule update if that schedule is obsolete within the time it takes to update it? How helpful is a BIM model if it does not reflect real-world conditions?
Don't get me wrong, site teams are not ignoring these systems just for the heck of it. It’s just that they have a job to do and that's actually building the building. The mandated software tools they have at their disposal do nothing to support them in that work. In my opinion, the only reason to do those minimal updates, is to create ballpark accurate reports to keep the main office off their backs.
Is it any wonder, then, that Microsoft Excel is still the most significant tool for site teams? And mobile phones and notebooks are still the core tools being used to drive on-site progress?
One of the key reasons that technology has not been able to move the needle on construction productivity, is that it's failed to impact the arena where most of the value is being created: the construction site.
I am not saying that most construction technology is useless to site teams. It can be especially useful in preconstruction. As soon as building gets underway, though, those tools fail to grapple with the apparent “chaos” on site.
What People Think is Needed vs. What is Really Needed
The bulk of investment in construction technology has been in tools that enable planning and modelling. But have they worked? Well, have a look at that graph again, and tell me if they've worked.
Your long-term vision for technology may be amazing, buut forcing field teams to use "perfect" tools in a non-perfect environment is always going to create a frustrating, unworkable gap. This is literally the case: tech is not meeting field people where they are today.
I suggest, instead, to take a staged approach. First develop tools that work well in a chaotic environment, so things can somewhat straighten out. Then implement the next tool that helps you inch a bit closer to your vision. In other words: Start from the here and now. Take a bite-sized problem. Apply, test, and iterate until solved. Then move on to the next thing that moves the needle.
Technologists and software developers — and I absolutely include myself in this — are dreamers. In their clean and orderly worlds, they believe that construction can be solved if only we apply more logic to it. That we could somehow create a singular solution that would make the chaos go away. Eventually, they may be right.
But I suspect the day that finally happens, we'll be living under a glass dome, taking in the magnificent vistas of the metropolis, quietly content as the sunlight reflects off the moonspire, while the quantumwhirr of the hyperzoom subflates the perception field of the realitron nearby.
In other words, some solutions may be promising but they are simply not made for the realities of today.
Patterns Like Currents
Yet there ARE patterns to be discovered under the manifest chaos on site, like currents in the ocean.Instead of asking: how do we get rid of these currents, we should be asking: how can we help site teams navigate them better?
Project managers and superintendents are already good at this, surfing toward delivery with their people, sensing subtle shifts in the waters, and acting creatively to deal with every rogue wave rolling their way. It’s a skill that’s only learned by actually managing construction.
They need technology to empower them, tools that enable them to become great at crossing the eddies and drifts that are pulling and prodding at the project. Because they ARE the people driving progress. They ARE the ones creating most of the value.
Don't hamstring them. Don’t require more input from them. Tech tools should give back more than they ask for. In fact, the output value should exceed the input 10X. The site team needs to be empowered to build, not bogged down with busy work.
My favorite quote from a PM at a site is: "With all the software we are expected to keep up to date, there are simply not enough interns in this world."
If construction technology is to be of value, it needs to provide the right value balance to the construction team. The next significant investment in construction tech must move the needle for site teams. Otherwise, I fail to see how we can turn around productivity trends in the industry.
We will have failed collectively, if in five years’ time, Microsoft Excel is still the industry's most used app in the field. I don't dislike concepts like BIM/Big Data/AI assistants/or whatever is thought to be the next silver bullet, but it’s high time to invest in technologies where the value is mostly created: in the field.
Harsh Singh is the chief technology and product officer of Disperse.io. He and his team seek to identify and unlock value optimization potential in construction through a software + service approach.