One of the most difficult tasks I am faced with as a consultant is in setting expectations. With respect to technology, our modern culture has adopted exceedingly high ones. ‘It should just work’ is a familiar mantra that is often echoed throughout many of my discussions with project leaders, managers, and executives. Less discussed within the familiar narratives of ‘innovation’ is the inherent messiness that is necessary to realize breakthroughs and create change within industries.
Autodesk’s recent industry event in Las Vegas, Autodesk University, opened with several inspiring keynotes that painted a provocative future for the building industry enabled by the latest technology. Data will drive a designer’s actions to help find the objectively ‘best’ solutions. The internet of things will continue to blend digital and physical worlds.
As a technologist, I do not dispute the potential of these concepts. However, for any one of them to take hold, we must also recognize that our industry faces many foundational challenges that technology alone cannot address. In 2013, Paul Teicholz published a study that looked at labor and productivity in the US construction industry. The study concluded that the construction industry has seen a steady decline of -0.32% in productivity over the past 48 years even with advances in technology including CAD and BIM. More damning are what the author cites as ‘structural problems’ that ‘stand in the way of improved labor productivity at the total industry level and that these show no indication of improving over this time period.’
Among the problems cited include difficulties in ‘optimizing knowledge’ to take advantage of lessons learned, a competitive procurement structure, and poor data management among fragmented teams. While Teicholz does concede that it may be too early to see what impact, if any, newer technologies like BIM are having on the industry, the results feel in line with my recent professional experience. More often than not, technology is adopted as a means to incrementally attempt to improve upon an existing processes. Yet, the shortcomings inherent in those processes are never addressed and will continue to persist even after the introduction of a new technology layer. In short, we must question our approach: Are we just getting faster at doing the the same things that are holding us back?
…We must question our approach: Are we just getting faster at doing the same things that are holding us back?
A Harvard Business Review article on “Reengineering Work” from 1990 by Michael Hammer declared that we shouldn’t focus merely on automating. We should focus on obliterating. “We cannot achieve breakthroughs in performance by cutting fat or automating existing processes.” states Hammer, “Rather, we must challenge old assumptions and shed the old rules that made the business underperform in the first place.”
It would be a incorrect to read this as an indictment of new technology as part of a solution. Instead Hammer argues that the potential of modern technology is in how it can be positioned to radically transform business structures. “It is time to stop paving the cow paths.” Hammer concludes.
Beyond inventing another technical workflow connecting different software, can we also rethink the latent integration problems that exist between fragmented building teams? As we invest in new knowledge frameworks and ERP systems, can we also transform our project management approach to be agile and iterative? Is our next purchase of a new LiDAR scanner, Oculus, or 3D printer going to be coupled with a re-imagined supply chain between design, fabrication, and manufacturing?
As we enter into 2016, I am excited to see what steps we, as an industry, are going to take to address the big problems we face in the mainstream of our industry. And I hope Proving Ground can play a part in it.
Happy holidays and may the Force be with you!
What do you think will change in our industry in 2016? Send some thoughts our way on on Twitter @ProvingGroundIO