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24 January 2024

Unlocking construction innovation: A human-centric strategy for technology adoption

By Ben Milner, Project Manager, and Bahadir V Barbarosoglu, Program Manager

It is a known issue that the construction industry is slow to adopt new practices and emerging technologies. The first 3D-modelling tools were launched in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the mid 1980s that they began to be used on projects; GPS technology was invented in 1973, but it wouldn’t be seen on site for more than 20 years. 

Yet there is continuous evolution in processes, ideas and tools that can aid in building better projects and helping them to run smoothly. This doesn’t necessarily mean a computer program or a gadget – it might be as simple as a folder structure, workflow, or even a set of prompts for addressing conflicts. 

As projects become larger and more complex, it’s ever more important that we take advantage of innovations of all kinds to improve efficiency, quality and safety. But we also need to recognize that implementing technology can be a double-edged sword, and identify the barriers in order to break through them.

Why Innovation Fails

Ask a project manager why construction is slow to implement new technologies and they will very often talk about cost. There’s the initial purchase or licensing costs, but also the cost and time that must be devoted to training, and the loss of efficiency as everyone gets used to the new process.

Another barrier to early adoption is that the price of a technology is generally highest when it is new to market, becoming more affordable over time. When the first flatscreen TV was launched in 1997, it cost $15,000. Today, you can pick up a model of the same size for $200. Construction is not a high-margin industry, so it follows that it would not be among the first to implement expensive innovations.

But perhaps the most significant stumbling blocks are to do with humans themselves. It is well understood that people do not adapt well to rapid change, and applying new skills takes more time, effort and energy than carrying out familiar tasks. There is a common misperception that all technological advances solve problems. But there are many instances when implementing new technology fails to address the underlying problem, or creates more confusion. Some solutions may support collaboration; others can leave team members isolated.

Construction is a very varied working environment, with many team members moving from one project to the next, to fresh set of challenges. This creates a constant need for creativity. This is not something people typically associate with construction, and yet it’s everywhere you look. Crane positioning, schedule adjustments, activity sequencing and safety protocols are just a few examples of the creative problem-solving that we see every day on site. Automation can introduce efficiencies, but it can also diminish opportunities for creative thinking, with negative impacts on projects and people.

So, if we want to successfully implement emerging technologies or practices, it’s essential that we address the human aspects, place people first and foremost, and ensure that we don’t create new problems.

The eight best practices for bringing people with you:

  1. Get team buy-in: Giving direction is always quicker than making decisions by committee – but it can be a missed opportunity to get other perspectives on avoiding pitfalls and mistakes. If your project team or business group has not bought into the spend or the approach to an advancement, more often than not it will not be embraced.
  2. Understand human nature: Many people feel that they lose control when things are different, or their task responsibilities are altered. When a new technology is introduced, there can be a perception that it will take more work to accomplish the same task. So, come prepared to training sessions expecting pushback or confusion. Spend time explaining what the technology is for and how to use it. Be patient with people as they are learning.
  3. Explain your reasoning: Even though it may be irritating at first, a new system or process is easier to accept when we understand the reasoning behind it. As an initiative is rolled out, it is important to reiterate why it is needed in the first place.
  4. Implement one thing at a time: Releasing ten new practices to your experienced team at once can be overwhelming – just as when first learning to swim, a person does not focus on their stroke, kick, breathing, hip placement, back arch, and head angle all at the same time. Focus on one thing, and when they are comfortable with that topic, move on to the next. Ideally each advancement would become second nature before learning or implementing another.
  5. Create a plan: Every project has a plan, which evolves as it progresses. Do the same when implementing a new advancement. Create a plan, keeping in mind both internal and external factors, such as project ramp-up, holiday breaks, milestones and the size of the team. For example, you might decide to share the new technology or process the week that everyone returns from a long holiday, when they are refreshed and ready to get back into a rhythm.
  6. Understand skills and levels: Skills and experience will vary among project team members, so tailor your implementation to each person’s level of understanding. If one person needs more time to understand how to execute a new practice, partner them with someone who has a firmer grasp. Allow the team to feed off each other’s knowledge and help one another.
  7. Incentivise: When people have a clear incentive to do something, they are more likely to do it. Make incentives achievable and base them on understood metrics. Examples might be free lunches, bonuses, extended breaks, or the chance to highlight their work. Be creative: there are many potential incentives, and talking with the project team is a good source of ideas.
  8. Request and retain feedback: It is not always enjoyable to hear negative feedback or constructive criticism, but it is an invaluable source of learning. As a new program or technology is being rolled out, ask others for input. How is the training? Do you feel this is a step in the right direction? What problems did this change solve? Is this new technology enjoyable? Each of these questions is a great starting point. The broader the feedback, the better – groups could be impacted in entirely different ways. Be open, record responses, draw inferences, and take action.

Solving complex problems in new ways is an ongoing process, and it takes time, patience and cooperation. Above all, take care of your team. As leaders in the project controls sector , we can be the catalyst for change – but they are the driving force for delivery.

This insight was crafted by Ben Milner and Bahadir V Barbarosoglu, who are members of our project delivery team in the Americas. If you'd like to learn more about our presence in this key region, with details of our offices and local leads, please click here.  

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