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Digital Transformation – What Does It Mean?

The term digital transformation is widely used by the construction industry, yet what does it actually encompass? Michael Barber, director of information management service provider Amodal cuts right to the heart of digital transformation’s meaning.

Ask anyone in the construction industry to explain what digital transformation means to them and each answer will vary. Digital transformation is a multifarious term that takes on different contexts and definitions to different business cultures, and is dependent on a company’s digital maturity. Some companies are at a lower base than others, where digital transformation means they just want to find information quickly. For others at a more mature stage, they may see digital transformation as adopting the latest technologies to improve processes. On the whole, digital transformation totally depends on individual aspirations, resource and situations.

In each of these examples however, there is the single desire to utilise or improve upon processes through the deployment of digital solutions. Yet in reaching this utopia, it is important to remember that it is a marathon and not a sprint. It is very easy, and tempting, to get swept up in seeing technological adoption as the endgame, when in reality, digital transformation is as much if not more about the journey. Yes, there are some truly exciting technologies at our disposal, but in order to digitally transform a business, it is imperative to start with the basics. A house cannot be built without solid foundations.

The core element of any digital transformation is having a consistent approach to information management. Technology will evolve rapidly in the next 10 years, which is why it is fundamental to identify a consistent, standardised approach to information management. Begin with this principle and the technology can be adapted around it.

In terms of finding an approach that works for a business, the first step is to pinpoint your base and what you want to achieve. There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to digital transformation. However, certain principles remain the same. Many companies, for instance, decide to go on a digital transformation to deliver consistency, improve process and mitigate risk.

Either way, digging into and identifying a list of aspirations is important groundwork on the digital transformation journey. Creating a clear picture of defined timelines and achievable goals minimises the likelihood of being left in the dark and enables businesses to see the wood through the trees. Lots of companies may say they want to digitise their portfolio, but have they actually taken the time to understand what it means to them?

In a way, it is about slowing down in order to speed up – account for your requirements and the rest will unfold. Take time to identify your information needs; set defined naming conventions and utilise industry standards such as ISO 19650. This standardisation and consistency will be the enablers for digital transformation.

Consistency is key

Many companies are aiming to get to a point where they have a consistent approach to information management. This craving for standardisation comes at little surprise given the industry’s ingrained behaviour to work in silos. Architects know all too well that each project works differently sometimes even within the same client. This occurs because for many clients each project is managed in isolation and driven by project teams, rather than them.

It is this pursuit of commonality and consistency which is driving clients to undergo a digital transformation. Their utopia will be realised through having defined naming conventions and processes across all of the projects, with information sitting in a common data environment (CDE). This standardisation is a far cry from working in silos and gives clients a firmer grip on their projects. Subsequently, it ensures they can ask the right questions to attain a holistic view of their portfolio.

In order to reach this destination however, it is important to tread carefully. Rolling out change on a large scale tends to be met with scepticism, mostly from those who will be using the technology and following the processes every day: people. Humans are creatures of habit and too much disruption can be really unsettling. This can be compounded by other things that keep us on edge including the industry’s tight margins and contractual obligations. It is, therefore, an ambitious feat to implement new processes. 

When laying the foundations, end-users and stakeholders must be brought onboard so they are not left behind. They need to know how the new processes and technology will benefit them, otherwise they will follow the path of least resistance. In this case, digital transformation will exist only in a vacuum. 

It’s all in the method

At Amodal we take a step-by-step approach, delivering tangible benefits in small increments. Whilst companies want to keep their long-term vision in mind, to get there, it is easier to break it down into bitesize portions. The level of change should be manageable.

Other more traditional approaches to digital transformation including the waterfall approach, are less reactive and agile. These tend to be large capital projects which often follow a fixed path. Project activities are divided into linear sequential phases, where each phase depends on the deliverables of the previous one and corresponds to a specialisation of tasks. On the other hand, an agile method is an incremental approach, where aspects can be tested and trialled in controlled manners. The agile method enables project teams to be more reactive to change, to see what is and isn’t working. Agile moves with the changing tides of a business, reflecting its needs as opposed to following a fixed path that may not be the best route anymore.

Delivering small changes that are trialled across lots of projects – with the aspiration to execute a consistent approach across all of them – is ultimately what makes digital transformation less disruptive and more agile. This view of digital transformation is one which recognises the journey as a programme of works broken down into multiple phases. Tangible, measurable outputs are defined along the way, and change incrementally to reflect the differing needs of a business.

The definition of digital transformation will be continually up for contention, particularly when the journey means different things to various businesses. What is important to remember however, is the importance of laying solid foundations before embarking – and selecting an agile methodology that enables you to switch course if something changes.