Seeing the wood for the trees: how data can really make the difference
Data, analytics and digital technology are often heralded as the silver bullet to improving productivity in construction. They have the potential to drive immense benefits, but are only part of the picture. So where should we start?
The construction sector has been slow to embrace new technology and digital tools compared with other industries. While manufacturing and more recently tech businesses have adopted the recording, measuring and analysing of productivity as standard, the construction sector – across real estate, infrastructure and natural resources – has too often failed to keep pace.
There’s no doubt that the industry has woken up to the need to modernise. Faced by shortages of resources and skills to deliver projects through traditional means, as well as pressure from asset owners to demonstrate enhanced value, the sector is now facing up to the digital challenge – and finding that in many cases it has a mountain to climb.
Data is critical to improving productivity in construction. We are constantly reminded that accessing and harnessing big data is the future for our industry, but there is still uncertainty as to how.
The answer lies in a very traditional aspect of construction: building firm foundations. Before we start implementing big ideas, we need to make sure we have the basics in place across our sector which will help us drive efficiencies in the long term.
Tackling the basics
Put simply, the first step is to understand what we want to measure and how best to measure it. This means ensuring that an information and data strategy is established from the outset of a project. Such a strategy should set out how we want data to be standardised, supplied and recorded, so that information on one part of a project can be easily compared to another.
We need to specify the digital asset as well as the physical asset in advance. Achieving this will require us to break down some ingrained barriers to create better visibility and more transparency across the supply chain – fostering a collaborative approach where members of a project team share information freely.
The most evident way to achieve better information collection is for clients to place great emphasis on data at the contractual stage to ensure that a clear framework is in place.
The onus does not lie solely with contractors and consultants. The most evident way to achieve better information collection is for clients to place great emphasis on data at the contractual stage to ensure that a clear framework is in place. This should include agreed obligations to standardise and share information on the project. Often, the asset owner needs to take the lead to bring the supply chain with them on their data journey – articulating the benefits that such an approach will deliver for the whole project and encapsulating them in a collaborative contract.
A good example of such an approach is Network Rail’s redevelopment of London Bridge station, where contracts have been set up with a clear framework for sharing information to deliver a near-live reporting environment. Requiring the supply chain to feed in data to the project team in a timely and standardised way allows for almost real-time updates. This has enabled better management of labour and costs for all parties through, for example, reduced rework and earlier interventions.
Aggregating data to inform decision-making
On a project–by-project basis, an agreed approach to data collection and sharing can help to better manage resources, deliver greater certainty and maintain consistent performance. However, it is when we step beyond an individual project and look at the potential to shape decisions across major programmes or large infrastructure networks that the value of establishing these basics become clearest: when we move into the realm of big data.
In the UK, the Department for Transport (DfT) is in the process of adopting consistent data standards for measuring cost across the whole transport network. This is enabling it to better shape future delivery through more effective ‘whole life value’ planning.
Likewise, there can be significant benefits for global real estate portfolios. Delivering greater visibility and consistency of data means that asset owners can more accurately forecast demand, cost and value of investment. Through access to ‘fit-for-purpose’ data across a global set of data points, it is possible to create parametric cost models and indices and generate accurate early cost estimates.
This has driven our work to develop a Data Centre Cost Index – a global benchmark which can be used to shape investment decisions in this global industry. The index aggregates construction information on data centres in different regions around the world to capture the relative costs. If the construction costs of a facility in one region are known, the index can be used to estimate costs in another region. Better data can provide greater surety of outcomes in a sector that relies on agility and speed of delivery to meet the demands of its customers.
In natural resources, we are seeing effective use of data through our work with the Performance Forum. We have led the continual development of this group of oil and gas operators since 1994. The Performance Forum has established greater visibility of upstream project performance information across the oil and gas industry worldwide. By securely handling data from across the sector and anonymising it, we are able to gain greater visibility of cost, schedule and technical performance for projects across multiple regions, while at the same time preserving the security and interests of the businesses operating in the sector. These are just some ways that setting up good data practices can drive performance.
Establishing better data standards will help maximise the value of tools like BIM, which is yet to be fully integrated into our industry.
Developing new tools
Establishing better data standards will help maximise the value of tools like BIM, which is yet to be fully integrated into our industry. Helping BIM to support collaborative design and construction through the use of transparent data-sharing practices can help it achieve its full potential. ‘Better Information Management’ supports the creation of a digital ‘twin’ of a physical asset which can be used to model, predict and shape decisions not only during the construction phase, but also in planning, operation and asset management.
This relies on maintaining the data-sharing approach that was established at the start of the project and continuing it across the asset’s lifecycle – monitoring, recording and assessing data on operational performance. In this way, we gain a deeper understanding of a building or piece of infrastructure which enables us to manage costs, identify risks and drive productivity in day-to-day performance of the asset.
These and many other rewards are available to our industry if we can get a grip on data and use it to drive performance for assets, their owners and our own businesses. We need to adopt a ‘digital first’ mentality across everything we do.
To drive transformative change and realise the true value of data, the industry needs first to take a step back and make sure we’re getting the basics right.