A digital-first approach: transforming performance in major programmes
The increasing complexity of major programmes across real estate and infrastructure is being intensified by ongoing cost, labour and supply-chain challenges. Chief Digital Officer Nathan Marsh explains how adopting a digital-first approach across programme strategy, set up and delivery will be critical to driving best outcomes.
Major programmes around the world continue to contend with what can be seen as a perfect storm of sustained inflationary pressures, from post-COVID disruption through to the dislocation of global supply chains associated with the conflict in Ukraine. While the rate of cost escalation is forecast to ease through 2023, prices of materials, services, components and energy are expected to remain significantly higher than pre-pandemic. Exacerbating these rising costs is an ongoing skills shortage.
At the same time major programmes in real estate and infrastructure markets have never been more complex, with increased scale, duration, economic and environmental impacts, as well as the intricacies of a global supply chain that will evolve over the project’s life. These programmes will continue to need, and generate, larger volumes of data across integrated systems and operating in increasingly diverse supply chains.
Managing this growing complexity and challenges which major programmes face requires increasingly sophisticated digital skills, integrated systems, and smarter use of well-secured and controlled data.
For programme delivery teams, contractors, investors and partners, these principles are now business critical.
A digital-first approach is about changing the way we design and deliver our work. Embedding digital practices will not only improve programme performance and drive productivity, but also ensure the asset or scheme makes a positive difference throughout the project and after completion, delivering real economic, environmental and social value.
To do that, it is fundamental to embed a digital-first approach in the earliest stages of the programme, from strategy, through set-up and finally throughout delivery.
1. Digital-first strategy – building an accurate baseline for digital and data across the programme and supply chain
Defining the desired strategic outcomes must always be the starting point.
The most effective programmes focus these outcomes not just on commercial success – of cost and timescales – but also on the social, economic and environmental value created throughout delivery and after completion.
An honest appraisal of digital maturity and capability will then help to define a robust baseline from which you can build digital across the programme to accelerate delivery when you are ready. Digital then needs to be embedded into the value case, vision and programme leadership.
A clear, programme-wide data and systems strategy is essential to help programme teams understand how systems, interfaces, integrations, data flows and resilience can dovetail to support delivery and drive transformation.
2. Getting set-up for success – ensuring the systems, tools, integrations and ways of working are defined and understood before delivery
Building on the solid foundations put in place in the strategy will ensure the programme is set up for success, focusing on the digital architecture needed to ensure teams and partners.
Assessing readiness is crucial here, defining the capabilities, skills and systems the programme needs across its lifecycle and supply chain.
These start to inform the digital operating model and how teams, systems, data and processes come together as the programme’s delivery engine. Establishing the digital ecosystem of partners, suppliers, service providers and stakeholders brings a further layer of integration across a complex set of elements.
Bringing all this together into a data and information framework ensures potential issues can be flagged in advance and that relevant data can enable fast, accurate and high-quality decision making.
3. Accelerating delivery – providing the data and systems for fast, accurate decision making
Programme teams will now be well prepared to initiate the main delivery phases. This starts with robust digital project and programme management, whether taking a waterfall, agile or blended approach, and powered by a digital project management office (PMO).
Delivery must increasingly be driven by accurate data analytics and intelligent automation to help accelerate pace, improve accuracy, spot errors and maintain a 24/7 capability every day of the year. These should interface with the supply chain to enable machine-to-machine interactions.
The assets themselves will be building and using their information-management strategy to create a data-rich picture of their design, construction and use.
This type of smart asset, such as one with a digital twin, helps teams design for handover and use, and adds commercial value to the asset and the dataset.
The backstop to all of this is the programme robustness and resilience that has been designed in, set up well and managed effectively – keeping the programme’s systems, data and machines operating productively, safely and securely.
Leveraging digital platforms
Programme platforms like Digital Controls industrialise designing, deploying and embedding a robust controls framework across a programme’s systems, data and decisions. When working with complex outcomes and long timescales, rigorous governance, controls and reporting are integral to success. Project risks of all types – from supply chain to cost management – should be carefully integrated.
A controlled digital environment will also bring stability to risk management, allowing project teams to understand the interdependencies between different risks and to make not just fast decisions, but the right ones.
Capabilities such as our own cloud-based platform - the HIVE - enable programme teams to capture, organise and model critical cost, supply chain and performance data. It can also provide the portal for a suite of Power Apps that teams can use to accelerate delivery and maintain a high level of accuracy and programme performance.
Getting digital first right does not just improve project outcomes and efficiency. There is also an increasing appreciation from investors and clients that a digitalised asset, such as a smart building or one with a digital twin and well-packaged data sets, offers greater value than its analogue equivalent.
Investors and asset owners are now expecting the construction and operational phases to be digital first and to produce an asset with an accurate data set and models.
Though the built environment sector has come a long way in adopting digital tools and data – from PMOs to building information modelling – there is still ground to make up to embed a truly digital-first approach that runs throughout a project’s lifecycle from the earliest design stages to post completion.
Across the construction sector, clients need to focus on driving digitalisation, not only to improve productivity and commercial outputs, but also to deliver tangible societal change, making crucial headway on environmental targets and supporting sustained economic growth and resilience.