The human factor

Anna Thompson


Creating the right culture is crucial to successfully embed new technology

The right technology, introduced carefully, can transform construction programmes and asset management. But if not properly understood, technology can lead to frustration, distrust and the deterioration of relationships between stakeholders – the very things that it is supposed to dispel.

There has been much discussion globally about the advantages of one major disruptive technology - building information modelling (BIM) -  on construction projects. The use of BIM was written into the EU’s Public Procurement Directive for the first time in 2014. But when legal firm Pinsent Masons surveyed more than 70 construction professionals last year, two thirds believed that the government would miss its target, citing lack of collaboration as a key barrier to progress.

This widespread pessimism is indicative of the deeply entrenched problems within the psychology of our workforce: the people on the ground are not understanding the benefits that it can bring them.

Incentive for change

Cultural change is essential for paving the way for new technology. But mindsets will only shift if individuals and teams are given the right incentives. Traditional contracting, based on low tenders and segregated working, is a breeding ground for distrust.

Working to low margins, contractors can be reluctant to cooperate and find solutions. Adopting new technology is perceived to be risky. Relationships are adversarial by default. Try imposing new processes on this cultural quagmire and you may find them sinking under the resistance of organisations and individuals.

For example, BIM can save project teams thousands of man hours by creating just one integrated 3D model that is shared by all parties. This is an improvement on the old ways of working, where each party had to produce its own information and drawings, in isolation.

But contractors with a traditional mindset may resist adopting BIM because it makes life too easy for their suppliers. They would prefer that every party creates its own designs from scratch, and that tasks are duplicated, even at the risk of adding errors. Also, contractors can blame new tools for late handover of tasks, using it as a scapegoat for internal failures.

Shifting the focus

It would be easy to write this off as intractable human behaviour, but the adversarial mindset can be swept away by shifting the focus of the delivery strategy.

An integrated project team – where all players are working towards common goals, costs are transparent and profits shared out of a central pot – can have a transformative effect on organisations as well as individuals. In this harmonious environment, it becomes more important to use technology to collaborate than to blame. Former foes become allies. Knowledge and data are shared, and problems jointly solved.

Education and communication

If the roll-out of technology fails, this often leads to acrimony and pressure to resume old ways of working. But the reasons for failure can often be traced back to lack of understanding by senior directors. A director recently complained despite introducing BIM, the structural steel components did not fit together on one of his projects. On investigation it emerged that the project manager had assumed that the collaborative software would automatically do his job for him. He did not realise that human interpretation of the data was still essential.

Within organisations, reluctance to embrace new technology is often due to lack of employee engagement. Although education, communication and awareness-raising initiatives may seem obvious, these activities are inadequate or overlooked surprisingly often.

Ultimately, we need to communicate that technology does not just benefit corporations, it also helps people feel empowered to act, and to understand how they can add value to a project, bringing powerful psychological benefits.

Technology and data