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Engineering and construction leaders need to think about how they will change processes, systems and operations in preparation for the industry’s inevitable digital transformation. Done right, it can be a game-changer. But companies must ensure that their change management plan addresses both technology and culture, or they will be doomed to fail. 

“For us, digital transformation is really that intersection of technology innovation and business innovation,” stated Mark Peacock, principal and global IT transformation practice leader with The Hackett Group, in a 2017 CIO article. “It’s how you’re taking digital technologies and, as a company, fundamentally changing the way you’re delivering products and services. It’s about applying technology innovation to come up with new business models, which really drive new revenue above the line and new ways to deliver products and services.”

This attitude also applies to today’s E&C industry, where innovative firms, such as BLOX, have figured out how to reinvent their business models by leveraging new technologies. However, one of the key challenges that company leaders often underestimate is culture. 

Digital readiness isn’t exactly being practiced by or embedded in all organizations. Culture change and education must be hardwired into a firm’s success plan.

The importance of culture in the context of innovation and change management was confirmed in FMI’s Innovation Series, in which three industry disruptors—Russ Becker of APi Group, Tom Scarangello of Thornton Tomasetti and Atul Khanzode of DPR Construction—offered key takeaways on the power of their internal organizational cultures.

Building a Culture of Innovation Takes time and Requires Many Real-time Course Adjustments

Consistently reinforcing the value of innovation, testing disruptive ideas and rewarding people for successful implementation are great ways to build a common mindset across the company.

Internal Collaboration Influences External Collaboration

Corporate cultures that are accustomed to collaboration in all areas of the business can lean on each other to build off each other’s ideas and solve problems. It’s not just an expectation for these companies; it’s a natural way of working to get things done. 

When this happens inside the company, partners on the outside notice and are willing to collaborate on different methods for project delivery or addressing challenges when they arise. 

Cultures That Encourage Trust and Collaboration Can More Readily Generate Innovative Ideas and Withstand Disruptive Changes

Demonstrating trustworthy behaviors from the bottom to the top is not only expected, but also rewarded within DPR.  

“Our work is really about bringing people together. When humans trust each other and feel connected, they are willing to take risks, be vulnerable with radical ideas and try new approaches,” Khanzode notes. 

Innovative Cultures Recognize Opportunities Where Others See Risk

“Cultures that focus on the big ideas and simultaneously see challenges as opportunities are the ones that are keeping up in this market,” Scarangello says. “We encourage all of our engineers to see a challenge and spend time finding the opportunity to innovate with each other on every project.” 

This doesn’t happen in the occasional pocket; it’s encouraged on all internal and external teams throughout Thornton Tomasetti. 

Set a Vision for Innovation and Clarify What It Means Within the Company

When everyone knows where he or she can win in the marketplace (related to innovation) and how it applies internally, the culture is likely to rally behind the vision and help support it throughout the ebbs and flows. 

How to Develop a Business-led, IT-enabled Strategy 

Every firm is different, so there is no right or wrong way to prepare for the melding of culture and digital transformation. There is also no best path to recruiting and retaining the most suitable workers, but companies that take a thoughtful approach to developing their culture and assessing their employment needs will be best equipped to thrive. 

With the right people in place—and a willingness to embrace technology and use it to augment the workforce—it becomes much easier to capitalize on future opportunities, persevere through cycles and overcome critical challenges.

“It’s not just an IT strategy,” Peacock says. “Some people equate digital transformation with analytics on steroids. If that’s all you’re thinking, you’re not going to get that fundamental business change. You need a business-led strategy that’s supported and enabled by IT. Being able to pull that together means you need to develop an overall strategy from an enterprise level that can then be cascaded down.” 

Put simply, it takes a clear vision of the bigger picture to get all stakeholders working from the same playbook. As part of that process, it is equally important to utilize open communication to develop and apply a well-thought-out technology strategy that achieves that vision. 

Following are some key steps for getting a technology strategy started.

  • Refer to the company’s existing technology strategy to ensure that the initiative aligns with it. If a strategy doesn’t exist yet, develop it. 
  • Develop a business use case for the technology (i.e., the business “need”), focusing on the details of the problem being addressed. 
  • Review the technology strategy to validate that it supports the firm’s overall business strategy. If it doesn’t, reconsider the business need before moving forward. 
  • Determine the magnitude of the problem and define the scale that the solution must be capable of handling. 
  • Evaluate the company’s culture and how employees will respond to technology as part of the solution. 
  • Assess the company’s and employees’ level of technology or innovation fatigue. For example, has the amount of change been overwhelming to the organization? Does the company have an appropriate change management process when introducing new technology tools into its business processes?

Technology isn’t going to stop transforming the world, and the E&C industry must be a part of that change. By embracing automation, robotics and other technologies that promise greater efficiency, better safety, higher productivity and significant cost savings, firms can ride the wave of technological innovation while also maintaining strong business visions and a focus on the future.

Finally, many experts believe that automation will make the industry more creative in the long run. “We’re going to allow machines to do what machines do with excellence, and humans can do what humans do best,” states Malcom Frank, author of “What to Do When Machines Do Everything.” 

A teacher, for example, could utilize a robot to review homework and identify students’ needs in an environment of differentiated learning. “The rote work has been removed,” he says, “freeing up humans to do higher-impact, more creative work.”

Of course, human judgment, logic and creativity aren’t going to disappear just because robots and drones can operate autonomously or with little supervision. These innovations may change the way people do things (e.g., drones taking inventory of construction materials that are in the warehouse or the yard), but the processes themselves will still require a human being. 

The only difference is that individuals will be freed up to be more creative and innovative, and to take the E&C industry to entirely new levels. 

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