Q&A With Matt Abeles: Where to Start With Digital Transformation

This is the third in a series of sit-down interviews with Matt Abeles, ABC’s Vice President of Construction Technology and Innovation. Discover where the industry stands on digital transformation.
By Rachel E. Pelovitz
October 8, 2020

This is the third in a series of sit-down interviews with Matt Abeles, ABC’s Vice President of Construction Technology and Innovation. Discover where the industry stands on a variety of technologically focused topics at the height of current events.

Construction Executive: What are the connotations of digital transformation for the construction space?
Matt Abeles: The important things to understand are who you are as a company and what problems you’re trying to solve. Technology is a very helpful tool if you’re deliberate about it. For example, if you are a small subcontractor and you’re trying to digitize your timing and timing out process, which will simplify things for the back office, that will go a long way.

One of the reasons that my job title is not “construction technology” and that it is “construction technology and innovation” is innovation is that part of innovation is that process of doing things better, not necessarily just creating a technology.

CE: If you were going to give contractors the first few steps for implementing digital transformation, what would those be?
MA: There are a lot of companies who have failed on their journey in technology and digital transformation just because they only have one person making the decisions. For example, if you want a technology that’s really expensive, but you don't have buy in from the contractors, they're going to try and find other routes to accomplish their goals, such as a free technology resource, instead. That has a domino effect because people on a jobsite then pick between the technologies depending on what works for them. Digital transformation is less about choosing the technology and that first step is more about understanding the problem; then, second, making sure that people are aware of the steps you intend to take within the culture of your organization.

Larger contractors, with chief innovation officers and chief technology officers are constantly looking at technologies that are going to help their business. What I'd recommend for the larger contractors is, if those positions don't exist, they should look into making those positions important, because it plays a huge role in impact on the business.

However, the biggest mistake that is being made in the industry right now is that midsize to large companies are promoting their IT leaders to management of construction technology. That is not the same thing as someone with project management expertise on the jobsite, who is familiar with both the technologies and the problems that contractors need to solve. Those are two very different roles.

CE: If a contractor is starting with no digital tech whatsoever or has heavily invested in a piece of tech that isn’t working out, how do they start the process toward finding technology that will work for their company?
MA: I think the second they understand that there is a problem, a contractor is going to want to make that digital transformation, find someone to lead that effort and form a group around the leader in order to support the effort. A contractor isn’t going to want to make changes without buy-in. For small to mid-sized contractors, it may not be possible to use a full-time employee, but it’s important to be passionate about the process.

Especially some of the younger age group who are familiar with intuitive technologies will assist with things like communication and digitizing multiple processes. A lot of the younger talent perceives that this is an old-school industry that their grandparents were involved in and the fact that it’s not needs to be communicated to them. That talent—while you’re not digitized yet—can see a bigger opportunity and will be excited about it. But the next generation? They grew up on smart devices. If they walk into an office with carbon paper and fax machines, you won’t recruit them.

Finding someone to champion digitization is so important because it will begin the changing of the culture.

CE: Would you recommend a soft launch for these technologies or full commitment from the get-go?
MA: Every company is different. Just don’t be in your silo because this is a problem we’re all trying to solve as an industry. Have a conversation with a company you want to use, other contractors (even though contractors are competitive) or fellow association members, particularly if you’re a member of Associated Builders and Contractors. Ask what they are doing and how it has helped them.

CE: Are there any specific items of digital technology that you think are critical to adopt?
MA: In terms of just intuitiveness costs and what’s important for contractors, especially for our ABC contractors, safety is a big thing that can easily be digitized. Safesite, for example, is a solution that is free to help digitize that process. That’s top of my list, especially because we're in an environment where you have a lot more offsite collaboration, so digitizing that process is important, and that is a way to do it for free.

In relation to COVID-19, one issue is solving the problem of offsite collaboration when you have less people on the jobsite. There is a reason that, while many tech companies are hurting a little bit with the change of the times, companies like StructionSite, which provides contractors with a virtual command center, are pursuing something new.

I think that communication is so important because it helps multiple stakeholders. So, the third company I would recommend is Zoom because it’s the easiest collaboration tool that is intuitive, low cost and used by most people.

CE: Do you think contractors are focused on digital transformation at the moment?
MA: Looking at the masses, there’s a lot of uncertainty in the future of construction. Nobody’s got a magic ball right now. There are a lot of unknowns regarding COVID-19 and, therefore, for the future of the industry. I think the silver lining is that many companies have—out of necessity—launched technologies like StructionSite and Zoom because of pure need and the new environment. I also think a lot of contractors are having to make tough decisions; they are planning for some down years, which influences investment decisions.

Construction might not get back to what it was prior to the pandemic, in which case contractors will have to adapt and, ultimately, do more with less. I think many are trying to prepare for an unknown economy and, to use a cliché, the “new normal.”

CE: Has digital transformation been embraced by the industry? Or are there roadblocks?
MA: I have talked to a lot of smaller contractors that earn $8 to $12 million in business per year. And some of them still have a hesitation around embracing technology and innovating the construction industry. The common attitude is “This is our business,” and “This is the way we do things.” The stigma still exists for technology.

But what is not being discussed is how much free technology is available to help with digital transformation. The tools exist to do a lot more with less. This is not just something for big contractors. Everyone should be looking at having some magnitude of digital transformation. The industry as a whole needs to be made aware that it’s important—and very attainable—to take the time to make the jobsite safer.

CE: Is part of the concern with adoption for small to mid-sized contractors a financial burden?
MA: The belief is that there is a huge financial and labor burden needed for these technologies when that’s not the case with all of them. There are a lot of solutions that are cheap, if not free, and intuitive for smaller businesses. They just need to do some homework to own and understand that. You can’t cut corners and type into Google—the internet is not going to spit out which project management tool is best for your company. You have to find out what’s best for you.

CE: To sum up, do you think that digital transformation is available to all contractors?
MA: Absolutely. The tides are changing and the stakes to be a successful contractor are higher. If you have a culture predicated on innovation, you’re going to have a much easier time bringing on younger, new talent.

by Rachel E. Pelovitz

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