Expectations of government owners managing the world’s infrastructure is at an all-time high. Beyond meeting cost and schedule objectives of the project, today’s educated owner has learned to ask for all the infrastructure big data about their government construction projects to help them better manage maintenance cost over the lifecycle of the asset. Data delivery has become so important to owners, it has now become a key procurement criteria for selecting an engineering or construction firm. Sometimes, infrastructure owners will even carve out a separate contract for data-intensive services such as project controls, BIM, and surveying just to get this data. For architectural, engineering and construction firms, this means that if you do not offer this capability, you will be missing out on what is often high-margin, professional services revenue that would otherwise go to another firm.
According to a report produced by the World Economic Forum, big data and analytics as well as virtual/augmented reality will become the primary user interface of engineering and construction technology applications. This trend is already manifesting in many technology applications including products offered by Autodesk, Trimble, and e-Builder. Leading technology vendors have already integrated business intelligence capabilities that allow users to graphically visualize complex data in easy-to-understand charts. In addition, forward-looking cloud-based construction software providers have integrated BIM technology with project management software so that users can put on virtual reality goggles (such as Oculus Rift VR) and issue a change order request with unheard of speed and precision.
But none of that is possible without professional service firms adjusting their skills sets, systems and service offering for infrastructure owners. Today’s engineering and construction firms are at an inflection point. A strong brand and reputation of delivering quality projects on-time and on budget are now table stakes – the price of admission. Leading firms differentiate themselves and win a disproportionate share of projects by articulating their value-added capabilities in delivering a virtual, digital asset. Firms such as STV, MBP, and Plante Moran Cresa are quietly winning large programs such as the LaGuardia Redevelopment Program, Bayonne Bridge and Hamilton County, OH program in part by leading with their digital capabilities that they will leave with the Owner.
How do they acquire this capability? First and foremost, they make a strategic decision that they want to differentiate with technology services. They attack it in a similar way they would with building world-class project management skills. They hire top talent that can inject technical expertise in an area such as BIM, project controls, business intelligence or others. Then they lay out a roadmap to fund this investment. Rather than burden a single project with the overhead of this investment, they take a longer view on the initiative and budget the cost as a growth investment. Then, they follow their roadmap to acquire both the talent and the technology to begin offering a digital service.
One of the fundamental differences that is now available today is cloud-based technology. Just 3-5 years ago, this kind of investment was extremely cost prohibitive due to the IT infrastructure needed to run the heavyweight software. Firms needed huge IT staff, database engineers and a large server room packed with expensive hardware just to get started. Now, today’s contemporary cloud-based applications eliminate the IT infrastructure cost so engineering and construction firms can focus on learning the applications and applying its value to their customer – shorting the ROI timeframe by more than 3X.
Note: The secret short-cut to organically building your own team is through acquisition. Many larger firms are turning to merger and acquisition as the fast-tracked way to acquire this capability.
The future is bright for both infrastructure owners and the professional services firms that serve them. Big Data applications and processes improve the way projects are managed during design and construction but also create a lasting digital asset that improves the way assets are managed over their lifecycle. Institutional clients hold on to their assets longer than private sector owners and an investment in big data not only increases the opportunity for engineers and contractors, it creates new employment opportunities for everyone. It’s time for the construction industry to embrace it’s calling for digitalization. Technology has revolutionized the manufacturing and financial services industries and they have never looked back. Now, it is our turn!