What Brexit can teach the construction industry about going digital: Q&A with Neil Thompson
It’s no secret that the construction industry has a lot to gain from digitisation. We’re talking better projects, happier employees and a lot more revenue. Previously we wrote about how digital transformation in the construction sector isn’t just about BIM. This time we’re chatting to Neil Thompson, someone who’s spearheading digitisation in the construction industry in the UK.
Neil is the CEO of dotBuiltEnvironment, a speaker at the Construction Industry Summit and one of the authors of the CIC’s Built Environment 2050 report. We spoke to him about driving digital transformation, how to get buy-in and making conferences less snooze-worthy.
Wisembly: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? What’s your background?
Neil: I’m part of the millennial generation, so most of my social life has evolved around using technology. I’m part of the first generation to be going into an established workplace with this mindset about how things should work. Even in my first job I was thinking: “Wow. The way that we build things is quite strange. Surely there must be an easier way of doing this.” Since then every job I’ve had has revolved around applying technology to those processes.
I’ve worked for family companies, to large design companies and both small and large contractors. I’ve been quite privileged to have had a high level of exposure to the industry from different parts of the supply chain. With that perspective and my academic background in construction economics and engineering, I have a unique view on how we can bring about change in the construction industry and do things in a far more efficient way.
W: Why is digitisation in the construction industry such a big challenge?
N: I used to have a different point of view before the EU referendum. Let me explain… Regardless of which way voters went, campaigners on both sides of the debate simply didn’t provide enough information to help them make a truly informed decision. It was difficult to convince people either way.
This is similar to digitisation because there are a lot of unknowns. Many people simply can’t grasp the need for change, or what that change might look like, because it hasn’t been communicated effectively to them. If we were unable to give a clear argument for why staying in the EU is beneficial, trying to convince people of something that’s not very tangible, like digitising the way we work, is almost impossible.
W: So how do you give those clear arguments to make people understand that digitisation is important?
N: That’s a good question. I guess my career has been about working out what the optimum way of doing that is. A lot of people that I’ve come across don’t seem like they’re open to digitising construction. You say to them, “Hey, we should do things in a different way” and their answer is, “Well, I’ve been doing it this way for 20 years why should I change it?”
But if you ask them, “What phone have you got?” nearly all of them have smartphones. If you reframe the question, and ask them how they share digital space in their personal life, they realise actually quite a lot of digitisation has already happened.
W: Do you have any practical tips to help drive digital transformation?
N: There are two approaches. The first, and I think the most important, is leadership. We need strong leadership in all of our disciplines in order to provide people with the inspiration to want to become digital. But leadership is a top-down approach and can only get you so far.
The second approach is providing a platform for grassroots implementation. So, splitting things up into small, achievable tasks. Practitioners on the ground can actually implement things. We also need to take a ‘train the trainers’ approach, so you don’t teach the first set of people just how to use it, you give them the skills so they can teach others. It’s a viral networking approach to getting technology out there.
W: Wisembly are partnering with the Construction Industry Council for their Construction Industry Summit this year. Attendees will use the collaborative platform to take part in live Q&A, polls, surveys and share their media before, during and after the event. Do you think this kind of technology makes for better conferences and collaboration?
N: Absolutely. It even helps drive that digital transformation I was talking about through both a leadership and grassroots implementation approach. We actually used similar software as part of the Construction Industry Council’s BIM2050 Group conference with KPMG, which had 120 leaders from the industry in attendance. We offered up some brief predictions of what we think will happen between now and 2050 and asked them to respond with their questions. We then voted to see if people agreed with our predictions or not, before choosing some topics to debate.
The outcome of doing this was a discussion that truly engaged attendees, because it was what they wanted to talk about and not just something that we as conference organisers prescribed. It created a great experience because it allowed them to think and share and discuss – almost like an interactive TED Talk, where the content is highly relevant and tailored to the audience. To me, a successful conference is one that engages people’s minds and leaves them thinking afterwards, and I think that’s exactly what we achieved.
Plenty of food for thought here from Neil Thompson. It is clear that in order to achieve buy-in, company officers must better communicate what digitisation involves and the value it brings to the business. The key is therefore to convince people that they are already digital, and create a step-by-step plan that is driven by strong leadership.
The CIC already encourages digitisation through the use of Wisembly to its members, so if you’d like to experience the benefits our platform can bring to your events, get in touch.