“Move!” One of Jimmy Fallon’s iconic “Saturday Night Live” parodies features a sardonic information technology (IT) professional who pushes aside a befuddled Jennifer Aniston, all because her computer is malfunctioning due to an errant screen saver.
My, how times have changed. There was once an era in which IT and systems professionals were relegated to the back corner (often a data closet), supporting the organization primarily when a printer driver went rogue or when someone happened to click on that email saying they were the beneficiary of the next Nigerian prince’s wealth.
It seemed as if the IT director’s primary role was keeping the server running, the backups backed up and the cell phones running.
Today, technology is no longer an ancillary function that simply supports operations.
Proliferation vs. Silos
It is easy to understand why technology is no longer a stand-alone solution. First, technology touches everything we do.
Consider the smart devices attached to everyone’s pockets — organizations had to quickly find a way to adapt their operational capabilities. For instance, a manager couldn’t be tethered to a desktop and still be effective. There had to be a hand-held solution.
Additionally, there were a plethora of alternate solutions that firms had to manage, which became a painstaking and exhausting option.
An isolated IT director managing a small piece of the stack would not be effective and probably couldn’t understand the myriad options. In addition to the massive expanse of new options and features in the technological universe, new threats arose. Cybersecurity has presented one of the most daunting menaces of the last decade, creating another front the world of construction must deploy assets to defend against.
Once again, maintaining a complacent or defensive posture will not only be ineffective but also inadequate at leveraging resources proactively across the firm. Consider the traditional model. A project manager and superintendent build a project. They use the usual cadre of tools to manage the digital side of the project and call upon the financial team to coordinate the billings and job cost reports.
IT sits on the sidelines in much the same fashion that a pit crew sits idle, waiting for the car to come in for service. Assuming the bills go out, the requests for information (RFI) get answered and the projects get built; the world moves on. So, what is wrong with this model?
Theoretically, nothing. Projects will continue to get built according to the traditional methodology for years to come. Software and hardware will evolve to version X.0, but it would hardly be considered groundbreaking or truly innovative.
Figure 1. The changing role of information technology in the workplace
Construction of tomorrow will not relegate IT to the sidelines. In fact, it will have a seat at the “big table” because it will be as integral to the project as project management and supervision.
For instance, consider the following:
- Equipment — Equipment of tomorrow will have autonomous features requiring both on-site “supervision” and model spooling, similar to that of a prefabrication shop in the mechanical contracting world. There will need to be someone to ensure the mechanical features of the equipment are in sync with the technical components of the specifications and drawings. Put another way, an IT director for the excavator.
- Project management — As 3D, 4D and 5D modeling have become more complicated, how will those models intersect and interact with the scheduling tools, design documents, contracts, pay applications, radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, and as-built drawings? Rather than rely on human error and interface, technology can be used to gather data with cameras and drones to ensure the models are uploaded. Now, managers can manage the projects rather than gathering data. But who ensures the models talk to one another?
- Interface — One of the upsides (or downsides, depending on where you land) of the pandemic was the rise of virtual meetings. Whether you love them or hate them, they probably aren’t going away. In fact, there is probably an evolution of virtual meeting that will allow for more virtual meetings to take place in the form of virtual inspections. In fact, this is already taking place in light of the shortage of inspectors in many geographies. Once again, technology is pushing to the forefront and those firms that have these capabilities will be able to capitalize.
- Internal training — Once again, sitting in an eight-hour virtual seminar is the equivalent of watching paint dry. However, there are ways to integrate live and virtual training together to leverage internal learning. More importantly, where are firms storing lessons learning to create robust repositories of knowledge? All the solutions come back to technology.
For some of the items above, there are solutions already in the marketplace. Off the shelf, software or hardware that requires little modification is desirable for every team member.
However, finding that panacea solution is akin to finding a unicorn in the middle of Manhattan.
If you ask the operations team or the finance team or the estimating team, they know what they need, but they just don’t have the time.
IT knows software or hardware and they were built for this, but they lack the knowledge. This is why the business of the future cannot be siloed.
For instance, as an organization gets larger, software options may multiply exponentially. Left ungoverned, there are plenty of great individual ideas but no one single strategic philosophy. In fact, there may even be exploitable areas of the business.
For example, one firm uses a strong estimating platform solution while another uses a spreadsheet embedded with macros developed over the last decade.
I know — ouch — I hit a nerve with the spreadsheet comment. This is not to be critical of “management by Excel,” but, rather, to take an introspective examination of how technology can finally have a strategic voice within the firm rather than just the corner data closet.