Home Features Opinion Adapting to the digital age

Stephanie Cornwall looks at how technology is changing businesses in fit-out, and why the coronavirus impact has upped the pace of change.

Digital technology has proved its worth throughout industry over the past six months, as COVID-19 forced businesses to look at new ways to keep their operations running smoothly.

The fit-out sector has been no exception, with many taking steps to move more work practices off-site. But even before the outbreak of the pandemic, technological advancements were starting to be regarded as something that many in the sector couldn’t live without.

So how is digital technology changing the sector and are some of the changes we’ve seen during lockdown now here to stay? Brandon Oliveri-O’Connor, Director of UK and Ireland at construction project management software company Procore, believes it’s now a critical part of helping all businesses transform and that changes in operations enabling more offsite activity are here to stay.

“In any area of construction, such as fit-out, both contractors and subcontractors face perennial challenges around productivity, from identifying and mitigating safety risks to keeping a project to schedule or within budget,” he said. “A key element of this is trusting that all stakeholders, including customers, have access to the latest information, in one place and in a format that everyone can understand. This is why technology itself is so critical.”

Brandon said manual processes such as using pen, paper and spreadsheets, stifle productivity, and research by his company revealed that 80% of construction managers surveyed in the UK believe platform technology – connecting business applications and stakeholders in one place — will shape the future of work.

“We’ve seen this become increasingly recognised in the fit-out sector as the level of transparency and connection that a single platform can offer keeps everyone on the same page and journey — delivering even greater customer experience. However, this isn’t specific to fit-out, the industry in general is acknowledging digital technology’s power,” he said.

Barry Chapman, Managing Director of Chalkstring, a software house specialising in project cost management software for specialist subcontractors, said his  subcontractor clients had already been delivering projects remotely and on-the-move before the COVID-19 outbreak, which meant they had the infrastructure in place to continue as normal.

“Because Chalkstring is totally integrated, from estimating to running live project commercials, our clients were better positioned to take advantage of the furlough scheme because the standardised processes, visibility of information and ease of use provided by the software enabled those staff who were still working to more easily perform the duties of their furloughed colleagues,” he said. “It has also given business owners a control framework where they can see exactly how their projects are performing in real time, in terms of projected costs, revenues and margins, enabling them to keep a keen eye on project commercials and cash flow, at what has been a sensitive time for many businesses financially.”

Barry believes we’re seeing a shift in attitudes towards technology within fit-out. “I’ve worked in construction software for over 20 years and, while it’s clear the industry has been significantly behind in terms of technology adoption, over the past few years a new breed of business owner has emerged, who has a greater desire for technology. These business owners are experiencing the benefits of technology in their personal lives — in particular the availability of information on-demand — and they want to harness similar technology for their businesses.

“There is an openness to change that I’ve not seen before and those businesses that are embracing technology are certainly gaining a competitive edge. I’ve seen many forward-thinking business owners invest in technology now, during COVID while things are quieter, on the basis that they will emerge in better shape and be more competitive after the pandemic has passed.”

Chair of the FIS Digital Construction Working Group Mark Norton believes the construction sector as a whole has been ahead of the game when it comes to the digital revolution. He said: “While much attention has been on how igital solutions have transformed the way we communicate and collaborate during the COVID crisis, the truth is that the digital revolution has already been driving profound change in the construction sector during the past couple of years.

“BIM is a central pillar of this, effectively allowing that digital flow of essential information (the ‘golden thread’ as Dame Judith Hackitt refers to it) to move through the supply chain. It also provides a better framework for collaboration, ensuring that essential details are not lost and that we do design and then build, pre-empting and designing out problems, not design a bit, then build a bit and waste time fighting a rear guard action, trying to make the best of it.”

Motivation to move towards tech
Increased control and effi ciency are motivating many subcontractors to consider using more digital technology, especially in the COVID climate, according to Barry Chapman, as they want to achieve more with less resource and real-time visibility of project financials.

“The drive for integrated cost management systems to replace error-prone spreadsheets has also increased – perhaps given that so many projects are run using individual, unconnected, and unintelligent spreadsheets, which has made it harder to manage projects when staff are furloughed and businesses are operating on skeleton staff,” he said.

Maria Russo, Customer Experience Manager at BW: Workplace Experts, agreed. “Technology plays a core role in how we work at BW: Workplace Experts as it enables our teams to stay connected. And, for our business as a whole, technology has allowed us to operate productively and continue to complete projects defect free,” she said. “One type of technology we have benefited from is Procore Analytics, which has enabled us to identify the root cause of problems and revolutionise our snagging process. With this technology, we can quickly create a bank of data which we can put to work to better understand our business cycles and deliver better business planning. Going back to our defect free mission, we believe that having data at our fingertips has given us the chance to learn from every snag and success so that we can continue delivering at a high standard when completing fit-out and refurbishment projects.”

Integration
Integrating any new technology into a business and staying abreast of development, can be daunting for contractors, particularly as there is a choice between three different stages of software installation: Concept/design, beta or fully-commercialised product.

Early-stage tech investor: Gal Farhi, who is a Director at Waveline Ventures, said: “A key thing we’ve noticed as a contractor engaging with our supply chain, is the need for agility because process can go out of date very quickly. What we were doing six months ago isn’t necessarily applicable today. Software changes rapidly and every day we’re seeing new software pop up.”

Most problems will require solutions that are unique to the challenge at hand and the contractors themselves. Gal says that modern software is generally flexible and can adapt swiftly to change when necessary. He said: “The concept and design time is the earliest point within a start-up’s lifecycle that external customers/users are engaged and the software team will be keen to shape it with you.

However, this presents limitations because you have to start with a small sample of projects, which should not be in the forefront of your current work or on critical business lines.

“The ‘beta phase’, during which software is undergoing testing and has not yet been officially released, means even though the software is in the early stages of development, it has been validated, and has at least one existing case study with a defined result. If other companies have agreed to share their data with the start-up’s future clients, you will benefit from their experience, however, the start-up is less likely to invest in tailoring their product to your processes, or developing plug-ins/APIs to connect to your systems. Staff training will also be more extensive.

“Installing a product that is already fully commercialised, has clearly defined capabilities and service levels. The product should work and deliver a very defined ROI proposition. It’s fully serviced. The company’s staff will include professional service providers, customer success and training, supporting you through the process.” A potential disadvantage to this stage is that products will be pretty rigid by this point, he said.

“There may be version updates, or new features, but these will only be prioritised if a significant proportion of customers require them. At this stage, the product is less innovative, more of an alignment with the industry. Your competitors are using this product already.”

The integration of current tech with future tech can often be overlooked and COVID has clearly demonstrated the need to be prepared for the unforeseen, but taking time to consider what would work best for your company’s needs from the outset, goes a long way towards overcoming these hurdles in the future, Gal pointed out. “You’ll never know what the future brings, but you can clearly define which systems you want the product to integrate with from the very beginning,” he said. “Moreover, a good tech company constantly collects feedback from its clients and will make sure that your ongoing needs are catered for.”

He added: “The earlier you engage with the start-up, the better they will integrate with your specific systems. However, if you work closely enough with solutions at any stage and have clear expectations for how you want the product to fit into your work, integration will follow.”

FIS has produced a Building Information Modelling (BIM) Toolbox to raise awareness among specialist contractors on the processes required to work in a BIM environment. To access the FIS
BIM Toolkit visit www.thefis.org/knowledge-hub/bim-toolbox/

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