Time to bring on the disruptors, says industry roundtable

Industry leaders gathered at The Shard in London recently to discuss the challenge of digital technology and how best to adopt it at the latest executive roundtable organised by Infrastructure Intelligence and supported by BST Global. Andy Walker reports.

A key question discussed by those attending the roundtable was “Is the industry ready for the impact of disruptive technology and how can firms manage their resources in a world where the industry is changing along with the people who work within it?”

“Technology is great and it enables you to do more things quicker but then clients also demand more things from us, so we are almost using technology just to tread water,” said Buro Happold’s Angus Palmer. “But is the people that is the difference. It’s not technology that wins you the next project, it’s the people. We should never ever forget that,” said Palmer.

Engaging with disruption

Ben Freedman of MLM said how the industry collaborates and how people engage with each other was key. “I’ve been fortunate to work on a few projects where we have worked in a very collaborative environment, using a lot of video conferencing and other collaborative tools,” he said. “The speed those projects run at and the speed at which decisions are made in comparison to the email and attachment driven world we are still quite used to is quite fascinating to see,” Freedman said.

“Are we fearing disruption, allowing it, or are we ignoring it?” asked Richard McCarthy of Capita. “In our businesses I don’t think we invite disruption, we try to invite a continuation of what we have done before with a bit of modernisation. We need to invite people in our businesses to disrupt,” said McCarthy.

Jiten Chauhan of Rider Levett Bucknall said: “We are on a journey and we are moving with it, maybe not as fast as we want it to but it is moving. The key thing is that the knowledge and expertise that we have in our organisations is what is going to drive us forward. It’s not all about pressing a button, you need that experience and intelligence,” said Chauhan.

The industry was still struggling to digitise knowledge, said Nic Hillier of Faithfull and Gould. “How do we take that five years of knowledge, compress that time and get that to the younger people? It’s a huge challenge,” he said. 

Robert Fry of Aukett Swanke thought that dramatic change was on the way. “We work in a huge industry that is still incredibly siloed and actually the real talent pool is very very small. I agree that there will be a lot more automation, especially robotics, that will force us to make choices about the kind of businesses we want to be. The big thing is going to be robotics in future,” he said.

More than just technology

Richard McCarthy said it was important not to equate disruption with technology. It was about more than that. “Be very careful about ‘disruption means digital’. Digital is part of disruption but it is also a mindset. When you disrupt you invite people to think about doing things differently. Being creative and empowering people is an important part of the story,” he said.

Echoing this, Rob Witt from Wardell Armstrong said that the industry had always needed people with the ability to think and move things forward. “We still rely on and need people with bright minds to enable our businesses to grow,” he said.

Mixing disciplines in ways that haven’t been thought of before to promote a real cross-fertilisation of views and genuine collaboration was also crucial. So was listening to clients’ changing needs. Increasing numbers of clients were interested in social value said Mark Goldspink of Purcell. “We mustn’t lose sight of what the client is looking for because that may well change and it might not be all technology driven. Many want to see the social value in what we do,” he said. 

Eduardo Niebles of BST said that the sector needed to be aware of its key strengths which were a considerable business advantage. “This sector has something that no other technology business has - and that’s knowledge. You own the information and data. Technology for this sector is more of an enabler versus a disrupter. The disrupter in this sector will come from within and will be about how you redefine your business model,” said Niebles.

Tony Scott of WSP said that becoming a learning organisation was crucial to companies being able to take advantage of opportunities. “We can’t deny the developments in technology that are being seen elsewhere in business. Technology is on the cusp of disrupting our industry, so don’t wait, we need to disrupt our businesses now. Think big, start small and scale quickly,” said Scott. 

Changing the business model

Ricardo Energy and Environment’s Tim Curtis said that current businesses mechanisms don’t necessarily drive collaboration, so changing the business model was a challenge but a necessary one if firms are to progress. Richard McCarthy agreed. “We need to challenge and mix people up in the way that we deliver our infrastructure. I think we are just moving into a mindset where we are realising that just carrying on how we have been is not sustainable. We are going to have to change our business models faster than we may realise,” McCarthy said.

The younger generation coming into the industry would be crucial in businesses making that shift to a different way of working and all those round the table recognised this. “You have to monitor the young generation who are tied to mobile technology,” said Jiten Chauhan. “I mean, they are doing code at primary school! Our world is changing and our industry needs to change too. We need to look at how the younger generation is learning and learn from that. Ask them how they think we should do things?” Chauhan said.

It was clear that the next generation was learning more quickly than the one before and their speed of thought was faster too. While there is much talk in the industry about the millennial generation, the so-called ‘digital natives’, it would be the ‘digital developers’ that would come next and it might be that the industry might have to skip a generation, such was the speed of change.

“The use of data for different purposes will be the disruption in our sector,” said Mike Goggins of Steer Davies Gleave. “Someone is going to come in, the data is going to be open and we won’t own it as consultants. The IPR won’t be with us it will be an open data platform. The competitive advantage will lie with those who can grab the data and create new insight or leverage it more quickly. Exploitation of data is going to come suddenly and rapidly,” said Goggins.

Ownership of data was seen by everyone as crucial to future business success. Consultants can really add value to clients with their use of data, as they often knowing more about their clients’ clients than the clients know themselves. Whoever owns that data and exploits it will be in the driving seat in the future and this was the feeling of many attendees. 

Businesses needed to be much more open about data and the way it is shared to benefit clients and less worried about losing their competitive edge by working in that way. There also needed to be more conversations with clients and a lot more discussion about what the industry means by changing its business model. What does that mean in reality and who is going to make it happen? 

A subject for a future discussion no doubt. 

Roundtable participants

  • Jiten Chauhan – partner, Rider Levett Bucknall
  • Tim Curtis – managing director, Ricardo Energy and Environment
  • Ben Freedman – director, MLM Consulting
  • Robert Fry – managing director international, Auckett Swanke
  • Brian Furr – director strategic account development, BST Global
  • Mike Goggins – group client engagement director, Steer Davies Gleave
  • Mark Goldspink – chief executive, Purcell
  • Nic Hillier – director, Faithfull + Gould
  • Richard McCarthy – executive director, Capita Property
  • Eduardo Niebles – managing director, international business, BST Global
  • Brian Nolk – acting commercial director, Victoria Street Capital
  • Nelson Ogunshakin – chief executive, ACE, chairing the meeting
  • Angus Palmer – group director London, Buro Happold
  • Tony Scott – chief information officer, WSP
  • Andy Walker – editor, Infrastructure Intelligence
  • Rob Witt – technical director, Wardell Armstrong

About BST Global

BST Global provides integrated business management software solutions for the world’s leading architects, engineers, and environmental consultants. More than 100,000 professionals across six continents and 65 countries rely on BST solutions each day to manage their projects, resources ,finances, and client relationships. The company’s latest offering, BST10, is the world’s first multilingual business management system to be built exclusively for the architecture and engineering industry and made available both in the Cloud and On-Premises. For more information, visit bstglobal.com.

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email awalker@infrastructure-intelligence.com.