Change is coming; let’s meet it head-on

Knowledge management, digital trends, innovation and collaboration were some of the key industry issues discussed at a recent executive roundtable at The Shard organised by Infrastructure Intelligence and supported by BST Global. Andy Walker reports.

Any discussion on knowledge management, creativity and innovation in the infrastructure sector will inevitably highlight people issues and that was certainly the case amongst the industry leaders that attended a recent roundtable at The Shard in London.

A key question posed at the event was how should the professional sector leverage intellectual creativity for competitive advantage and use digital capabilities to deliver growth and improved operational efficiency?

A changing business environment was creating challenges and also opportunities, according to Adrian Griffiths of architects Chapman Taylor. “Historically professionals wanted to protect their knowledge because it gave them a competitive advantage,” said Griffiths. “I think life is very, very different these days and obviously with the internet and the web it’s very easy to get access to knowledge. Life is becoming more and more competitive, with clients expecting more for less, but if we as an industry don’t worry about sharing, use it to our benefit and change the way we look at things, then I think that will help us to be more competitive. We have a chance of being more competitive if we are all a lot more collaborative and share information,” he said. 

Sharing information easier said than done

However, sharing information and collaboration was often easier said than done, said Alex Janzen of Atkins. “I’ve been at a few meetings recently where a lot of people have agreed round the table that they should share information and work more collaboratively, and that’s great, but as soon as they walk out of the room they are back into competition! So I’m interested to know how people would transition the strategy of collaboration into the operational delivery of collaboration,” said Janzen.

Many of those round the table thought it was a trust issue and more than one participant made the point that people who trusted each other were very willing to share information. Firms needed to build a level of trust to be in a position to share in the first place and foster a different way of working.

Data being more readily available was also a key driver for collaboration, said Mott MacDonald’s Rebecca Wooding. “Open source data is something that other industries take as normal practice but it’s not really done in the infrastructure industry,” she said. “There’s an awful lot of very useful data that can be captured and utilised and it might inspire innovation and faster progression that we haven’t really considered before. But does open data and greater access to information mean that our business model is changing?” Wooding asked.

Gianluca Barletta of WSP agreed. “The point about open data is very important,” he said. “Depending on the project, sharing of data will be the right thing to do and that will open doors to innovation. We don’t see that as a threat but as an opportunity to integrate and that is where you start to create the value-add. It’s not the raw data, it’s what you do with it that will eventually create a differentiation and your USP.” Barletta said.

New ways of working

There was a strong feeling that clients wanted to work differently and that they no longer wanted a ‘master and servant’ relationship. Innovation was a state of mind, a culture where the big challenge was to establish a cultural transformation. There was also a strong push from the millennial generation to embrace new ways of working otherwise people might go elsewhere and do something else.

“The individuals that work for us in the future are not going to be choosing to work for one organisation at one time, they will want to work for all of us,” said Amey’s Dave Spencer. “How we deal with a skills base that is ever more mobile will be crucial,” he said.BST Global’s Eduardo Niebles agreed. “We have had to change how we operated as a software company, changing the entire business model and look at how we operate from a millennial perspective,” he said. “Once we changed our approach, innovation increased. Looking at engineers and architects globally, the companies that are doing really well are completely redefining how they work. Younger workers are communicating with their peers in other companies but they are not ‘giving away the farm’ as we say in the States. Talk to other companies and find out what they do. We need to break down the silos,” said Niebles.

Giving people the space to innovate

A more democratic approach to innovation was also needed where everyone has the right, whether they use it or not, to develop their talents and pursue new ideas. Architects Benoy have an initiative called ‘firestarters’ which was doing just that. “There’s 600 of us in the company and everybody is given the opportunity to be a firestarter where they can work on productive and non-productive themes and allocate their time against it,” said David Coyne of Benoy. “We opened it up to all 600 staff and there’s 240 people who are firestarters in our business. They are allowed to have a meeting whenever they want on whatever they want as long as it benefits Benoy. People of different ages are communicating together. It’s changed our brand and what we are as a company,” said Coyne.

Atkins also do something similar with their ‘lockdown’ programme. “One week a month we take away 15 people and do what we call lockdown, where we look at a particular problem with a completely fresh set of eyes,” said Alex Janzen. “There’s normally only one or two people of those 15 who are experts in that area and we work out different ways of solving the problem. It removes all of the hierarchy in the business and it’s a completely open free thinking creative environment. It has created some of the best ideas in the company. We asked for 20 or 30 volunteers for the first lockdown, for the second we had over 200 volunteers and for the third over 500.” Janzen said.

Mott MacDonald’s Dragons Den initiative sees mainly millennials proposing business ideas to senior management and then getting funding to work on that project internally. All participants in the roundtable thought it was crucial to run such schemes to show that firms really value their people and their input.

Attracting youth and retaining talent

In terms of attracting younger people into the business, Rod Burton of Pick Everard thought that the image of the sector was still an issue. “There is still a big image issue with construction that we need to get over,” he said. “Parents in particular still don’t know what we do and have a negative image of engineering. We also need to show what opportunities there are in the business so people can see clearly how they can progress. We need to show to younger people coming in what’s on offer,” Burton said.

Retaining the best talent in an ever-changing business landscape was obviously key to success but firms needed to accept that demographic and cultural changes in the workforce would lead to issues that would have to be overcome. Millennials in particular were impatient and demanding and the rise and rise of virtual networking was creating a much more collaborative and technological environment in which they could prosper.

Companies also needed to keep pace with technology if they wanted to keep their best people. “People are using A-grade technology at home on a daily basis and you can’t give them C-grade technology at work,” said Eduardo Niebles. 

A fascinating discussion concluded with the strong view that increasing collaboration and innovation needed to be built on a solid foundation and use all available networks. There was a real feeling that the industry was one that was ripe for disruption and that new competitors will arise, increasing completion and the need for more creativity.

Innovation needed to be a serious, tangible and quantifiable part of business plans and not kept as a blue sky strategy that’s nice to talk about. Above all, companies needed to reshape their business models because change was coming and the challenge was to meet it head on.

Roundtable participants

  • Dave Spencer – managing director, consultancy, Amey
  • Alex Janzen - executive Officer to the CEO, Atkins
  • David Coyne – executive director, Benoy
  • Stephen Trinder – partner, Calford Seaden
  • Adrian Griffiths – director, Chapman Taylor
  • Dan Rennison –  head of design management, Costain 
  • Richard Davies –  director, Hoare Lee
  • Rebecca Wooding – engineer, Mott MacDonald
  • Rod Burton – partner, Pick Everard 
  • Gianluca Barletta – head of smart consulting, WSP
  • Eduardo Niebles – managing director, international business, BST Global
  • Andy Walker – editor, Infrastructure Intelligence
  • Diane Williams – business development manager, ACE
  • Brian Nolk – acting commercial director, Victoria Street Capital
  • Nelson Ogunshakin – chief executive, ACE, chairing the meeting
If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email awalker@infrastructure-intelligence.com.