The two biggest barriers to digital transformation

People’s approaches and the industry's contractual relationships are the two biggest barriers to digital transformation in the construction sector, says Atkins’s Lesley Waud.

Wherever you look these days, people are talking about digital. It’s the theme at conferences, the headline in trade magazines and the topic of discussion at roundtables. It seems everyone is in agreement that we need to “be more digital” to transform the way we work - so what’s stopping us? 

For me there are two big barriers to our digital transformation in the infrastructure sector - people and commercial models. 


This is perhaps our biggest barrier to digital transformation. Some designers and engineers see digital as a threat to what they came into the industry to do. These people gravitated towards infrastructure because they had a technical specialism and, in many cases, a true vocation – one they get immense satisfaction from. They feel technology is taking this away from them, and it puts the work they’re passionate about at risk. 

What we need is for our people to see that digital tools remove repetitive activities so that they can focus on what really adds value for our clients. This is about humans working in partnership with computers, not computers taking our work away. 

I attended an inspiring presentation from one of Atkins’ engineers in Warrington who had looked at traditional passive design methods for bridges and realised that a simple algorithm could provide thousands more design options, in a fraction of the time. This algorithm now generates data to help inform his decisions – he is still the ultimate designer, he’s just outsourced the task of processing data so that he can focus on what’s important: validating the options provided; selecting the best option and improving the ultimate design outcome; spending his time at the ‘higher end’ of the process. 

We have such limited capacity in infrastructure, so let’s use our intellect where it’s really needed and allow technology to automate the repetitive tasks that have traditionally taken up so much of our time. Let’s not see this as a threat, but as an opportunity to build on the skillsets we already have and learn something new. Design and engineering can still be a career for life. We just might spend a bit more of our time creating algorithms than we did 10 years ago. 

Commercial models

The second barrier is just as much about winning hearts and minds, but with our clients rather than our people. We have a real issue around contracts and how they’re set up. As they stand, the majority of infrastructure contracts are a blocker to digital transformation – it’s critical that we make them enablers. 

To do this, we need clients to reward value rather than input effort and be more forward thinking in terms of intellectual property rights. For our businesses to be sustainable, we need to be able to recover our investment in digital tools properly – this will require different commercial arrangements that allow us to share the overall savings technology brings with our clients. 

We are seeing some of our clients responding positively to the government agenda to do things differently and drive productivity, creating commercial models that incentivises suppliers based on outcomes. Our focus is on finding solutions to our clients’ challenges and delivering outcomes – this means thinking about new ways of addressing the problem - reusing designs created elsewhere and standardising far more than we have done historically; rather than always designing and building something new and simply following traditional standards and approaches. 

We know that the current consultant’s model of being paid by the hour and contractor’s by unit cost doesn’t work if we want transformation. I have no doubt our clients want more digital solutions and they want to improve productivity – but we need to stop mixing the old-world commercial models and behaviours with the new expectations and start thinking of new ways to procure services if we want them to be truly transformative. If we want innovative solutions, we must have innovative commercial models.  

Lesley Waud is design development director for transportation at Atkins, part of the SNC-Lavalin Group.