Rethinking the Role of Construction IT

Kevin SoohooAugust 13, 2017 • 5 min read

At the beginning of August 2017 the AGC IT Forum in Denver covered lots of ground on how IT innovations are driving construction transformation: A topic of growing urgency in our industry. Looming labor shortages compounded with an aging workforce and continuous pressure to tighten margins have created a critical turning point where firms who adopt and adapt will thrive, and those who do not will struggle to survive.

But adopting and adapting are easier said than done. The traditional view of IT in construction takes the support aspect of the role to heart. They don’t see themselves as a core part of the executive leadership who is driving business decisions. And the budget allocated to IT reinforces this perspective, with firms dedicating only 1-2% annually to IT expenditures.

What’s more, construction firms typically operate in a very siloed organizational structure with very little collaboration happening between IT and the rest of the business.

These challenges were explored in-depth in the panel I participated in at the Forum, along with Mike Oster, former VP and CIO at McCarthy, and Jason Barber, Operations Manager at Dynalectric Colorado.

For technology innovation to truly succeed, the role of IT in construction needs to shift dramatically.

Along that line, below are three key takeaways for construction CIO’s to consider on how to rethink the role IT in construction.

1. Get Others Involved

It used to be that the job of IT was limited to deploying onsite networks, setting up desktops, and finding an accounting ERP system that everyone liked.

Mobile changed all that.

As workers outside of IT started buying smartphones, tablets, and smartwatches, they began seeing possibilities for technology beyond how they were currently using it. ERP was no longer the center of the technology universe.

IT responded with solutions, but didn’t think to change the decision-making process around technology selection. Mike Oster shared a story about selecting a Mobile Device Management (MDM) system while at McCarthy. From an IT point of view, their highest priority was protecting their data. But what they didn’t take into account was ease-of-use. They ended up selecting a product that made it twice as hard to use smartphones for emails and texting, and the field revolted.

What doomed the process from the get-go was that IT didn’t come out of their box to ask stakeholders what they needed. They made a unilateral decision based on a single priority. Construction firms that take this approach today will no doubt see the same results.

Engagement across the organization is absolutely critical to long-term success.

So how do you pursue engagement across the organization?

One approach is to form cross-functional innovation teams, with representatives from the C-Suite to the field, to keep business priorities in focus. This is especially important when it comes to adopting a new technology or replacing a legacy solution. 

Prioritize getting people involved early in the process to let them define the value. Set the parameters for what is possible, but let the people using it weigh in heavily on the final decision.

Another approach is to use annual business planning as an opportunity to issue a challenge to the entire organization. Identify your goals and then involve your people in identifying ways to achieve that goal. Let those who are motivated form groups or process improvement teams, or plan a hackathon where cross-functional teams have 24 hours to come up with solution to a specific challenge. I guarantee you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what they come up with.

2. Make it Safe to Fail

Another key shift that needs to happen is to change how your organization thinks about failure. During my 11 years leading the IT Strategy for an EMCOR subsidiary, we were intentional in our planning to make sure failure was an option.

Changing this mindset means changing how you approach innovation.

We can’t see innovation as a silver bullet, but rather as a cycle of improvement. Jason Barber talked about approaching innovation with a scrum mindset, building in time to learn and get feedback.

When rolling out a new tool, consider selecting a small number projects with users that represent a wide range of tech savviness. Allow them to use the technology for a time, get feedback, then make changes. Repeat the cycle as needed to address any challenges, and you’ll find that when you’re ready to scale organization wide, the impact on the business will be minimal.

3. CIO as Evangelist for Change

Ultimately, if IT is truly going to leave behind the outdated perception of a support organization and reposition itself as core to business success, you must consider changing how you think about your role.

IT must become an evangelist and promoter of change for your company, and not just an enabler. As one former CIO put it, “You must find a way to get out of the Engine Room.”

Changing how you’re labeled can go a long way toward accomplishing this.

Consider replacing the title Information Technology with something like Business Solutions. Then, ensure the priorities for your role change along with your title. It’s no longer enough to think about your own departmental budget and goals; you must understand the business goals and financial objectives for the entire organization.

Think about how you can embrace your role as promoter through your interactions with other departments. Invite them to participate in finding the tools they want, and then come alongside them to help justify the value and ensure compliance to legal and security standards.

The Future of IT

The future of IT is one where decision-making is a shared process.

The C-Suite still holds the purchasing power, but the final decision is a collective process. And at Rhumbix, we see this is a big, positive step forward.

— Check out my previous post that gives insights for construction technology providers based on polling results from the AGC IT Forum

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