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Technology is an enabler and not the goal

07 November 2022

A discussion of the challenges of digital transformation for the civil engineering industry.

Technology is an enabler and not the goal
The benefits of digital transformation need to be understood company-wide, by users and project managers. Image credit: Shutterstock

The ICE recently welcomed a range of speakers to debate all things digital and how the phenomenon should be treated as an enabler, rather than a destination.

Leading the discussion was Mark Enzer, co-chair of the ICE’s data and digital Community Advisory Board (CAB).

As a result of our recent survey and roundtable event, this webinar sought to respond to some of the findings and talking points raised in previous discussions.

It also tackled some of the challenges our industry faces with training and a risk-averse culture.

Lessons from Enabling a Digital Transformation survey

James Chambers, director of global industry development in the build and construct division at Nemetschek, began the discussion by addressing an ICE survey, sponsored by Bluebeam, entitled ‘Enabling a Digital Transformation’.

The overwhelming response was positive, and respondents were very clear on what they wanted and needed from their digital transformation journey.

The survey found:

  • 29% said they had initiated some form of digital process.
  • 12-15% said they were using advanced digital technology such as modelling, machine learning, digital twins, and AI.
  • 25-30% of people wanted more transparency from the data – from design and construction through to delivery and handover.

“From where we were two to five years ago to where we are now, the advancement and adoption has accelerated far quicker than we may perceive,” Chambers commented.

“Individuals were also consistent in asking how ‘we’ can change the culture of a business to be more digitally focused. This came up time and time again.”

How do we define a digital transformation strategy?

Defining a digital transformation strategy "must be done with purpose, it should not just happen," says Mark Enzer. 

A strategy must be clearly defined and provide real clarity of destination, purpose, and the benefits of adoption. 

We must understand where and how data and digital fits within a project lifecycle, its delivery and beyond.

Data must also be shared across partners, from client to contractor and across the supplier chain ecosystem.

‘The challenge we have is implementation’

Emma Wei, civil engineer at Mott MacDonald, says that strategy and vision are “vital” when it comes to digital transformation.

Its benefits need to be understood company-wide, she adds.

“From my experience, which is from a project delivery perspective rather than an enterprise perspective, is that this lack of real understanding is evident with project managers,” she says.

According to Wei, when digital tools are introduced internally, the responses fall into one of two categories.

“Firstly, there are those that understand the benefits of adopting digital solutions but are unable to quantify this when it comes to project integration," she says.

“Secondly, there are many that would like to use technology but believe there are too many risks involved."

Although there is a drive from senior teams to adopt digital processes, clear steps need to be outlined for any digital strategy implementation, she concludes.

The strategy must be "clear and relatable", adds Chambers.

“Any strategy must be collective. It must provide people with the tangibles, too, show people why this makes sense and how it will benefit everybody and everything within an organisation.”

Defining the ‘roadmap’

Enzer suggested that instead of using the term ‘strategy’, the term ‘roadmap’ could make it easier to relate to.

"The people that want today’s tangible benefits do not have to be in conflict with other people’s aspirations of tomorrow. We can have both working in parallel.

"But we must work out the practical steps to get from today to tomorrow. For me, there are four key areas that need to be addressed within this ‘roadmap’: people, information, process, and technology."

Building trust

The speakers discussed how trust is an issue when it comes to digital transformation. 

Despite relying on various technologies in our day-to-day lives, there is real mistrust about systems and the reliability of data, says Enzer.

To address this problem, we need security, openness, and quality.

“People need to have the confidence that what we’re trying to do is valid, that it is relevant, and that it will have real tangible benefits to them and the work they’re undertaking,” says Chambers.

Identifying training needs

One of the core challenges of implementing digital transformation is identifying what training is required for which individuals.

"How do we know which individuals need to have high-level training, and which need to delve deeper?" asks Wei.

This investigation needs to be included, as Enzer stated, in the suggested roadmap.

Ensuring people do not travel down the rabbit hole, nor simply skim the surface, is a delicate balance and one that needs to be explored collaboratively.

Furthermore, Chambers expressed his concerns around some organisations’ habits of purchasing software or hardware to improve processes, but having no further investment or time dedicated to implementation.

This behaviour is reflected in digital adoption.

"It’s about having tangible milestones, perhaps this is monthly, or over three months or six months, this is what the outcome should be, it should not end upon purchase or initial investment.

"This is the only way we can build trust and engage individuals to embrace training."

We need to take the small steps first

As an industry, we are much further ahead when it comes to digital transformation than we were just a few years ago, the speakers concluded.

However, while there is a hunger to "reach the mountain top", says Enzer, it’s those first small steps that need to be taken before we look up.

Watch the webinar

  • Amy Morrison, freelance writer