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Civil Engineer blog

Understanding the difficulties of digital transformation in construction

21 November 2019

Many construction companies are yet to reap the full benefits of digital platforms. Valdengrave Okumu discusses how we must educate ourselves on the area of digitisation and implement technologies that will drive the industry further ahead.

Understanding the difficulties of digital transformation in construction
Companies often fail to meet their expectations because of unclear definitions on the meaning of digital

Take this common scenario in construction. A company dedicates many years on developing new software platforms, such as 5D BIM. It spends copious amounts of money promoting, developing and integrating high-end software into its companies in hopes to spearhead new waves of improvement in productivity.

After any hope of major progress is met with setbacks, the team calls an end to the digital transformation programme. It's failed to deliver on its project. Many companies have attempted to deliver cutting-edge digital solutions to solve construction issues, such as low productivity, only to fall short.

Yet, more digital technologies are created every day, such as project management software and drones used to survey sites and calculate measurements.

Many in the industry have failed to ‘implement’ these new technologies into their work environment. Project delays and budget overruns are still prevalent issues, and it's due in part to failing to adopt new technologies.

'One of the world's least digitised sectors'

According to the Committee for European Construction Equipment (CECE), the civil engineering and construction sector is one of the world’s least digitised sectors, particularly in Europe.

Projects vary significantly, and because of that, companies often struggle to implement new methods that can be used repeatedly. Limited budgets on digital technological implementation and the remote nature of some construction projects result in many E&C companies failing to invest in technologies.

Yes, the construction industry involves many players, from estimators to contractors to designers.

So, it's understandable that in fact, it's difficult to implement efficient digital technologies and ensure that there's a collaborative sphere among all that work with these technologies.

BIM - the right direction

We're moving in the right direction, in some respects with the use of BIM (Building Information Modelling), a process that allows architects, engineers, designers to create 3D models, apply data and create physical infrastructure.

Under limited manpower, budgets, tight schedules and limited and conflicting information, BIM has played a major role in simplifying things.

Quantities and shared material properties can be extracted, work can be compartmentalised and defined according to similar tasks, and sequences can be visualiSed. BIM also reduces errors because teams can identify, using computer models, where issues may occur on a physical infrastructure, in the early stages.

Strong digital leadership needed

This is evidence that engineering, and construction companies are successfully overcoming challenges digitally. To continue the successful trend, companies must continuously train engineering teams in applicable digital skills, use technology that promotes collaboration, connect projects that maximise impact, and focus digital technologies on fixing problems.

The success of the digital transformation warrants strong leadership from managers and executives. They must have a clear perspective on how to create value for not only their business, but also the construction projects.

Furthermore, they must have a clear understanding on how social value will be increased using digital technologies.

For example, in the case of a construction project, say a new highway, how will the use of digital technologies create designs that improve road safety for drivers?

It starts from the time spent on operational change. An operational change will ensure that work is done in a way that increases productivity.

Why haven’t construction companies readily adopted new digital technologies?

Companies often fail to meet their expectations because of unclear definitions on the meaning of digital, poor integration of digital technologies and lack of sustainable improvements.

Digital transformation is especially hard in the construction industry for the following reasons:

Lack of replication

You've heard of the adage "No construction project is the same".

Even if two buildings were to be designed and constructed to be identical in every imaginable way, they'll be unique and one of kind in some way.

Consequently, it necessitates unique approaches that are rarely replicated. For that reason, it's more challenging to introduce unique changes through multiple projects.

Full digital transformation requires changes through multiples small scale projects. It's perhaps possible to introduce replicable changes across major projects.


Because large engineering and construction projects are funded by federal agencies and smaller units within the project following their own processes, it means projects are largely decentralised.

Furthermore, most individual projects are situated quite far from the offices that use technologies. It's also a challenge to train workers on novel ways to use advanced digital technologies.

Constant change

The transient nature of construction projects means almost every project will involve a new projects teams or new organizations working together. The problem is even more pronounced among contractors who experience high workforce turnover. At both the construction and operational/ company level, contractors, subcontractors, consultant, and sub consultants face difficulties in creating alternate ways of working that will continuously build from one project and carry over to future projects.


Construction projects have entities divided up between specialists from various disciplines. The challenge then is one of collaborating effectively with digital technologies among all or at least most project parties.

Coordination is not only required among subcontractors and subconsultants, but also among organisations.

One example is the ICE publication ‘International Conference on Smart Infrastructure and Construction 2019 (ICSIC): Driving data-informed decision-making’ by MJ DeJong.

This book covers smart infrastructure, construction, information on cities, structures, geotechnical capabilities and digital solutions. With the rapidly changing civil engineering construction and design sector, we need to educate ourselves on the area of digitisation and implement technologies that will drive the industry further ahead.

Civil engineering and construction companies have lagged in successfully implementing digital technologies to multiple projects, due to the constantly changing nature of projects, the fragmentation of tasks into specialised disciplines and decentralisation.

By thoughtfully approaching the problem of digital transformation, companies will improve their chances of reaping the benefits of digital technologies. Our focus should be on improving software productivity and promoting digital platforms that promote collaboration between multiple disciplines working on a project.

Also, companies can focus on training engineering teams to focus more on iterative design skills.

This can be aided by focusing on products that automate certain design stages and allowing engineers to focus on more challenging design tasks.

  • Valdengrave Okumu GMICE, AMAPM, SMIC, ICE Graduate & Student Committee Member