Perspective | by Thomas J. Finan, Publisher | 04/28/2010
Late last month I taught a seminar at the AGC of America Convention in Orlando, FL. titled “Web 2.0: Why Should I Care?” During the flight home I reflected on the impact that social media technologies and techniques – LinkedIn, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, blogging – are having on society as whole, and the role that they might play in our industry going forward.
The construction industry stands at an operational and communication crossroads. The industry has both a unique and daunting challenge and an unprecedented opportunity in terms of the operational complexity it faces and communication techniques and tools that might help it address that complexity.
Throughout the 20th Century the U.S. and European construction model was loosely based on a system that was descended from the guilds of medieval times. Owners relied upon a “master builder” (general contractor) who oversaw the construction process and managed relationships with the various tradecrafts on a project.
Part of the GC’s role was to shoulder and to manage the risk associated with a project. Relationships among the owner, architect, engineer, general contractor, and subcontractors were paramount. Critical to the success of those relationships was communication.
In the latter part of the 20th Century there was an explosion of construction technology – from building cladding materials, to structural systems, to wiring and data, to heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC). These systems exponentially expanded the possibilities in terms of building function and construction delivery. But with increased building complexity came increased risk. The desire of building owners to manage risk and an increasingly litigious environment have resulted in a situation in which it is not unheard of for general contractors to have resident attorneys in their site trailers.
And while construction has an incredibly high reliance on the sharing of information, the industry has been consistently slow to adopt new emerging communication technologies – from the fax, to email, to the Internet, to social networks. Part of this may be a mindset that more readily grasps the return on investment of a new piece of construction equipment or building material than a new way of sharing construction documentation.
The recession that began in 2009 has created the most depressed – and consequently most competitive – market for construction services since the Great Depression. There are two widely divergent viewpoints of looking at what that buyers' market means. Many projects in 2010 are bid versus negotiated or time-and-material, with double or triple the number of bidders that a similar project would have entertained a couple of years ago.
But some sophisticated buyers of construction have found – in a view that has been borne out by academic research – that the most cost-effective and efficient way to purchase and execute construction is in a collaborative environment where information is shared transparently.
The St. Louis Council of Construction Consumers (SLCCC) held a panel discussion in March on "Improving Project Delivery through Deep Collaboration." The discussion contrasted a transparent, collaborative approach with what was termed "forced cooperation." Robert McCoole, formerly CEO of J.S. Alberici Constructors, and now vice president Facilities Resource Group for Ascension Health, the largest not-for-profit healthcare system in the U.S., told the audience at the panel discussion that a hard-bid process is almost always weighted in favor of the general contractor.
"At Alberici we would sometimes have a problem job, but often we would have windfalls... and the owner would never know about them," McCoole said. For that reason, he said, Ascension favors a negotiated, collaborative approach to its construction buying.
Following the SLCCC meeting I had a lengthy meeting with Clay Goser (formerly of BJC Planning and Construction, now president of Symphony), who had organized the panel discussion. Clay and I talked for over two hours about the possibilities that such approaches as IPD and LEAN construction offer our industry – particularly when coupled with technologies such as BIM.
The conversation with Clay let me to another conversation – this one with Mike Plotnick, communications manager at HOK. Mike has been closely involved in the development of “Life at HOK”, a corporate blog that has been making waves both inside and outside of the construction industry. Ironically, “Life” was developed because in 2008 there was a shortage of architectural talent. HOK dove into social media, brought in 30 team members from around the world, handed them Flip video cameras, trained them, and set them loose. The results, which can be found at http://hoklife.com, are amazing
Plotnick’s team’s credibility as an internal communications group has grown, and they have been asked to help develop internal/external project team blogs. Think project video, archives of whiteboard discussions, wikis, comments on lessons learned, etc., which all members of a project team could access. “It makes perfect sense for IPD team members who have the same kind of risk and reward and would benefit from a community where they could share from the progression of the project. That’s one of the goals is to take this to a project level,” Mike said.
As economic forces, increasing complexity of building and design techniques and materials, and evolving information technology transform the U.S. construction delivery model from a transactional system to a collaborative process, what role could the industry’s adoption of new media tools, such as those currently evolving in broader society through the development of social media, play in the success of these collaborations? What are the barriers to adoption of new methods of collaboration and communication? And in what ways can these barriers be overcome?