Friday, May 15, 2015

Guess what, when Paperless Construction does happen, it will not be put in place to please you*!

As an aging BIM enthusiast writing on any topic mildly related to BIM and doing it from the standpoint of a self-imposed BIM-abstinence, I tend to offend people on both sides of the BIM fence in roughly equal numbers.

The one topic though they all seem to agree on, is the concept of a ‘Paperless Construction Approach’ to delivering projects.
Both as a means to improve an individual party’s outcome on a project or a road to a universal betterment of the global industry.
Something I believe in and promote from time to time.
Never mind about trying to understand the details of ‘my theories’, nor the reasons I may occasionally present to prove them being viable concepts for achieving ‘certain’ results for ‘certain’ parties under ‘certain’ conditions.

Here is what they do instead: They dismiss it, of course, totally off-hand:

Don’t bother with explaining the subtleties of historical trends and nuances of behavioural changes and notions of the whats and whys of other industries having gone down that track…   
let me say what “I” (the quintessential construction ‘know it all’)  think about any Paperless Construction Thing (as in a project, site, office, anything):

Not gonna happen. Ever. Paper is here to stay.
Don’t believe me? Look at me now!
Yep, have the best I-phone available on the market, (yeah the one that is a limited version and its glass breaks even faster than any other ones’ before) yet I still do all my work scribbling on post-it-notes.
Yep! Does it stop me being a Project Director on a high profile multi-billion dollar construction project?
Nope. Never has. Never will.

And look: I have a cool laptop too.
It is the slimmest possible version – you can hardly call it three dimensional so slim it is.
And light. And fast. It is so fast I can sometimes forget what I was going to write as it finishes my sentences for me. When I write my reports for the Board.
Yet, do I use it for my business deals in any way?

I go to exclusive clubs and meet my equally capable counterparts and we do deals on napkins.
Yep, here is ‘the’ paper for you again. Critical to major deals.
True, the types of establishments we like to frequent rarely have a holder with triangularly folded stacks of paper serviettes on hand, but their ever-helpful personnel is usually quick in slipping us a gold embossed (paper) notebook to scribble on just before we would even consider using our branded pens on their satin tablecloths or napkins.

We make huge deals without even looking at our electronic gadgets, just by a bit of finger work: the counterpart lifts 2 fingers (I want 2 mills for variations) – I raise one. Deal done.
If more detail is needed, there is the faithful notebook to figure it out on.
And we always work with rounded, simple numbers. You want a 2 year extension of time? That will cost you 4 out of 5 of those mega government projects you currently tendering. Or something similar, don’t get too bogged down on the numbers, the idea is to keep it simple….

Other good thing about paper: still quite easy to dispose – scrap it down the rubbish chute with the leftovers of the lobster.

Anyway, satirical musings of these more than real creatures doing more than real deals over more than real pieces of paper aside, the rest of the industry, when quizzed on the topic is unfortunately  just as ignorant and cocky.

When it comes to doing their day-to-day job in a possibly less ‘paper-driven’ – way, God ‘forbid, totally paperless, they are just as staunch in their stand of a ‘never-gonna-happen-thank-goodness’ flavour.

As I indicated in the intro to this post, this IS a topic almost everyone agrees on, from concrete-mixer drivers, through CAD drafters to engineering managers and all the way to the CEO’s of the top shakers and movers of global AEC giants.

They love paper.
 So much so, that they always print their plane tickets out in the largely digitally run travel industry. They always press the ‘yes’ button on the ATM’s even though the slips the machine will spit out will end within seconds in the built-in rubbish bin.
They read their emails on their smart phones but print out the critical ones (attachments and all) and file in long (hardly ever again touched) rows of lever-arch boxes.
They plot out thousands of sheets of mindlessly CAD-ded construction drawings to drag over dusty construction sites offering little useful data but making the carriers look purposeful.
“That’s a pretty hefty stack of A0s you have there John!” – “Yep, these are our shop-drawings, our CAD guys worked on them all month and it took us a week just to print them!”
“That’s a pretty nice glossy brochure on the board table Mr (whoever is BB’s or Leighton’s current leader) never mind the huge losses hidden somewhere inside.”

Being an ‘aging professional’ that has probably seen too much of this industry for my own sanity, I know better than try to convince anyone any longer that the concept of Paperless Construction is a good idea.
Done for the right reasons and in the right way.
Not a fantastic notion or vain hope, but a carefully engineered set of artificial barriers put up to force a desired behaviour…
And not necessarily to please the ones doing the work but for the benefit of the clients the same ones are supposed to be serving.

I may write about these ideas in the future, just as I have been in the past, mostly because I can, gives me some sort of a pleasure and fills a gap for those that are sick of the same-same arguments of the industry and want to read something a bit ‘alternative’.
I also wish to make a little mark on the ‘book’ of history for those that will come in the future, reclaim Global Construction and make it smart again.
When they wonder, were we (as an industry ) all really that stupid not to see that the prolonged use of ‘paper’ let the crooks get away with keeping the industry broken for so long, they may find this entry .

Nope we aren’t, just the great majority.

* the quintessential construction ‘know it all’ making it big (or even not so big) in the global AEC at the moment.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Project Schedulers and BIM Managers: Unite! Could the two sectors make one another stronger while helping the concept of the Paperless Construction?

I have a lot of sympathy for the Scheduling sector within the AEC. On one hand they seem to have it easy, any project nowadays will need a Program Manager by default.
For a ‘Regular’ Engineer to become a ‘Planning Engineer’ they need to be fluent in one of the (for most in the industry) extremely complicated tools like Primavera or the somewhat dumber MS Project.
Relatively small numbers within this industry unusually flushed with ‘super talent’ can be bothered with going beyond anything more complex than the basic tools of Excel, so the numbers of qualified schedulers are limited.
Job security is more or less guaranteed.

On the other hand though – being a Planner (as in the ‘time scheduler’ type) on an AEC project is generally a pretty thankless role to be in. I’ve seen many times through my career these poor souls getting seriously roasted over any/all failures of the project by people that should know better, like project directors and the ones above them.

In fact, having spent a good quarter of a century working in close proximity with Planners, I’ve seen their fortunes shape in very similar ways to those of us practicing the similarly ‘black art’ of BIM.
Apart from the obvious similarities, like the necessity of knowing at least one mystical (un-learnable?) software to operate within either of these sectors, there are many other likenesses between the two sub-species.

Like, expectations.
Others on the projects generally expect ‘unreasonably high’ or ‘ridiculously low’ results from both Planners and BIM-mers. Few understand what exactly are these specialist team members supposed to be doing, in turn their efforts and outputs get either shrugged off as ‘meaningless’ or they are expected to press the magic button on their ‘super-tools’ that will instantaneously save the project from all upcoming dooms, whenever the PD asks or directs.
They are mistrusted and secretly admired, simultaneously hated and worshipped.

Then, there are the officially promoted ‘supposed synergies’, of the ‘D’s type, BIM-mers theoretically are the guardians of all ‘D’s on BIM enabled projects (anything from 3 up) with Schedulers the official custodians of the 4th or 5th D, depending on their pecking order with the QS-s on the team. Since D’s should stick together, for high level strategist in charge of mega projects and companies it usually  ‘makes sense’ for BIM and Planning Departments to work hand-in-hand, in fact for many companies the first step towards doing anything BIMish is to charge their existing Planning Departments with rolling out the BIM implementation. (a big mistake on its own, often preceded by an in-sourcing/outsourcing fiasco  but let’s not digress from the main line of the story).

In practical terms, working closer for the two sectors is not easy.
Being the despised (or often only just tolerated) nerds of AEC projects is not necessarily a strong enough reason to seek out the other for cooperation or even just for company. The two groups, unless forcefully lumped together often are happy to eye the other camp with the same level of ‘no one understands us’ rhetoric they cultivate for the general project staff.

For a meaningful (technical) collaboration a significant effort would be required from both sides, understanding what the others are really about, learning about their tools and finding ways to support the others without hindering the progress of one’s own ‘specie’.
Too much effort needed for likely little gain.

Yet, I do see some opportunities in the future for both of these sectors to truly prosper in forming a stronger alliance with the other.
For a start, collectively they do have the smartest, most ambitious and adventurous part of the industry’s intellectual resource, forging an internal army of thinkers is only a step away.
Individually, they both have battled for decades the negative forces of the industry wanting to remain led by the bullies as opposed to the smart ones.
And managed to survive over a significant timeframe and often against the odds of the immense bully-power.
Admittedly weak, marginalised and hardly taken seriously still they together also own some core values and qualities, that normally take decades to develop and will take decades for those that start from scratch now.

‘Paperless Construction’ is my bet for the ‘idea’ over what these two groups could meaningfully cooperate and simultaneously give the industry a good jolt where it is desperately needed to be kicked in.
Surely, quite a number of stars would need to align favourably for this to happen any time soon especially at any meaningful scale, but who knows – with a little help here and there to nudge those stars to the right positions; there is a chance for real progress for the entire industry.

And for those that still think Paperless Construction is a na├»ve utopia – let’s just state for the record, it is not.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Give ‘Real BIM’ a chance to be a Game-changer in AEC! ‘Real BIM’ could be the weapon for changing the game in the global AEC. There still are small fish with professional integrity surviving within the global waters of the AEC consultancy market wanting to strike back against the over-franchisers, purely business oriented BIG fish practising ‘Pretend BIM’ and redefine how the AEC is run; Real BIM could be the answer.

That’s a hell of a long title, I know.
And I like it like that. The post will be longish too – it is a complicated subject.
Yet, I will not spend much time on explaining the difference between Real and Pretend BIM.
Call me arrogant. Those that know the difference will understand my point.

I have long given up on BIM and on the professional integrity of the global AEC.
Sad, but true.
Not that the ‘Pretend BIM’, alive and kicking and moving from strength to strength is much worried about me not supporting it.
It has plenty of followers prepared to daily swallow the dogma with no questions asked.
The Global AEC seems unflustered too, on how low the professional integrity and technical capability of those that run it have sunk to, in general.

I said it before, I am noting it again: what is seen nowadays as a thriving ‘new’ approach to give the AEC a big kick to reinvigorate itself is still only a ‘Pretend BIM’.
The real thing, born sometime in the 1980s is these days surviving only in little isolated pockets of the global AEC industry, practiced by local firms or individuals.
The fact that it is still surviving here and there is of course good news and gives hope to another seemingly unstoppable trend getting challenged at some point in the future.
The trend, that originated somewhere in the 1980s too – and my term for it is, ‘The Global Takeover of the AEC consultancy Market by a Controlling Few’.  

I’m of course, talking about the AECOMs, Atkinses, and other ‘Top 100 Engineering Consultancies’ that for years have been gobbling up small local engineering firms East to West, North to South.

First there were doing local mergers, with the goal of becoming the biggest in the block and then came the acquisitions of often family firms with long history of practicing – to reach the obvious climax when the big fish turned onto one another and nowadays are only a handful of names ever considered for providing consultancy services at big, global construction projects.

There truly are very few fish circling the BIG waters of the Global AEC industry.

Infrastructure projects are the worst, but general building is not far behind, look at the participant’s names on almost any newly built hospital, airport, school or community centre, almost anywhere in the world. And the lists get pretty reparative.

There is hardly anything surprising in this trend. Other industries had done it, some quite a long time ago, financial institutions, banks, the transportation, hospitality even the educational industry.
So, why should not Engineering Consulting too?

Climb down from the flashy promotional movies of these giant organisations citing thousands of employees spread over the entire globe with an equal number of expertise on offer from any conceivable sub-subject within the art and craft of construction (the Atkinses, AECOMs and the like) and crawl into the real world of making projects work by utilising these – overblown, almost exclusively profit oriented, faceless organisations with mostly questionable professional capabilities.

It is not necessary the individuals that they employ that one finds difficult and/or underqualified for the job, many of the old school engineers have survived in the new environment to flash up a bit of genuine professional work here and there – but their ability to do so is highly limited by the machinery they are locked in.
There are never enough hours to do the job properly, never enough resources to support them well and timesheets and utilisation percentages hanging forever over their heads are ready to sabotage their KPIs, annual performance reviews and long term career prospects.

So, the ‘old’ often compromise on their professional values forever just to earn a living. The ‘young’ have never had the opportunity to learn to act technically/professionally due to such hard-core business driven environments, so they do what is best for their careers and adopt.

Leaving end-clients, governments, and the entire global industry to pick up the’ tab’ (financial, professional, moral etc.) of trying to pull off larger-and-larger engineering projects with thinner and thinner professional supports.

Some of the more speculative parts of the global AEC client segment (developers for example) know very well this phenomenon to be true but are also benefiting from it when the gamble works right for them – so why even consider changing it?
As long the hot potatoes of risk are passed onto others, the wheels keep turning, who cares if the big name engineers do not know what they are doing?

This topic is worthy enough to be explored on its own – my previous attempts have made little impacts on the forums I tried to raise it – it is a ‘hot potato’ on its own, something few are prepared to acknowledge, it impacts too deeply on most of the people that make up the industry they should by default be needing to also clean up, if for nothing else for the survival of the basic engineering skills that were built up over centuries.
Add to it the big (or pretend to be big) global drive to have (the pretend) BIM as a solution for the improvement of the industry infused into construction projects and the end results are disastrous.

I daily meet representatives of these giant organisations claiming to be absolute leaders in BIM (as well as everything else, of course) while producing non-BIM documentation that would miss basic QA tests of old hand-drawn drawings by a mile and turn many-a good masters of the art and craft in their respected graves.

These big name practitioners hide behind scopes, roles and responsibilities to produce rubbish and rely on the ignorance of those that are supposed to take them to the task of delivering something worthwhile for the end user.

Of course they are rarely questioned, the representatives of the other side (the end user) are staffed from the same pool – these quasi engineers/business/project managers move seamlessly between the various monsters of the ‘A list consultancies’. In fact the monsters themselves often act in multiple, conflicting roles on projects that a healthy industry should never tolerate.

The AEC is doomed as long as these A-listers keep growing and taking up more of the market share and BIM with it too.

But, as indicated in the beginning of the article, I see some hope too.
Eventually, of course nature will take its course and small, specialist, technically capable consultancies will start reclaiming ground and they will be the ones to push REAL BIM (or other future approaches that have fundamentals in engineering and working better) to become more mainstream and the norm.
In turn the entire industry may find its need rise for professional integrity and technical proficiency across the board.

Give BIM a chance?
Spare the little fish that still have professional integrity, technical capability and the willingness to change the game and they may find the way to use it for the betterment of all….(in spite the odds stacked heavily against them).