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Technology is not a panacea

April 20th, 2015 by Graham Attwell

As regular readers will know, one of teh major projects we are involved in is the Learning layers project, focused on technology support for informal learning in the construction and health sectors. As part of this we are involved in ongoing scoping, concerning both the introduction of new technologies and the changes in work practices and organisation that this entails.

Probably the biggest news in construction is the introduction of Building Information Modelling (BIM) defined by Wikipedia as “a process involving the generation and management of digital representations of physical and functional characteristics of places”. BIM has been seen as almost revolutionising the construction industry and offering considerable savings in the coordination and execution of construction projects, improved logistics, waste saving and the long term management of buildings. The adoption of BIM is mandatory in the European Union for public construction contracts, although different European member states have different adoption timetables. Two of the countries in the forefront of adoption are Norway and The UK. In this respect a survey and report from the UK’s National Building Specification released last week produced surprising findings.

According to Buiding.co.uk :

The survey, of over 900 respondents from across the construction industry carried out by RIBA Enterprises offshoot NBS, shows that the proportion of firms saying they use the modelling technology has dropped from 54% last year to 48%.

The report concludes that “there remain a significant number of practices who do not see the advantages of BIM, and so chose not to adopt, or who are currently unable to adopt BIM, because of time, cost, or expertise.”

The reported fall contrasts with the rapid rise in BIM usage when the survey was last conducted. The drop in this year’s survey is particularly surprising, given the 2016 deadline for all central government funded projects to use Level 2 of BIM.

Of course 900 is a relatively small respondent base, given the number of construction firms. But it seems likely those responding are more likely to have an interest in BIM and are more likely to represent larger companies. Therefore the results beg some thinking about. it appears one of the biggest challenges is skills shortages. But such skills shortages come at a time when construction is struggling to come out of recession. Probably a bigger issue is the introduction of complex software and process management systems without adequate training for staff and without time for consideration of the necessary reorganisation of work process to cope with such change. There is also an issue as to the cost of adapting such systems, particularly in an industry dominated by Small and Medium (more small than medium) enterprises. Finally I am unconvinced that the top down imposition of such systems is the right way to go in instigating and sustaining innovation and change. Research of previous disruptive changes due to technology introduction (for instance in the motor car manufacturing industry) suggest that such ‘innovation; can lead to a short term fall in productivity. Whilst in a boom this might be absorbed, it is difficult to see how this can happen in the aftermath of the crisis.

The survey may lead to some rethinking about how BIM is introduced. But bringing in such disruptive change without properly analysing and taking measures around education and training and changing work organisations carries a very high risk of failure. the industry in countries like Germany who have hung back in the time scale for adoption, but with better traditions of continuing professional development, will be taking note.

One Response to “Technology is not a panacea”

  1. Pekka Kämäräinen says:

    Graham, this is an important blog post but has gone lost in cyberspace because you have forgot to announce it is a “Wales-wide web” blog post. Now the only way to find it is to go via the Learning Layers website. Once you have added the category “Wales-wide web” we get it into its proper place on the front page.

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