PCL Construction — Q&A with Manager of Integrated Construction Technology
Where much of the construction world zigs, PCL Construction zags. They’re one of the few construction companies that employs a team of software developers to make applications custom-fit to the construction world. Job Site Insights is their flagship application, an Internet of Things (IoT) platform developed in-house and made available externally.
But beyond their in-house developments, a team of project managers within PCL are ensuring that this and other technology solutions are implemented at the site level. Aaron Akehurst is one of these people. He’s helping lead the Integrated Construction Technology (ICT) department for PCL in Canada and helps drive technology adoption across their construction business.
I think what’s interesting here is that PCL takes a very unique approach in that you have a proactive Business Technology (BT) department and also an Integrated Construction Technology (ICT) group. Do you mind talking a bit about the differences between these two and maybe the historical evolution of them?
Business Technology is what you would typically consider an IT department within most organizations, but with the added responsibility of our own in-house software development.
Since the mid-90s, we’ve been developing our own project management software. When we hired our current CIO, Mark Bryant, on board, we began looking at construction technology as a potential revenue stream and identified IoT as a real market opportunity. We found point solutions that have a dedicated cloud-based app for one particular function. For example, one app offers a temperature sensor, and a completely different app offers a pressure senso r— there was no unifying platform. So PCL started Job Site Insights to be that IoT platform. Out of this solution, PCL has grown several other in-house developments.
ICT was borne out of the traditional Virtual Design & Construction (VDC) role. For appoximately 10 years now, we’ve had people in VDC roles at the district level. But this role has been a person who would answer specific questions when asked or there would be one specific thing that made sense for us to do in 3D, and we’d go and do that. That was until I took over about three years ago, I recognized that there was no holistic approach to implementing technology.
Strategically across Canada, PCL has ended up with a bunch of similar roles in each of the districts. The role of ICT involves a lot of the VDC focused items, but also brings in other solutions, whether that’s Job Site Insights or a third-party point solution, to solve the work and improve efficiency on site wherever technology makes sense.
So how does that central ICT resource operate within PCL?
The focus of our group is really a change management piece at the site level. We have monthly meetings with peers across Canada and we bring in outside people to present to the group or share best practices on new items — really building off each other in terms of how we can help our project teams to implement VDC and related items.
Part of the challenge in VDC integration is standardized systems. The worst-case scenario is that on future projects, you have a different owner’s representative who has completely different requirements and it’s wasted effort. We talked earlier about the Corps of Engineers’ and their Construction-Operations Building information exchange (COBie).
Absolutely. I dare you to Google “COBie spreadsheet” and download it! It is a beast of a spreadsheet (here’s an example, for the curious). In spreadsheet format, it’s not easy to use and digest, but it is a common data structure — and so if we’re using a common data structure then we’re able to leverage that on multiple platforms.
We see that the COBie format is fairly industry accepted. For example, our commissioning software vendor on one project is in the process of finalizing a build for importing COBie information into their software. It’s a nice way for us to get data out of Revit and into the commissioning software by using this kind of standard format.
Addressing the owner’s ask, especially on the BIM side of it, where on projects with owner BIM requirements, we are seeing more of a focus and dedicated resources from the project teams, whether that is internally or externally with our partners.
BIM is a huge win for a project overall in terms of being able to do a much better job of coordination. By focusing more attention on the BIM process in general, we get a lot of ancillary benefits for PCL and for our design and trade partners.
So what are your processes around technology implementation and adoption? You mentioned ICT having a VDC background but also focused on utilizing other solutions whenever it makes sense. Is it a push or is it a pull? What’s that dynamic like?
More of a push still. My background comes from 14 years of project management experience in PCL’s Canadian regions. When I switched over, I built relationships with everybody: all the project coordinators and top-level people within PCL. There’s a familiarity that helps when people reach out and say, “Hey, I’m looking to try and solve this particular problem.”
But generally, it’s a lot of meeting with project teams, understanding what they’re building, and using knowledge from my project management days to help understand project risk. Asking, “what’s the piece of technology that’s going to help move the needle for this group?”
We’re much more focused on picking up one to three technologies that we’re going to implement and implement them well. And we’re trying to identify a project coordinator person who can be the champion within that project team to help manage troubleshooting at the site level, and then supporting that person with someone in my group who’s the district expert in that piece of technology.
In that way, the champion on site feels supported and the broader site feels supported as well.
It’s a unique challenge in our industry to find those field champions and to know whose sleeve to pull in order to get things done. I’ve found that this is perhaps the biggest ticket for success in technology programs in construction. How do you find those coordinators? How do you make inroads at the project level?
Face-to-face meetings and sitting down with the project team. Simply going to the project coordinator is not really going to move the needle. It’s getting that project manager and usually superintendent on board. They’re the ones who are making sure that the project level champion is successful at implementing it.
It does feel like there’s a long road ahead, and part of the challenge is that getting site feedback is hard. Early in this role, I remember sending someone a piece of technology and being like, “OK, that’s done — that deployment’s finished”, and then coming back three months later and it’s like, “Oh, yeah, no, we’re not using that anymore. It didn’t work.”
Construction is traditional in the sense that what the general contractor or superintendent says typically goes. And because of that, there’s a reluctance to put your hand up and say, I think that’s a bad idea or that the technology isn’t working.
A passion of mine is in lean construction and trying to empower our people and the broader project team, including subcontractors and designers, to think about the big picture, resolve problems with a focus on process, and allow everyone to have a voice at the table.
Nate Fuller is Managing Director of Placer Construction Solutions, advising leadership teams to transform their organizations in ways that improve performance and agility at the field level.
He provides construction companies with a field assessment that delivers transformative information about their field operations and is proven to accelerate innovation & technology adoption for Top ENR contractors.
If you found this article insightful, please consider signing up for my newsletter at placersolutions.io