UK Construction Media

Interview: Raj Chawla talks about SMEs’ BIM progress since mandate

News   •   Oct 24, 2016 14:12 BST

UK Construction Online’s Matt Brown talks to Raj Chawla to discuss how SMEs are faring after April’s BIM mandate

Raj is the CTO & Projects Director at NUNELAH, Transition Team Member of UK BIM Alliance, Leadership member of BIM4SMEs & an Executive of digital2all.

He has 35 years experience in specialised construction management & construction engineering consultancy to companies world-wide acquired in the Aerospace, Defence, Telecommunications, Nuclear and Petro-Chemical sectors.

When we last spoke, it was just before the BIM Level 2 mandate came into force. You expressed your concern that the vast majority of the industry wasn’t ready for it. How do you feel now?

Having embarked on several projects using the BIM process, the view hasn’t changed much as at today. This is a direct reflection of what is being encountered in the clients and supply chains, both in the UK and abroad. Some have not even heard of the process. This is not a derogatory statement, but a reality check.

The UK government had an evangelistic view of taking the initiative to mandate BIM for centrally procured projects and they should be applauded for that. The framework standards around BIM that emerged are also good and stable, however, the usage of these standards is not the easiest for the new SME entrant within different disciplines.

The reason that the vast majority of the supply chain is not ready is attributed to three main causes; one is the lack of awareness about BIM, secondly the messaging has been desperately mixed and confusing and thirdly the short fall and poverty in the specific guidance to negotiate the BIM Level 2 processes, especially for the SMEs.

So you see we have several challenges that we need to bridge.

Do you think there is now more awareness of BIM or the digital process from SMEs?

The awareness campaigns have been isolated and have focused on “BIM as specialist subject”. This has not been addressed as the digital formation of the sector. For industry to take up the BIM process, the value proposition has to be explained. There are early adopters, only because they are either technophiles or simply understand the value proposition of implementing the processes within their businesses.

The standards and the framework documents are all out there and this is a body of good work that has been done. What needs to be accelerated now is the digitisation value proposition explained to the CEO’s and the MD’s of the SME’s.

Once this is explained without the BIM jargon, in particular to the SMEs, the response is generally positive and there is engagement. Where the SMEs are becoming aware, they are able to engage quickly.

Awareness is one aspect that the industry is struggling with, and as a focus group, BIM4SME also struggle with this. It is the extent of the reach that is not being formed.

Let me paint a picture with some stats and I am sure the audiences reading this will be able to do the math. As at April 2016, some 100-120k in the construction industry knew about BIM and have some understating of the concept. About 8-10% of that number practice or are starting to practice BIM in some shape. These are the early adopters. Looking at the numbers in the tables below, show that the tipping point is a long way for BIM Level 2 to be business as usual.

While I appreciate that the stats are a year old, there are other economic forces and stress acting that make the numbers still valid today.

Do you think more tier 1 and tier 2 contractors are fully level 2 conversant following the mandate?

Firstly, there is no organisation or company that is fully conversant with BIM Level 2 yet, simply because they have not had full circular experience of a BIM Level 2 project. You will appreciate that there is a difference in theoretical understanding and practiced understanding. This will take time and evolve. There are pockets within T1 and T2 organisations that are starting to appreciate the overall process, but remain as pockets. Equally there are SME consultants that understand the process.

The key for SMEs is to be able to engage on BIM Level 2 projects with T1 & T2 contractors in order to properly participate. For the SME side, there is a lot of guidance that is required to show how the process should be entered into and exited having fulfilled the necessary obligations that are required by the process.

From the T1 and T2 aspect of engagement, it is still marred with old procurement practices of migration of risk towards the SME as opposed to the mitigation of risk by collaboration. This is a new skill set that the clients and the higher tiers have to acquire yet. This change has to embed top down. It is a culture change that will take several years to entrench.

Are you concerned that some SMEs are going to be left behind?

There is an element of some SMEs being left behind, but this is part of evolution. However, in the same breath, other SMEs are incubating providing innovative solutions that are starting to support the industry in novel and exciting ways.

As the younger generation enter the construction industry, does it makes the digital transformation easier due to their expectancy to work with technology?

The younger generation is indeed the key to digital transformation. What has concerned me for some time now is the incumbent old guard in this industry has reluctance to engage with the younger generations style of thinking of open data. This is one of the biggest challenges we face today.

To simply explain this is difficult, but here goes. The culture that exists today in the AECO is based on old systems and old ecosystems. The movement of information and then the extraction of data is very cumbersome. The open use of information even within an organisation is further restricted and contained in silos never seeing the light of day. The valuable data is either lost or forgotten, only to be generated again.

The younger generation have grown up with free flowing data and information, whether this is good bad or indifferent. They have grown up in a digital ecosystem which is part of their formation. To engage, extract, visualise, dismiss and form value from vast amounts of unrestricted free flowing information and data is something that is not readily appreciated or fully understood by the older generations in the AECO. At the lowest level, this is attributed to a lack of understanding and more significantly the lack of trust in the digital ecosystem. This understanding has to form first. A hard nut to crack.

The younger generation are immersed in digital thematic explorations and this comes as second nature, while the incumbents will require a cultural shift to develop trust in the digital ecosystem.

Is changing people’s mentality the biggest barrier to businesses making the jump to BIM?

I don’t think it is about mentality. Once you give the person or a business correct and stable information without mixed messages, they can make their own intelligent decisions. The key here is to inform with consistency. The messaging has not been consistent and with this inconsistency set, one has to clear the path first and then start to inform. This takes extraordinary time and effort.

BIM is a good process, but remains just that and may not be for everyone, however digitisation is for everyone and is the underlying current. As I have said before, explaining the value proposition to a business is the key. The CEO’s and MD’s are interested in the development of their businesses and are accountable to their shareholders. Explaining the value proposition of digitisation and the extended value to append to the digital economy is the first step.

The next steps would be adoption and implementation of digital policies and process. Storing, managing, securing, accessing, controlling, valuing, ordering etc. of the data needs to come first before making that BIM jump. BIM is possibly a quinary step to roll out very specific processes that encompass best practices and create better workflows.

Depending on the level of interaction, generally the SME working on a BIM project can probably engage with very little capital investment. Setting up and lining up processes takes time and human resource, which can be difficult for a small or a micro SMEs. For SMEs, the challenges are a little more than a simple mind-set.

What response is digital2all receiving from the industry?

digital2all is in formation and since the initial announcement the business structure is being formed. The response from industry has been very positive about the future initiative coupled with a good amount of curiosity. The clue is in the name and a formal structure and statement will be issued soon.

Do you think those in the industry are getting better at raising awareness or is it still the case only a small number of people are being reached?

I don’t think that I am far out from my estimates that about 90% of the industry still needs reaching and engaging with. There is sufficient evidence to reflect this.

For a project like BIM Level 2 a specialist PR company should have been in tow from the start. This is basic awareness practice and the consistency in the message would have been tested and the reach would have been more prolific. However, we are where we are.

I and many others had a great concern that there was vacuum developing at the start of 2016, that all the work that had been done over the last five to six years was going to fall off the edge with the Task Group moving to a sexier agenda of Digital Built Britain.

Now with the advent and the formation of the UK BIM Alliance, which is an industry facing group, gives me a little more comfort that the momentum will build. BIM Level 2 is the foundation to the digital formation of the sector and cannot be forgotten or overlooked. The building of the foundation must be seen through in order for BIM Level 2 to become business as usual by 2020.

The institutions could be central to the awareness message. Rather than promoting BIM as a specialist subject, promoting the digital formation of the sector should be the first mantra, with BIM Level 2 being one of the key targets to achieve. This message needs to be a constant for the next few years. Some messages are there, but certainly not constant.

The UK BIM Alliance as the name suggest, is forming alliances with the institutes, focus groups, academia and industry and it is this buy-in that will assist in a wider reach.

It’s been said that the BIM Level 2 mandate should be treated as a starting point on the BIM journey for most companies rather than a deadline. Is that something you would go along with?

If I was to respond to this philosophically, then yes it is indeed a point in time, whether it is the start or middle of the journey. However, I am going to respond to this pragmatically. BIM Level 2 was a project, it had an objective, a finite budget and a deliverable. There was a timeline to all this, and that was April 2016.

For me the bigger question is what just happened and what is about to happen?

What just happened is that, we as industry now have a set of rules in the guise of the standards to deploy processes which will allow industry to start to work in a disciplined and consistent manner.

The thing that people miss or overlook is that these processes also invoke the digitisation of work flows. They start to frame the value associated with information and in particular, the data. They also promote methods of managing the information and data.

You have referred to the value proposition throughout, but what is it? Here are some random examples. Could owning data and associating value to it turns this to an asset on the balance sheet? – is that in itself a value proposition or not? Selling, bartering with or licensing data – is that not a value proposition or not?

Others globally, are struggling with becoming digitally savvy and here we have been gifted with a leg up to become global leaders in our sector. Don’t want to waste this opportunity and throw away all the investment that has been made to date.

What is about to happen is that the value proposition is going to be explained clearly and without ambiguity. This is going to become a significant assignment. SMEs, in particular, need the proposition to be broken into bite size pieces so that it is understood and how it adds value to their businesses. So watch this space.

Will BIM4SME be at Digital Construction Week? If so, what are you expecting to be the main themes of this year’s show?

Yes, BIM4SME will be at Digital Construction Week. We will have a fluid presence. We will be with the UK BIM Alliance and supporting groups such as Women in BIM and others. The mantra is the same for all of us. It is the digitisation of our industry. As always, I am going to be looking for the next potential disruption.

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