Digitization, Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT). These are just some of the buzzwords to have emerged in recent years, affecting almost every industry as companies seek to innovate and explore new opportunities presented by rapidly evolving technology. As the boundaries of what is possible are pushed ever wider, these are exciting times for us all.
For 11 years, I have worked in construction project management in the Middle East – in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. During my time in the UAE, I have been privileged to contribute to Dubai’s transformation into a world-class business hub and leading tourism destination, through my involvement in some of the emirate’s flagship developments.
The introduction of digital Project Management Information Systems (PMIS), to manage project data and automate business processes including reporting, represented a big leap forward for the building industry – but this was a few years ago.
In present times, deploying digital systems is especially beneficial for clients who have reached high levels of organisational maturity. From where we as a business operate, the real value of running projects or large programs of works on sophisticated systems is the ability to realize value from data, and improve the overall project delivery experience for all stakeholders involved.
It is no secret that the construction sector has historically been one of the most inefficient, beset by delays and cost overruns. As a project manager, the first advice we offer clients is to ensure they have in place a robust set of processes and procedures, established lines of authority and good governance. A PMI-system is merely a tool (the software), configured based on these processes and procedures, that could be increasing overall efficiencies and effectiveness. We refer to this as governance before technology, and not the other way around. Investing in a software system (the technology) will not solve operational problems. There are so many stakeholders in a project delivery team – client representatives, management consultants, design consultants, contractors and suppliers – that the scope for delay or error is significant when the governance or the system does not meet expectations.
The value of automating project (management) delivery is even greater when applied to large programs of work, where we handle multiple projects simultaneously for a client, and have standards to mandate across the projects. For example, clients such as Dubai Municipality and the Roads & Transport Authority have robust requirements in the form of design and data standards (e.g. Business Information Modelling (BIM)) that they maintain for everything being built in Dubai. Without an appropriate PMIS, compliance will be much harder to achieve and enforce.
It is easy, however, for us to get excited by the next big thing and lose sight of what we really need to be more effective. If we consider consumers – how many of us have the latest digital camera and yet use only a fraction of its capabilities, and even with our mobile phones, most of us only use the basic functions.
In the professional world, where costs are rigorously monitored, our job is to sort the nice-to-haves from the essentials. When we hear talk about Artificial Intelligence and machine learning, it often feels like a solution looking for a problem to fix. It needs to be the other way around, with products showing genuine and proven value that save money and get us to our end goals faster and more efficiently. As a business, we seek to demystify all these buzzwords and identify the actual problems that need addressing, and to make the best possible decision based on the information available.
The role of the project manager is certainly evolving, however. In the past, we were performing a ‘policing’ role, overseeing and reporting on projects on behalf of the client. Today, we are disrupting the way projects were managed, partnering with clients to make data driven decisions. When I look forward, I believe the construction industry in the Middle East will be far removed from the one I joined 11 years ago.