Many client organizations are beginning to win the war on data governance, with mature data structures, well-defined libraries and efficient, accessible digital systems in place for data submission. Yet, the battle to obtain accurate data from the supply chain persists. Focus on this weak point is essential if industry is to truly embed data-driven practices.
Historically, the primary challenge has been the accurate and timely capture of granular cost data to inform benchmarking and facilitate greater accuracy for future investment decisions. As the construction industry continues to utilize digital technologies however, detailed asset information and robust carbon assessments are adding to these data capture demands.
In the UK, it is mandatory for central government and arm’s length bodies (ALB) to follow data-driven practices on a comply or explain basis, as set out in the Construction Playbook which was published by the UK Government in December 2020. The playbook recognizes the ‘golden thread’ of building information and advocates that “contracting authorities should seek opportunities to collaborate … and adopt shared requirements and common standards… to drive efficiencies, innovation and productivity” and that “embedding digital technologies … will improve the performance, sustainability and value for money of projects and programs.”
Our data scientist Niru Sundararajah recently published an article outlining the good data governance practices that can help ensure successful data outcomes, but this is only half the solution if you are struggling to obtain the data in the first place. In this article, we outline the steps organizations can take to maximize the value of their data by ensuring their supply chain delivers digital assets, alongside physical ones.
Make it standard
Computer scientist Andrew S. Tanenbaum once said, “The nice thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.” This is as true for the construction industry as it is in computing.
Cost breakdown structures (CBS) aligned to established methods of measurement vary across sectors yet all offer similar-but-different breakdowns at various levels of granularity. In recent years however, the growth of Building Information Modelling (BIM) has brought attention to a range of classification systems such as Uniclass and the International Construction Measurement Standards (ICMS). The UK BIM Framework should be referenced as best practice as its standardized approaches to information requirements as well as the classification and exchange of data gives common definitions which, if adopted universally across sectors, can bring efficiencies to all parties and build powerful repositories of digital assets.
Often however, it is not simply a case of choosing a standard; many organizations have evolved their own CBS and asset breakdown structures (ABS) in their financial and asset management functions respectively, immediately establishing multiple ‘golden threads’ that do not get utilized across the full delivery lifecycle (and often with no consistent alignment even between silos within the same business). Such differing specifications lead to challenges when trying to compare data between organizations, so with no one-size-fits-all, it is little wonder that contractors serving multiple clients cannot easily provide data to the exact prescribed requirements of each.
In these situations, adopting or aligning to an alternative, recognized standard across the whole organization will entail complex transformation, or even loss, of a valuable base of legacy data – but in a world of ever-increasing digital practice it is a case of if, not when, organizations take action to break the deadlock of immutable incompatibility. This requires acceptance of short-term vulnerability – and temporary mitigations such as extra assurance and benchmarking activities – as new data is acquired in return for medium- and long-term gains in the digital capabilities espoused by the Construction Playbook.
“Adopting or aligning to an alternative, recognized standard across the whole organization will entail complex transformation, or even loss, of a valuable base of legacy data – but in a world of ever-increasing digital practice it is a case of if, not when, organizations take action to break the deadlock of immutable incompatibility.”
Make it easy
Suppliers will have varying capability when it comes to providing project data. This not only means that quality of submissions can vary but also that with the burden of data provision constantly growing, the onus is on clients to avoid inefficiency in their requests if they are to avoid inadvertently driving up the overhead costs they have to pay.
As net-zero initiatives continue to mature, increasingly detailed carbon data will be requested, potentially bringing yet another set of measures, classification and derivation rules into play. Through our work with large infrastructure clients such as HS2 and the Environment Agency on integrating financial, sustainability and project performance data, we have developed the methodologies that allow these varied datasets to be efficiently managed against common structures, minimizing the opportunity for errors, easing data collection effort and facilitating robust project controls.
To ease the data provision burden across all classes of data, clients should seek to implement an ask-once policy whereby suppliers are not asked to submit the same information multiple times by different areas of the client business. This can be as simple as, for example, not requesting cumulative expenditure when monthly is already being provided, or not requesting that project details are entered when a reference code, from which the information can be indexed, is already part of the submission. It can also mean considering precisely what is being asked for relative to the ultimate organizational objectives. Requests can be reduced by targeting only the most useful data, as opposed to demanding absolutely everything.
On larger programs and frameworks where the cost benefit is justified, clients can help suppliers through collaborative activities ranging in scale from simply providing advocate resources to assist suppliers in getting submissions right through to providing checking and validation tools to pre-approve data before submission. Or, clients can undertake a systems engineering exercise to fully align and integrate client and supplier reporting systems to automate data acquisition.
The asset handover stage often involves detailed inspections. The latest cloud-based digital tools provide platforms that can manage this process, collecting and validating data using mobile devices in the field in real time against a corporate breakdown structure or design BIM. Leveraging technology like this can bring huge benefits in data collection efficiency and accuracy. Regardless of the tactical implementation, in all cases a clear process for the submission, validation and subsequent approval or feedback should be established as a business-as-usual process.
“To ease the data provision burden across all classes of data, clients should seek to implement an ask-once policy whereby suppliers are not asked to submit the same information multiple times by different areas of the client business. This can be as simple as, for example, not requesting cumulative expenditure when monthly is already being provided.”
Make it attractive
Making valid data submissions a contractual requirement can be a crude tool, but an effective one if used correctly. Accurate project data is valuable, so having a significant final payment dependent upon receipt of valid data is not unjustified and will ensure that suppliers treat submissions with the same priority that clients do.
Without adequate incentivization, data collection can become an unfunded tick-box exercise, completed to bare minimum standards by the cheapest resource, regardless of their capability or proximity to the project on which they are reporting. Inconsistent or incorrect data can be worse than no data at all; at least with no data a client knows they have a gap and can look for alternative information, whereas the consequences of relying on data of poor or unknown quality can be catastrophic.
For more mature suppliers however, the process can provide sufficient reciprocal benefits to be its own incentive. Digital twins – digital replicas of physical assets that respond in real-time – can provide a vehicle for data exchange and, as the Construction Playbook recognizes, effectively embedding digital technologies such as these into construction delivery can facilitate a number of benefits including improving safety, enabling innovation, reducing costs, and supporting more sustainable outcomes.
“Making valid data submissions a contractual requirement can be a crude tool, but an effective one if used correctly. Without adequate incentivization, data collection can become an unfunded tick-box exercise, completed to bare minimum standards.”
Time to act
Clients need robust data from their supply chains if they are to keep innovating and improving. Equally the supply chains need to become more capable at collecting and exchanging that data, and there are enormous benefits available to both sides in adopting common approaches and standards.
Ultimately, clients and suppliers who fail to implement actions to make that data standardized, easy and attractive to obtain will fall behind their peers, especially as we look to a future where digital triplets – the next stage of evolution of the digital twin, where each individual asset or product has its own digital record for tracking, querying and analysis – will become common practice.
Article was previously published by AECOM
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