Faced with the need to train a large number of the construction industry in BIM, where do you start? Focusing on the gatekeepers will have the biggest immediate impact

Simon Rawlinson

One of the great successes of the UK BIM Strategy has been the industry’s familiarity with BIM terminology. If nothing else, growing parts of construction speaks a common language, a key first step to a common BIM-enabled way of working. But familiarity is not the same as a full understanding.

A common occurrence is the potentially tricky situation of clients, advisers and contractors asking for, or promising to deliver, BIM level 2 without necessarily being clear about what they mean. An ambiguous brief creates the risk of waste, duplication or under-delivery, and a disappointing outcome might dissuade a client from their commitment to developing a BIM strategy.

It is not surprising then that training is high on the BIM agenda, with a wide range of courses available and a revised version of the BIM Learning Outcomes Framework currently in production. But people change is an enormous task that the industry has yet to take on board. Construction and FM employ around 3 million people including designers and product manufacturers. Most, if not all, of these people could be touched to a greater or lesser extent by the need to create, share or use data delivered using digital tools. Where do you start?

One good place to start would be the universities. The logic being that the current cohort of digitally native “Millennials” will be fully at home with IT-enabled working. Add to that the likelihood that quite a few will have honed their virtual collaboration skills in multiplayer online game environments, such as World of Warcraft, and this is the obvious group to drive innovation. Unencumbered by traditional thinking about roles, professions, liability and so on, this new generation is in a position to pick up and drive the use of BIM in the most effective way.

The BIM 2050 Group illustrated much of this new thinking in the Built Environment 2050 report published in September. However, this bet on the millennials places a lot of responsibility on the universities - to ensure that they are teaching the right skills in the right environment, to a generation who could find themselves as game changers at a very early stage in their career.

I have seen a number of projects with great BIM potential that have not progressed as far as they could have done due to a lack of advocacy when critical decisions needed to be made

I have no doubt that given the talent that the industry attracts - demonstrated at events such as the CIC’s Speed Networking sessions - this generation has the potential to have a huge impact on BIM take-up and collaborative working. BIM adoption on some very large, high-profile projects have already been driven by young teams. However, I do worry, given the hierarchical and sometimes risk-averse nature of UK construction, whether enough of our emerging talent will get the chance to have this impact.

That’s why I would focus at least some of my investment on Generation X - the mid-career gatekeepers who have such an influence on how individual projects are resourced and run. This is because of the potential that well-intentioned managers have to block progress, either through an absence of understanding or just plain inertia.

I have seen a number of projects with great BIM potential that have not progressed as far as they could have done due to a lack of advocacy when critical decisions needed to be made. How is work going to be allocated? What models will be produced? What data will the models hold and how will it be used? With many aspects of the BIM infrastructure under development, such as the Digital Plan of Work, it is not unreasonable for a risk-averse approach to BIM to be adopted - but decisions should be made on a basis of real knowledge rather than in a vacuum.

If there was to be a training initiative aimed at our industry gatekeepers, what are the key issues to address? Our gatekeepers will need to understand the common language of BIM, but what else? If I were setting the outcomes, I would concentrate on the three elements: people, process and data. Specifically: BIM-focused roles; the key processes, such as a Common Data Environment; and most importantly, knowing how to articulate and ask for the BIM data that can be shared and reused. Work currently being undertaken within the RICS to develop tools to support these data exchanges is a great example of the positive work being done and the potential to drive adoption at a grass-roots, project level.

My singling out of Generation X as the BIM gatekeepers could be interpreted as yet another transfer of resources from the young to the old - rather like the cost of housing or college tuition fees. Yet in this area, I have a feeling that the gatekeeper generation does need some help.

Life-long learning is a habit that is rapidly taking root - but one that may be harder for mid-career professionals to pick up on. According to recent Oxford University research, 35% of UK jobs are at a high risk of replacement through technology, automation or robotics over the next 20 years. Some of the jobs at risk will be in professional and technical areas. The new skills and opportunity to add value that BIM provides is a great way to future-proof in a rapidly changing world.

Simon Rawlinson is head of strategic research and insight at EC Harris