Collecting information has never been easier, but it’s all a bit pointless unless we have clever and effective ways to turn it into insights, then user-friendly information


It’s crystal clear that the world we live in today revolves around data. It is often quoted that data is to this century what oil was to the last century: a driver for change and improved performance. So it is understandable why many in the construction industry are keen to promote and harness that power.

And it needs to be soon. According to a May 2018 Forbes article, 90% of the data in the world was generated over the last two years, which rather staggering fact illustrates the sheer rate of change and development that exists in this digitalised age. We need to orientate ourselves in this rush of data before we are left behind, or swept along without taking time to plan how to use data to the best effect, and to use the force of global digital momentum to take us to where we want to be. 

Read: Building’s Digital Transformation special supplement

Collecting data accurately is merely the first step in a series of processes, and the collection itself is fairly meaningless

So the real question is: how can the flood of potential data be harnessed effectively to the benefit of clients in assuring the optimum design, delivery and use of their projects? How can we make data work for them?

The important point to consider is that collecting data accurately is merely the first step in a series of processes, and that the collection itself is fairly meaningless. It is often the case that many organisations possess a lot of data, but they don’t really know how to process it to gain value. Habitually, it is collected but often not analysed or turned into insight which constitutes advice, improving performance and adding value to the end game. 

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the topic of benchmarking, which is used extensively during the course of a construction project and, in particular, during the design stages – applying to topics such as floor area efficiencies, design criteria metrics, programme speeds and construction cost. But when you boil this concept down to its basic function, benchmarking is merely the comparison of a proposed scheme with other schemes of a similar type and class, looking at things like cost and value and the drivers for both. 

With a diminishing amount of time to get messages across, we have gone back to communicating in pictures and symbols

It serves as a useful guard against complacency, posing questions as to why certain aspects of the scheme are showing a markedly different answer to the same aspect of comparable schemes – but when abnormal attributes of the scheme in question are removed from the comparison, the projects often end up in the same place. 

The benefit of this exercise is that it has allowed logic to be tested and reasoning to be understood. But in effect, the process has limitations and doesn’t really offer insight into better and more efficient design, it merely compares why different construction schemes are at odds with one another.

Perhaps a more interesting concept here is that known as functional benchmarking, which is a comparison to similar or identical practices (or data) within the same or similar function, but outside the immediate industry. For example, there have been ammunition suppliers who have benchmarked themselves against a cosmetics company, comparing shell casings with lipstick holders. An airline company looked at a racing crew to see how to perform quick equipment maintenance and repairs, contrasting the data of both.

Those who have the ability and drive to collect data (and vast amounts of it) have only the potential for success. The real winners will be those people and companies that can then analyse the data, spot trends and turn the data into knowledge and, in turn, into insight and advice that adds value and improves performance. In an industry that repeats processes time and time again, and is motivated (and frankly required) to improve its ability to deliver with more certainty, much more should be made of evidence-based decision making and the use of insight through data. 

Allied to this is understanding how to pass this insight on, to communicate data-driven insight in a way which is clear and compelling, and makes decision making easy – all hail to the topic of infographics! With the fast-paced nature of the modern world allowing a diminishing amount of time to get messages across, we have gone back to communicating in pictures and symbols (or emojis as my kids would tell me), not dissimilar to the hieroglyphics system used by the Ancient Egyptians in 3,000 BC.

And this data, once it is put in a simple format, also needs to be easily accessible. One of the big discussion points in the industry is tracking the performance of buildings (and the productivity of those who work in them) over the life of the asset, through the collection and analysis of data and post-occupancy evaluation. It’s very feasible to imagine that a building’s attributes and performance will soon be readily available on a smartphone app, with the user being able to select an address and discover the relevant data and metrics in a TripAdvisor-style approach. Perhaps, future site acquisitions, lettings and rent reviews will also be carried out in this fashion.

In God we trust – all others, bring data …

Iain Parker is a partner in Alinea