Contractor plans to gain “real competitive advantage” with three-year project to compile database of successes and failures of past projects.
Balfour Beatty is investing £3-5m in an Internet-based knowledge management system to allow staff access to detailed information on past projects.

Group managing director Paul Lester described the system as “like meeting a colleague in the pub for a chat”. It will allow staff to contact and obtain information from colleagues, consultants and possibly suppliers that worked on past jobs.

Lester, who was promoted to the main board of Balfour’s parent BICC in February, said the system will not have rigid parameters. It will contain information about where projects went well and how problems were overcome or could have been avoided.

Lester, 50, is currently identifying a software supplier for the system. The total cost of the investment is likely to be considerably more than £5m after the basic package is installed. “I think this is a three-year project before we get a real competitive advantage.”

Part of the reason for the length of the project and the high cost is the massive amount of data that Balfour will have to put into the system. Lester said it will be piloted before a full roll-out. “I would like to think that a high percentage of our people would volunteer to get on the system,” he added.

Lester said the move was part of a “massive culture change” going on within Balfour Beatty. It follows on from the internal launch of a project guidance manual, The Way We Work, which is being used on all of Balfour’s new projects following a successful trial at the firm’s £69m Woolgate Exchange project in London.

The guidance lays down standard procedures for each stage of the construction process, from initial design onward, and is aimed at improving productivity. “We started measuring the effectiveness of operatives on site and found that they typically spent 50% of the time not working for various reasons,” said Lester. “What we have tried to do is select the best of what we are doing on different sites and focus it in on the Woolgate Exchange project.“

Lester also reiterated Balfour’s commitment to the commercial building market. “There is no reason why good money cannot be made out of building,” he said. “We can make 3%-plus margins out of it.”

Balfour is also bidding to do at least three-quarters of its business for repeat customers. At the moment, this stands at 60% but has risen from about one-third just three years ago, said Lester. “The acid test is what will happen in a downturn,” he added. “But hopefully we will form allegiances with customers that are so good that clients won’t go back to lowest price.”