For much of the industry, Building Information Modeling (BIM) has gone from bleeding edge to boring in less than a decade.
A Smart Market report by McGraw Hill found that 72 percent of industry firms in the United States (and 90 percent of medium and large firms) were using BIM in 2012 — up from 28 percent in 2007. Subsequent reports and research conducted during the last three years confirm it is becoming both more prevalent and is delivering increasing return on investment. Most architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) firms can cite examples of best practice implementation of BIM on their projects, and the rate of adoption and innovation is so fast, case studies and presentation abstracts can seem dated by the time they are released.
However, for the industry stakeholder with the most at stake — the project owner — BIM is still largely misunderstood.
Until recently, it was not uncommon for an owner to request that the project use BIM — and be told by the project team it would cost more to do so. With adoption among AEC firms having hit critical mass, this is now a rare occurrence, not because their clients are increasingly requesting BIM but because it has been proven to improve their own business processes and bottom lines.
This is a good thing for building owners, who can take a passive approach to innovation and still reap some of the benefits from higher-performing project teams. However, if an owner doesn’t understand the tools and trends, they will find it increasingly difficult to properly monitor and control their projects and, worse, they will not be able to maximize the value of this transformative technology. So what should they do?
Can’t I just call my architect?
As owners begin to grapple with the promise of the technology, they often turn to industry BIM experts for guidance — the people who design and build their facilities or the people who make and sell them the software. However, reliance on these stakeholders for guidance on an owner-centric strategy for BIM has a number of inherent problems.
- Context — These experts are external to the owner’s organization and understandably have limited insight into overall business requirements. They also provide service to only a small percentage of the facility life cycle as measured by either time or cost. It would be as if the king in the ancient Indian fable about the blind men encountering his elephant — in which each of the blind men come to different conclusions about what it is based on what part of the animal they are touching — commissioned one of them to be his zookeeper.
- Objectivity — It is likely that they are in competition with similar vendors in the owner’s existing AEC supply chain, which makes standardization, intellectual property exchange, and independent evaluation more difficult. A general contractor may pitch a unique approach for delivering a BIM as-built for one project, but that will be difficult to scale across an entire capital program when an owner is working with many different general contractors who are each trying to create their own unique value-adds relative to one another.
- Control — It can also be a challenge to manage scope requirements that were conceived and written by the people who will ultimately be performing the work. A common example of this we have seen is architecture firms developing BIM guidelines for an owner, effectively creating the standards by which their clients will judge them.
- Orientation — This approach comes at the challenge from the wrong direction, starting with a project or software and flowing up to the organization. The approach should start with the owner’s strategic objectives for their capital facilities, which then define project and technology requirements.
An owner should rely on a technology subject matter expert who has obligations and incentives that align with organizational objectives for their capital projects and facilities. And they should avoid implementing strategic advice that could be conflicted or limited by the factors listed above.
However, given that most BIM subject matter experts come from the design, construction, and software firms in the industry, it can be a challenge for owners to find advocates who understand their unique requirements and how the technology can address their specific needs.
Every owner is a snowflake
Owners with built assets span vertical industries and serve a unique array of stakeholders and organizational requirements with their facilities. Similar technology is often used in service of key business functions across industries in different manners. Consider the distinction in how a broker like Expedia uses an e-commerce website as opposed to a retailer like Walmart.
After many years of working with BIM technology and directly for owners, we have found the following to be an effective framework for developing and implementing an effective strategy:
- Business needs provide the true north. How the technology can be used to drive value should reflect organizational priorities. Cost is less important than quality and schedule for a mission critical facility such as a processing plant, but for a public school district — where every dollar spent on facilities is money that could have been spent on teachers, textbooks, and students — the priorities are different.
- Staff the expertise. Hire someone and/or leverage a consultant performing in an owner’s representative capacity. There must be business leadership with skin in the game to set the vision and to provide the technical chops to ensure successful execution.
- Focus on outputs, not means and methods. Innovation in the latter is going to occur naturally in a competitive environment, but the former must be defined and codified as a contractual requirement in order to deliver optimal benefits to an owner.
- Validate with use cases. Identify and prioritize specific use cases based on an assessment of value against factors such as industry standardization, maturity, and current capabilities. This provides opportunities for quick wins and incremental improvement that can be measured and communicated throughout the organization.
- Engage your AEC supply chain. An owner needs to validate what they hope to accomplish within the constraints of existing software functionality and the resource capabilities of their design consultants and contractors. The experts who sell the software, or use it to design and build facilities, are valuable contributors to this process. They just shouldn’t be the ones developing an owner’s BIM strategy.
Take the wheel
New technology disrupts how we do business. This is neither good nor bad; it is a fact. But most owners continue to tread cautiously and have largely been passengers when it comes to industry innovation, especially when it comes to BIM.
Management consultant Peter Drucker said, “Results are obtained by exploiting opportunities, not by solving problems.” For the owner — the most important stakeholder in our industry — being proactive with BIM will provide an opportunity to improve how they do business, create a competitive advantage, and save them money.
Sean Olcott is technical director – Virtual Design and Construction for Gafcon (gafcon.com), a California-based program and construction management firm that provides services for a wide range of public, private, and education projects. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.