Advancing Construction Analytics conference: key takeaways

In Lantern Posts, News by Marc Krichman

I attended the inaugural Advancing Construction Analytics conference a few weeks ago, which was the first conference I’m aware of that focused solely on promoting data-driven decision making in our industry. Aside from mentioning this was a long time coming, like any technology-focused conference in our industry, there seemed to be several themes which emerged both through direct conversation and by walking around listening for interesting snippets of conversation at breaks, meals and bar time.

POCs, initial projects and other base hits

Most companies wanted to get a feel for what others were doing. If they had started business intelligence initiatives, what specific problems were they solving and, generally, how was it going?

The answers were varied. Some had embarked with proofs of concepts, like Skanska’s “Sweet Spot” analysis, where BI was used as a business development tool to focus their efforts on businesses where Skanska had been the most successful.

Interestingly, a Hensel Phelps presentation covered a similar topic, using past project performance but for a slightly different asset; in their case, a sort of corporate résumé which described all of the projects a specific team member has been associated with.

The successful POCs and initial projects were definitely validating the use of BI and analytics, proving that more investment was warranted.

Advanced projects, doubles and home runs

Some companies were through the initial projects and on to more advanced concepts and digital transformations.

  • Beck created comparative models of successful projects to forecast schedule delays using cost data.
  • PCL’s “Digital-First Operating Model” showed they’re on the road to building a full digital twin of their construction projects.
  • Suffolk’s predictive analytics project drove down Total Recordable Incidents and Lost Time Incidents by 20% in 2018.

They didn’t specifically mention it, but it seems these companies will continue to make investments in BI and analytics, as their investments are achieving impressive results and ROI.

For those in the dugout—how to get started

My view, analytics conference morning (80° F the day before!)

The predominant theme discussed over coffee, lunch and libations after the long conference day was how to get started with business intelligence.

That is, it was the overriding question if we ignore asking how Denver in late April could go from 80° F on Sunday to snow on Monday—a 60-degree drop in 36 hours!

Regarding how to get started in BI, the simple answer can be summed up as this:

Instead of implementing business intelligence as something new, use it as a faster, easier way of accomplishing a task you’re already doing.

An excellent presentation by Granite Construction illustrates what I’m talking about.

The wrong way

Granite’s Chief Information Officer Malcolm Jack and Information Technology Director Peter Young started their journey into BI by convening multiple vice presidents from across the organization to talk about data governance and data policy. They talked about system architecture,  visualization tools, taxonomies, semantics and other technobabble essential to reliable data.

“Boy, it was fantastic,” Malcolm Jack said. “And it failed. It was absolutely a disaster.”

The problem, they soon learned, was that Jack and Young were presenting business intelligence, but Granite’s people did not perceive their challenges as pertaining to BI. Nobody said, “Give me BI.” Rather, they asked for the functions BI provides:

  • “We need you to move this data from here to there.
  • “We need to use a reporting tool with these functions.
  • “We need to move all the data from these five tools into that one tool.”

Their requests revealed what IT Director Peter Young called “a clear mandate for business intelligence,” but without specifying it as BI!

So the IT team changed their approach. They went from presenting the BI backend—data governance—to developing solutions for immediate business problems.

Safety first

They started with a BI tool that showed new ways of looking at safety data.

Granite Safety Dashboard Example

Granite Safety Dashboard Example

The BI tool was more robust than an Excel spreadsheet, with more ways to visualize the data. It was faster to prepare. And it enabled deeper penetration into key benchmarks of safety.

The safety report went to the CEO. He liked it a lot.

Finance was next on the list

Next, Malcolm Jack and Peter Young went to the finance team. The IT experts asked the finance people what they needed. They said they needed data presentations that were more robust than their spreadsheets, because executives would ask for additional information that required labor-intensive remodeling before it could be presented.

The BI team delivered a solution to the finance team, and the CFO loved it.

Peter Young summed it up: “We came to understand we weren’t going to be the ones to drive the discussion.” He said it was key business champions in safety, finance and operations who had already invested in things like Excel who were ready to embrace a new tool set.

Single source of truth

Everyone was happy—for a while. But remember all that talk about data governance? It’s needed for a reason.

As Malcolm Jack told it, “We started to see skirmishes on where that data came from. We started to see questions on what is the single source of truth. We started to see problems that needed to be fixed on the back end. Suddenly, there was this need for governance. So we were having conversations internally and organically.”

And just like that, Granite’s BI initiative came back to where it started—with conversations about data governance. But this time, those talks were not theoretical. People had real-world concerns and input. And they were willing to embrace the policies that resulted because they were driven by real business problems.

A 94% drop in time spent

In addition to providing more, better, more coordinated data, the Granite BI team saved significant time for the company. As Malcolm Jack said, “Not only have we effectively put them in control of their destiny, but we’ve also now slashed the four hours a day they spent amassing all that data to maybe 10 or 15 minutes.”

The moral of the story (again)

As I’ve discussed at other conferences, blog posts and in person, the secret to success with business intelligence in our industry is:

  1. Focus on business problems, such as safety, finance, and operations, with IT following instead of leading. This keeps the focus on the business problem.
  2. Start small. Find people using spreadsheets and giving them the tools to prepare better reports, which then flow up to executives. This method offers built in payback through time savings of existing processes and reports.
  3. After you’ve proven value, establish the data governance policies that give people confidence in source data, resolve turf skirmishes, and encourage everyone to be vigilant in their data entry. This prevents garbage in, garbage out and increases the overall value of the end report, dashboard or digital asset.

This last point deserves a word

When colleagues see the relevance and importance of source data, they become more conscientious in entering that data. Quality improves. A good BI strategy ensures the technical steps to increase data quality.

In other words, a focus on the output brings a natural focus on the input of data. Steps can be taken to make sure the proper fields are filled out. Drop-down menus and buttons limit data to specific kinds.

Most importantly, the conference made clear that organizations are using business intelligence and analytics to compete. This is getting the attention of  company leadership, and they are beginning to mandate it!

Closing thoughts

I STRONGLY ENCOURAGE YOU TO ATTEND NEXT YEAR. The 2020 Advancing Construction Analytics conference will again be in April in Denver. The conference was jam-packed with lively discussions.

  • Your company’s size doesn’t matter. The conference sported a healthy mix of large regional companies and mid-sized contractors all tackling the same problem, with small companies sometimes outperforming the big ones!
  • Operations people are needed! It felt like everyone I met was in IT. This is an amazing step for our industry, but the business needs to drive BI if it’s truly going to be business intelligence!
  • Civil construction companies have an enormous opportunity to outperform their competition. Building contractors seemed to far outnumber civil contractors; the ratio may have been as high as 90/10—which means those civil contractors who do implement BI will have a competitive advantage!
Real people, not actors, discussing BI in Construction

What you’ll learn

Most attendees wanted to benchmark their own progress and get a feel for what others are doing.

  • What specific problems are they solving?
  • Which tools are they using? (Answer: a variety!)

Benchmarking your own progress is a way to spur action at your company if you can attest you’re behind the curve.

Also, benchmarking your progress is a way to discover if you’re doing something others are not, and whether it’s delivering a competitive advantage or taking you in the wrong direction!

Of course, if you’d like to benchmark your progress today, you don’t have to wait for next year’s conference. I’d be happy to engage in an informal conversation or, if you prefer, to conduct a formal audit.

I’m looking forward to seeing you in Denver in 2020!

And one last tip: Remember to pack for any weather.