Despite its potential, tech has thus far lived in a nebulous space in the construction industry. For many contractors, especially subs, adopting new technology has always come with a high level of skepticism—and for good reason.
Over the past few decades, companies fixated on riding the tech wave with a sales-over-solutions mentality have lost their user-focus and compromised progress by losing touch, and in turn, trust. So far, it’s largely been a story of big promises and marginal payoffs, limited applicability, and products and services that don’t work as advertised or aren’t even adopted by the intended users.
So where does that leave most industry professionals? Hungry for a true paradigm shift with very little motivation to be the first to take the leap.
Fortunately, the solution to this widespread problem is simpler than it sounds. By using feedback loops, maintaining continuous dialogue with actual customers, and applying a design-thinking rigor to solve problems, we can find solutions that work with, not for, the industry.
But first, we need to take a look at the path that lead us here.
How we got here
Just after the turn of the 21st century, digital construction tech started gaining a strong foothold, much of it focusing on ERP, CAD, and accounting.
Even though there was promise of advancement in the industry, much of it was composed of large, capital-intensive, and on-premise legacy software packages which not only required multi-year commitments, but were aimed at accounting and finance, and were never meant for operation and field folks—yet were forced down the hierarchy with marginal success regardless.
While they did improve office-based insights, the approach did little to provide any convenience or support to those in the field—i.e., those with the most time-consuming work. Restricted by pricing, site accessibility, and processing power, those at the sub level were hard-pressed to invest in mobile tech that raised their overhead but offered only minor improvements in return.
But in 2010, the advent of the tablet tackled many of the issues that previously made computers unrealistic to employ on-site. In turn, the tech that accompanied it, like SaaS-based blueprint viewing, not only helped to theoretically improve vertical visibility, but asserted that a construction space once ruled by legacy software companies also had room for startups.
With 3D design and BIM gaining traction, specialized design software came to market to provide point solutions and combat the all-in-one versions the industry was so used to buying into.
Unfortunately, not only did they come with a flood of burgeoning entities all vying for funding, but also limitations to integration and industry-wide applicability, making training and adoption expensive and time-consuming, excluding anyone who couldn’t afford either, let alone both, thus perpetuating the already growing divide between office and field.
How to break the cycle
To figure out what works, we have to first define what doesn’t.
As an industry, we can’t be hypothesizing solutions for perceived problems. We can’t bend those problems towards our assumed solutions simply because it suits our business model or plays to our strengths. Real change has to come from real problems and sometimes figuring out what those problems are means getting our hands dirty.
Take a minute and think about the limited amount of tech solutions that have truly worked wonders for the industry. What do they all have in common? A comprehensive understanding of the problems they face and a drive to solve them directly.
So, where to start? Step one is aligning your solutions to the end user throughout the entire developmental process. Talk to those experiencing the issues most frequently, listen well, be open to change, and repeat often. It’s as simple as that. While actually solving those problems may not be that simple, finding them should be. And that’s imperative.
For example, even though we put boots on the ground and found one of the industry’s biggest problems to be the digital divide between the office and field, we originally thought an app that provided voice-based answers to on-site inquiries would be the perfect fit—that is, until we discovered most workers don’t want to be told the answer, they want to see it to believe it.
That truth we hadn’t foreseen inspired us to hold design sprints to get on the customer’s level, see the problem from multiple angles, and get a clearer picture of their processes—and we always seem to learn something new. And by keeping our brand and bias free and clear of those ground-level insights, we’re able to get honest and organic customer input that’s thoroughly shaped our entire approach.
But quite possibly our greatest discovery is that despite the current perception, tradeworkers —and the industry, for that matter—ARE ready for tech, they’re just cautious and skeptical because they don’t have the time or finances for trial-and-error. They’re not looking for companies that work for the industry, but those that work with it, and by extension, them.
Until that gap is closed, until they feel understood, until they’re provided solutions that work for them and not the businesses that roll them out, that current perception will not change—and neither will the industry. And no amount of fancy VR will change it either.