19 March 2020

There's never been a better time

I was thinking about this well-worn advertising phrase after the Office of Projects Victoria's launch of the Victorian Digital Asset Strategy Guidelines (VDAS) earlier this year. Hosted by MelBIM, now in its fifth year, RMIT's Storey Hall was close to capacity with people attending from across industry. In addition to presenters from OPV and State Government, we had representatives from road and rail infrastructure, Melbourne airport and Mirvac, supporting the guidelines and explaining their strategies to transform.

For years, the BIM community has asked "Where's the federal government mandate?" and while many heads nod in agreement, others retort: "Mandates stifle competition in an industry that doesn't need any more constraints".

While we’re united by our whinging, as proud Australians we're generally not keen on conforming; most of us like to have a bet each way at the races and avoid ordering the same meal as your mate at the restaurant later that night. Perhaps that might explain why it’s the Victorian strategy and not the Australian strategy that was launched?

No other state or territory in Australia has a centrally led approach; that is, a clear pathway on how projects can be structured to deliver our built assets in a collaborative, digital framework. And while Queensland has a policy, their framework is still to be published.

The VDAS launch represents something of a watershed moment, not just for Victoria but for all of Australia, as its principles can be translated to every other state. While the OPV is more than willing to share VDAS nationally, we wait to see whether the others are willing to order the same pasta special.

So, has there ever been a better time for BIM? And if not, what's holding us back? Let's set up the new kid with the new software and kick some goals, right? Well, we've been around long enough to know that kicking all the BIM goals isn't about the technology. It depends much more on people and process or, as a terrific colleague said recently "Will, it's all change management".

I'm not going to harp on about companies that failed to see the fork in the road ahead like Kodak and Blockbuster - that's so 2010. But maybe you're still thinking BIM is the new kid in town. Or someone you work with is telling you to ignore the move to change because projects are still going out the door just the same based on the current ways of working. Who has the time to look into this with the constant deadlines anyway?

We are years into this BIM thing and watched many exciting TED talks explaining digital disruption and yet here we are - why is that? For me, there are two main things that come to mind.

The first is a lack of BIM knowledge and skills for those who have an influence on how businesses and organisations are managed. That includes not only the language but the rationale for BIM translated to their own professional context.

The other is that to drive BIM adoption amongst design consultants, contractors and the rest of the supply chain, clients have failed to fully explore and define the opportunities for projects utilising and delivering BIM. The supply chain have no one to be accountable to and BIM implementation is mostly limited to improving internal processes.

It's not that we are an industry incapable of change, it's just that these are complex problems and hence efforts to bring a standardised approach to BIM and project delivery in Australia have been fragmented. Most prominent examples of success have been the complex, expensive projects that carry with them the necessity to implement BIM.  When you see these being celebrated in marketing or presentations, it can be confounding. Do you think you missed the boat, or the messages don't seem relevant to you and your work? Well, keep in mind that some stories of success don’t show what happened behind the scenes - the difficult and challenging processes, insufficient project agreements and teams driven to frustration.

Australia's AECO industry does not move in unison and there's a big part of the bell curve still figuring this BIM thing out. If we look past the tier one projects and organisations, the relevance of BIM and the opportunities to apply it on projects is still emerging. The ability of many clients to provide a structured brief for BIM can be hit or miss which, in turn, means that when the opportunities do present to the supply chain, they can be poorly prepared and uncertain in their language and objectives.

The architects, engineers, contractors and others having done their best to implement BIM in their internal processes, are unable to take part in the information handover to benefit operations or support the shining future of Digital Twins. This is our current state of play for a large part of our industry.

If there hasn't been a better time to do BIM, then knowledge and skills training is going to be a huge factor in how our broader industry manages to do so. What we need now more than ever is Digital Literacy in the existing workforce.

Universities and TAFEs are going hammer and tongs beating BIM into their curricula or offering BIM as standalone degrees for school leavers. It's essential that this work is done, but the outcome is the same as it always has been: graduates entering the workplace with little influence or professional experience. Collectively, our immediate goal must be to drive Digital Literacy deep into organisations across all parts of our industry and harness the immense potential of professional knowledge and skills that exist now.

It's human nature to wait until the last minute to act and it's the nature of organisations to spend most of their time talking about the most trivial of issues. But if I was King of Moomba this year (another important Victorian framework with a big parade) then I would decree the following:

  • If you manage an organisation, align your vision to the digital future. Identify key people - who are dynamic, experienced, influential and empower others - and make them accountable to gaining Digital Literacy.
  • If you are one of those key people, your goal is to translate BIM to your organisation's context. Identify how BIM is relevant and what the corresponding opportunities for the future are. Ask how these opportunities and challenges affect the policies, procedures and culture of your organisation?
  • If you are part of the engine room of your organisation, learn as much as you can so that when the opportunities for change come, you are capable of delivering them. Bring your head above water and look around more broadly at what is happening in your profession.

Trust your instincts and experience. If you are working out a problem around BIM and it feels overly complex or doesn’t sit right, then there's a good chance you're heading down the wrong path. The concepts of BIM are simple and the objectives should be achievable. We just need to speak the same language.