Speaking with the industry

Recognising the added value of digitalisation - Willi Meyer Bau

Where does the digital transformation start in the company? Sebastian Koch talks about potential for improvement, acceptance and appreciation.

Recognising the added value of digitalisation - Willi Meyer Bau

Digitisation in the construction industry offers many opportunities to optimise processes. For Sebastian Koch, the added value here lies in the focus on employees and their participation in digitisation projects. Sebastian Koch is a process and digitalisation manager at Willi Meyer Bauunternehmen and looks back on a twenty-year career in IT. Since 2020, he has been driving the digitalisation of the family-run, medium-sized construction company and has a very special view of the transformation of the entire construction industry. What role will key users and pilot projects play and how will companies best position themselves for the future?

Status Quo: Signature Folders and the Lack of Innovation and Pressure to Act

It is no secret that the pressure to innovate has been too low on the construction industry in recent decades. A quick look at the digitalisation index for SMEs is enough here. Many companies have long since said goodbye to signature folders and are also increasingly moving towards paperless digital administration - but this alone is hardly enough to overcome the major hurdles on the way to a digital transformation.

So far, far too few companies see the need to adapt to the digital transformation. Koch attributes this to the boom in the construction industry, among other things: "It was always going very well and it is still going very well today. And indeed, even in 2021, the German construction industry will be able to escape the general downward trend in the economy. In his opinion, however, more and more SMEs, especially family-run ones, must recognise the digital transformation as a necessity and an opportunity for their continued existence and also understand digitalisation as a corporate value. But how can companies best proceed if they have decided to seize this opportunity for themselves?

Creating added value with digitalisation 

But how do you meet this challenge and introduce a disruptive innovation in the company? Koch derives a clear guiding principle for this: "The added value should be clearly in the foreground and be the driving force: Digitisation should not be driven for the sake of digitisation, but it must be primarily about the employees. They are also the ones who have to recognise this added value". Practical examples show what this added value means for everyday work on the construction site, especially in terms of advantages and easier work. For example, integrated hardware and software solutions are already in use today that enable digital access control for the construction site, simultaneously function as construction site passes and also offer the possibility of comprehensive construction site documentation. In addition, document management systems, for example for digital invoices or delivery notes, can greatly facilitate and simplify everyday work on the construction site. For Koch, the advantage is obvious:

"It's quite clear: if you have more time for the actual tasks, you ultimately also ensure better quality. Take the foreman, for example, who is responsible for ensuring that everything runs as smoothly as possible on the construction site. If the paperwork is replaced by digital processes and work with the tablet, there is more time to concentrate on the actual work. And in the end, this also helps to reduce costs."

At the same time, these examples also offer tangible advantages for the project partners of a construction project, above all for the subcontractors. More data protection, legal certainty combined with documentation that accommodates both sides in the event of a legal dispute and transparency are some of the central arguments for dealing more intensively with digitalisation. It may be hard to get started here, but companies that are dedicated to digitalisation are now finding more and more open ears. Many stakeholders now also want to work proactively and are helping to drive digital processes, for example for working with construction plans. An interactive platform could, for example, enable simplified communication with planners and architects, which would eliminate the often redundant email communication and result in fewer errors due to synchronised work on the latest version of the construction plan. At the same time, new technologies and measures, such as lean and digitalised project management (lean management), can also be used to encourage subcontractors to go digital. Nevertheless, the central challenge for many SMEs is still to find a suitable and also sensible starting point for digital processes.

Where should you start? Determine starting points for the digital transformation 

In order to really create added value, it is worthwhile for companies to start the digital transformation with the employees themselves and their knowledge. Koch describes it as follows:

"The knowledge, the data, if you will, is in the heads of the employees. So you have to manage to make this collected knowledge transparently accessible to the entire company by creating processes, programmes and procedures for this transfer. Otherwise, what happens is still widespread: specialised knowledge is often not documented and thus not shared and passed on and is lost when there is a change of personnel. Knowledge management is needed to prevent this." 

This knowledge transfer and the documentation of expertise, which can be a starting point for the digital transformation, can only be initiated if a cultural change in the company and a changed mentality are associated with it. This change means that companies enable their employees to question existing processes and at the same time take away their fear of sharing information and thus enabling knowledge transfer in the first place. With this process, i.e. the pooling and bundling of knowledge, it will not only be possible to avoid isolated and decentralised solutions in the future, but above all to counteract the loss of knowledge. In addition, it is usually worthwhile for companies to take a closer look at their own processes. For Koch, administrative processes are particularly exciting: 

"There is still potential for optimisation and improvement in administrative processes - especially here, a lot of time can be saved through digitalised processes, especially when I think of areas such as IT, human resources or financial accounting. Here, especially in construction, it's about creating synergies in order to really be able to use the potential that is available here."

Moreover, added value through digitalisation can only arise if the corresponding processes are consistently characterised by two concepts: Appreciation and acceptance. 

Acceptance and appreciation as a success factor

In order to implement digitalisation projects with real added value, they must also find acceptance within the company. Only if employees accompany the processes from the beginning can the greatest possible acceptance be generated. Koch puts it in a nutshell: 

"It is absolutely necessary to start with the employees. First of all, you have to make sure that the appropriate staff members are involved, secondly, that they are sufficiently informed, and thirdly, that they are really convinced of the project, i.e. that they recognise added value and understand why the project is being carried out.

However, the opposite is the case when, for example, they are directly confronted with a product or software for which, in case of doubt, there has not even been an introduction. For Koch, acceptance can only be guaranteed through an honest and intensive exchange: 

"You have to explain why a process may no longer work in another place or may work differently in the future. That is an important insight. Because due to digitalisation, some processes may not work at all in the future. You have to be prepared for that. Promises that cannot be kept or that are too vague must not be made.

An intensive exchange can also be characterised by counteracting possible reservations about digitalisation on the part of the employees. Among the reservations that can be quickly dispelled is, for example, a fear of losing one's job. In times of a great shortage of skilled workers, more people are needed in the construction industry. In addition, with the possibilities of advancing digital transformation, more construction projects can be handled with the same personnel. 

In order to counteract the loss of knowledge already mentioned, it makes sense to involve the employees who have built up an enormous wealth of experience in the company over several decades. Accordingly, these people are given the opportunity to accompany a process over the coming years as a kind of information provider and to pass on the accumulated knowledge without being forced to use digital tools. In the exchange with these information providers, it can then be evaluated which digitalisation projects should be prioritised and where a quick added value can be created for the company. In addition to this form of participation and appreciation, employees can also positively accompany the implementation of digitisation projects as key users and ensure greater acceptance. 

Spreading added value with key users 

Key users should be involved in the planning as early as possible in order to be able to contribute their expertise. "When introducing new processes on the construction site, you should specifically approach those employees who you are convinced can make a major contribution with their expertise in order to quickly establish new technical solutions on a broad scale. Of course, this presupposes that they are really convinced of the solution. But once that is achieved, these key users are the best multipliers for a broad implementation," says Koch.

This approach can be illustrated with the digital access control for the construction site mentioned at the beginning. Foremen who are involved in the testing of this tool from the beginning and are convinced of the added value are the best advocates. However, they also need to be prepared for this special role. As multipliers, they can then inspire other foremen to use the tool, for example at conferences, because they have played a decisive role in bringing processes such as digital site documentation or cycle planning to life. In this context, Koch once again makes clear how important people are when introducing new processes:

"The technology we are talking about is not as complex as a human being. Technology works on demand, at the push of a button. Humans don't. And there is the big approach. I always say: technologically we can realise everything, it's just a question of time and money. But people have to be willing and able to use it afterwards. And that's where I see the big challenge. 

In order to create the best possible conditions for this approach and to ensure that no excessive demands arise with the implementation of new processes, the piloting of digitisation projects, for example on test construction sites, is suitable. 

From theory to practice: pilot projects and test sites

The development of digital solutions should be guided by real projects carried out in an appropriate framework. This framework, in turn, can be provided by pilot projects in which the focus is on the lessons learned. However, it is of great importance that a failure is explicitly not considered a failure of the entire project. Precisely because it is often only in the course of the project that it is discovered that the needs and requirements have changed and the company was only able to identify what is really needed as a result. Koch describes this process using the testing of a module for digital delivery notes: 

"The product launch, although not successful, was still a successful pilot project for me because now they know what we really need and what we can do better. We did not choose to buy a finished product, but wanted to see if it works for us or not by piloting the module. If we conclude at this stage that it doesn't fit, so much the better. It would have been worse if we had bought a finished product and only then realised that it didn't work for us at all." 

When piloting processes on test sites, it is also important that this phase is closely monitored, for example through ongoing discussions or training. At the same time, this can also lay the foundations for a broad implementation, especially if the key users can pass on their experience for further projects. However, one should always be aware of the capacities in the company so that the implementation of digitisation projects remains affordable for everyone involved. For Koch, this means, for example: "For a medium-sized company, we are big, but we can't support new digitisation projects with 20 IT staff or support functions. Therefore, we proceed in small steps and always implement projects successively." Another factor that should not be underestimated here is the readiness for change among the project participants, which in practice can vary greatly depending on the trade. In order to be able to convince the project participants of the advantages at this point, the focus should be on the partnership relationship. This is also the starting point for entering into dialogue about digitisation projects and their added value.

The future of the construction industry: new ways of thinking and more cooperation 

Digital processes can always be changed, adapted and tailored to the most individual needs and use cases. The fact that these processes are not static but open means that in the future, more than ever before, there will be opportunities for cooperative collaboration between the parties involved in construction projects. Koch combines this approach with a new way of thinking for the construction industry: 

"Especially in construction, you have to get used to the fact that with digital solutions you don't immediately get a rigid result that can't be changed. Quite the opposite: contrary to the procedures in pure construction, processes can be co-designed and continuously changed. These solutions are never rigid just because we have finished them once. You can always adapt them, improve them, tailor them to your needs. And that is something that is new for construction."

Many major players in the construction industry already rely on partnership networks as a result of proven cooperation in past projects. Digitisation is too important, especially for SMEs, to leave it to others. The goal should be to create synergies that make this cooperative approach possible here as well, for example with fixed subcontractor networks. In this context, Koch sees a particular challenge, for example, in the need for data and digitalisation strategy: 

"You shouldn't measure yourself against the big companies, but I think if you don't deal with it as a medium-sized company until ten years from now, it's too late. Then the step will either have been taken or not. If you don't scale up your IT, optimise and adapt your administrative apparatus by then, you will inevitably lose out."

A new way of thinking also means that construction companies are increasingly developing the self-image of a digital or digitalised company, in which the business model goes hand in hand with the IT or digitalisation strategy. This also offers the possibility of acquiring new subject areas and exerting a completely different influence on the value chain. However, this requires a different exchange of information and new forms of cooperation, for example via platforms. Koch sums it up as follows: 

"The construction industry must become more open in the future, including through the creation of common standards, and be more courageous in breaking away from existing structures. Openness would lead to more trust here. This is also the only way to ensure a fully automated exchange of information and data."

It is precisely this openness that can help to inspire employees for the benefits of digitalisation and to make the added value visible to everyone. However, breaking away from existing structures also means that innovative ideas and impulses for digitalisation come from the employees themselves and that companies create a culture that favours and promotes this process. Because in the end, it is the employees who support the changes and put digitalisation into practice.

Published by

Maximilian Burger


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