COVID-19 restrictions, soaring materials costs, and increased insurance premiums. All of these are pervasive problems that the construction industry is grappling with, but there are two others that are even more pressing. Namely, communication barriers and data inaccessibility. In this post, we’ll zoom in on both, explore some of the root causes, and suggest a couple of remedies.
From professional sports to the military to companies, thought leaders are always emphasizing the importance of teamwork, to such an extent that it has become little more than a management buzzword used to sell books, courses, and other resources. But if we get past the hype and the latest fads and go to the heart of teamwork, what we find is a single constant: the need for clear, concise, and accurate communication.
Regardless of how great a team’s culture is or how noble a company’s values are, nothing will work as it’s supposed to unless people are speaking to each other with clarity and coherence, both face-to-face and digitally. When it comes to the jobsite, this is of particular importance because out of communication comes action, and with it, consequences. It might not matter very much if a company’s graphic designer puts a customer quote on the wrong side of a case study or a writer botches a subject line, but it certainly does if a crew pours $150,000 of concrete in the wrong place or to the wrong spec.
The Communication Tools of the Trade
Part of the problem with communication on the jobsite and out of hours is just how many platforms are in play within the typical construction company. The 9th Annual Construction Technology Report from JBKnowledge surveyed contractors and construction workers and found that 63 percent of them are using six or more apps daily. Of these, 27 percent don’t integrate any data at all, meaning that they can only present siloed information. Some of the technology being used is enterprise software that touches multiple bases, while many others are point solutions designed for a specific trade, specialty, or role.
In theory, such tools are useful and contain relevant information that impacts what will happen on the jobsite today, tomorrow, next week, and beyond. But in reality, the more platforms your company uses, the more siloed its data becomes, and the less actionable. As the Construction Technology Report authors asked rhetorically, “Are ‘best-of-breed’ construction app uses so narrow that specialized apps are needed rather than more robust options with more functionality?” The truthful answer is a resounding, “No.”
Siloes don’t just restrict the free flow of information but also tend to reinforce the in-group/out-group dynamic that exists between crews. Roofers like to talk to other roofers, plumbers to other plumbers, and electricians to other electricians. Everyone is using the same terminology, understands the reality of the challenges they’re facing, and feels comfortable conversing with their peers. But they’re more reluctant to say what might need to be said to someone outside of their clique whose expertise lies elsewhere and whose job description is very different.
The Silo Struggle
While each trade needs its own set of physical tools, when it comes to software, having one point solution here, another there, and a third over there merely reinforces these walls and – although it’s an unintended consequence – actually hampers communication on the jobsite. When multiple solutions are being used to send and receive messages and share plans, installation drawings, blueprints, and other data, the people who need to know what they should be doing, when, and how often end up trying to untangle a Gordian knot. As a result, they’re at risk of making uninformed, ill-timed, and incorrect decisions because they don’t have the information they need exactly when they need it or their data isn’t current or complete.
The knock-on effects send costs sky-high, mean missed deadlines, and put budgets in jeopardy. A study conducted by consulting firm FMI Corporation found that crossed communication wires and lack of access to accurate and current information necessitate a whopping $31 billion in rework on US construction sites each year. Commenting on the factors underlying this big bill, the report’s co-authors wrote, “Almost half of all rework is due to poor communication among project stakeholders, and poor project information.”
Then there are the softer costs of such snafus to consider. The study also revealed that the typical project manager, site supervisor, and subcontractor spends five hours a week away from the jobsite searching for information that will inform the next steps they and their crews need to take on each project. Plus another four weekly hours dealing with the details of rework tasks. When you consider how many projects a company might be undertaking simultaneously, it’s easy to see how this can add up quickly.
Such a time suck doesn’t just impact the work itself but also the quality of life of the people who would like to be spending time with their families or pursuing hobbies but can never truly leave the jobsite behind because they’re stuck searching for the data they need to do their jobs well. This starts to impact not only individual workers’ satisfaction but could contribute to higher turnover, lower retention rates, and, conceivably, more days lost to stress-related illness.
Untangling the Knot
There is no magic bullet solution to these challenges, particularly given how widespread they are. However, steps can be taken to begin remedying the situation. If a construction company and its subcontractors had access to a single communication platform that was easy to roll out, intuitive to use, and more focused than email, texting, or instant messaging, then workers would find it easier to stay up to date. Such a tool would do most of the data gathering work for them behind the scenes, collating data feeds from multiple systems and presenting it in a way that is easy to understand and can be viewed on outdated mobile devices just as readily as on smartphones.
Rather than each crew struggling to get to grips with their own point solution, everyone would finally be on the same page – literally – seeing only the information they needed at precisely the time that it could be acted upon in a feed personalized to their role. In this way, many of the delays, miscommunications, and rework projects would be avoided and people could get back to focusing on what they do best.