Gareth Parkes is responsible for the data and analytics function within Sir Robert McAlpine, the 150-year-old private UK construction firm. In a sector better known for rivets than pivot tables, it is a role that offers a huge opportunity for transformation. He spoke to DataIQ about building a new approach for the company and the industry as a whole.
DataIQ (DIQ): First of all, please tell us about your role at Sir Robert McAlpine (SRM). What does it encompass?
Gareth Parkes (GP): I lead the data and analytics function for SRM. My role is to set the strategy, build data capabilities, evangelise for better use of our data assets and ensure that we can deliver for the business.
DIQ: Is data part of the vision for the business? What is the opportunity for it within SRM?
GP: Absolutely, yes. We see the opportunity for data to inspire, to bring about change in the tasks individuals perform, as well as at a project level, across the business, across the sector and across project delivery. Our work attempts to knit these multiple horizons together.
DIQ: At an industry sector level, how well does construction currently use data? What issues do you see around its wider adoption?
GP: As an industry, construction is poor at using data and lags behind most (if not all!) other sectors in terms of digital adoption. But it goes beyond that. The entire project delivery sector has a long way to go to make best use of its data.
A study by Bent Flyvbjerg and Alexander Budzier from Said Business School reviewed 12,000 projects across multiple industries (construction and infrastructure being a large component) and found that only 1 in 200 is delivering to time, cost and the benefits defined at the start. That’s 0.5% of projects! And there are many more opportunities for us to make better use of data to change this.
Only 1 in 200 projects is delivering to time, cost and predicted benefits
The adoption issue is very tricky because it relies on people, with all our differences, perceptions, behaviours and idiosyncrasies. It is absolutely vital that this happens in a way that people feel ownership of the solutions. Otherwise, it just doesn’t work.
So, to change the sector, I believe we need to start with changing our behaviours as individuals. We need to feel inspired. We need to have the tools available to us to make change happen for ourselves. We need the space to play, to try and to fail, and always to learn and get better. Too often, we see well-intentioned top-down initiatives fail because they aren’t winning hearts and minds - all the classic change management stuff.
And typically, we’re not very good at getting adoption to work on projects because they are seen as unique. The data tells us that projects have far more in common than actually keeps them apart. There’s a great connection between people and projects. We anthropomorphise projects: bringing them to life helps us to deliver them, but it also creates a feeling that each is unique.
The same is true of us as individuals and as communities – each project takes on its own culture. The challenge almost becomes to disassociate the project from the rich and rewarding culture that exists to deliver it. How can we use data to break the connection and build back even more productive teams and better working environments? A top-down approach to make all cultures adopt data-enabled thinking is doomed to failure because perceptions of the challenges and priorities are so different.
Another big issue preventing innovation in the sector is access to data. There’s still a pervading sense of “it’s my data and I’m going to keep all the analytics to myself”. This is just an outdated mindset. You only need to look at the government’s national data strategy to see the tide is turning. As Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, says in the foreword: "Under this strategy, data and data use are seen as opportunities to be embraced, rather than threats against which to be guarded."
When data is everywhere, it’s how you collaborate with it that sets you apart.
DIQ: How are you setting about tackling this, firstly, within the business and, secondly, for the sector?
GP: Well, this starts with individuals, rather than the business. And then, as individuals, where we thrive is in communities of like-minded people. Nearly three years ago, we helped to establish the project data analytics community.
When SRM got involved, there were about 250 people in the community. At regular events, we’d hear from people working across the data and project delivery spectrum. We’ve heard from the Tour de France data team, delivering analytics for each stage of the race and explaining how they can predict the winner before the race has finished. We’ve heard from people who work in aviation, telecoms, banking and energy companies. We’ve heard from many start-ups and businesses large and small who see construction as the place for them to operate because the scale of change is the greatest, it’s got the furthest to go and is steadily building momentum. The community now boasts a membership of more than 6,500 and continues to rise.
One of the biggest benefits that came out of the very early meet-ups was a sense from the community that everyone didn’t want to just listen to other people talk about what you could do with data - they wanted to play for themselves, they wanted to learn, they wanted to see what they could do with their own data to change the way they did their jobs and open up new career opportunities. So, together with Projecting Success, the SME behind the community, we put some of our data and real challenges into our first weekend hackathon at the end of 2018.
Fast forward to now, and the seventh hackathon has a prize fund of £3,000. And there are some brilliant examples of what you can achieve in a short space of time in a weekend. They are truly inspirational and the one place that I’ve seen someone’s jaw drop as it dawned on them what they were witnessing!
My biggest frustration last year was that we weren’t really leveraging the learning and the understanding of the art of the possible back into our business. We didn’t have the internal capacity and capability to capitalise on this pipeline of ideas.
So, again I went back to Projecting Success to see how it could help. They came up with a project data analytics apprenticeship programme. Now I know that many people hear the word apprenticeship and think 16- to 18-year-olds and switch off. Don’t! The average age of a Sir Robert McAlpine project data analytics apprentice is 32. These apprentices are pioneers of a big and bold data frontier. I am so excited to see the things they are doing to make their own future.
DIQ: Is there potential for a major cultural change? Will iPads with dashboards become as commonplace as hard hats on construction sites?
GP: Absolutely. It’s already starting to happen. I’d recommend the whitepaper produced by the Project Data Analytics Task Force (PDATF) that lays out the ambition for a step change in use of data to improve project delivery. A 10x improvement would be a transformational cultural shift, but it still means that, as an industry, we’re only delivering 1 in 20 projects at cost, on time and inside the required benefits envelope. That’s mad!
“A 10x improvement would be transformational, but it still means we’re only delivering 1 in 20 projects at cost. That’s mad!”
Ipads and dashboards as commonplace as hard hats is certainly one way of looking at it. There’s definitely a learning curve that construction companies need to take with respect to dashboarding. Other, similar sectors are a long way ahead in terms of personalised, or role-based, dashboarding, with push notifications linked to ML models that highlight the highest priorities for that individual to do today.
When that happens, you’re moving a long way beyond dashboards - it has to be all about the insights you’re getting from your data and how people are best able to make intelligent decisions on the back of that insight. So ultimately, while the digital tools are important, for me it’s much more about the data that those tools give us and how we leverage it to ensure the next project is the best. Currently, that deep and federated learning simply doesn’t take place. It’s going to take a monumental effort to get construction moving in the right direction, but when it comes, it will be a seismic shift. It has to be.
DIQ: In some respects, you already doing things that reflect a high level of data maturity, such as hackathons. Do you see these as a way of fast-tracking cultural change?
GP: It all comes back to using data to inspire. People need to be inspired to realise the possibilities and the scope of what’s possible very, very quickly. We need a critical mass of people who have the desire and the skills to make change happen at a personal and project level. Only with that critical mass can we change the sector.
Hackathons are an incredibly powerful way to demonstrate the art of the possible and show people just how much can be achieved with only the skills that you’re able to pick up in a weekend. These hackathons started out as community activities, with only one or two SRM staff in attendance. It has also opened our eyes to the power of pooling data, future data access challenges, and the need for things like differential privacy to make sure that data can be made available to the right people. This is one of the reasons that we’ve stepped up to lead the data access workstream for the PDATF, but that’s probably a whole other conversation!
DIQ: Tell us about the opportunities you have identified in the talent management and development space.
GP: Here, we think we’re really onto something special because it’s so simple. The SME I mentioned earlier, Projecting Success, is passionate about disrupting the way projects get delivered by making better use of data. Its vision evolved from our support of the PDA community, the hackathons, and the realisation that if we’re really going to make a difference, we need to move from enthusiastic amateurs to seasoned professionals.
It developed a level 4 apprenticeship for project data analysts - a way to get hands-on, practical data and analytics skills into people. People who already have experience in a project delivery discipline can therefore make use of the data skills they’re building to change the jobs they do on a daily basis. For us, that’s predominantly planners, quantity surveyors, document controllers, BIM managers, engineers. For others, it’s their project controls and PMO teams. Because it’s paid for by the apprenticeship levy, it’s being taken up by more and more people who recognise that data will play a huge role in their future and if they don’t learn more about this and control their own destiny, then the change will be done to them.
Destiny is a big word and I don’t use it lightly. But I, and many others who are on this journey with us, truly believe the eco-system we are building has the properties of transformational change for the UK. From small beginnings, we are helping to answer the challenge to bring UK plc to the forefront of the AI revolution.
DIQ: And what about the opportunities for construction as a whole if it becomes more data literate - what would you hope to see in three years’ time?
GP: In three years’ time, I’d like to see: