Tony Westlake of Tony Gee and Partners explains the structures, processes and people that have helped the business grow its digital capability.
n 2017 we recognised that the business had gone through a period of significant growth, which was accompanied by lots of great digital development. Unfortunately, this wasn’t always co-ordinated, so we were missing out on opportunities to exploit digital as a corporate capability.
The first step was for the Board to ask one of Tony Gee’s executive director’s to review the situation and come up with a plan to restructure our approach to digital development and investment.
This review led to the creation of our Digital Steering Group (DSG). The DSG brings together our IT team with senior colleagues from technical systems and business systems, as well as our internal and external communications teams. The group creates Tony Gee’s digital strategy, which is signed off by the board and is delivery orientated with action groups delivering the specific projects agreed under the approach.
Unfortunately, this [activity] wasn’t always co-ordinated, so we were missing out on opportunities to exploit digital as a corporate capability. Tony Westlake
Led from the top, fed from across the business
The really powerful thing about the DSG is that it’s genuinely group wide, a kind of diagonal slice through the organisation. Digital transformation needs to be led from the top, so the DSG is chaired by an executive director but membership runs right through the organisation to one of our digital apprentices. This brings in plenty of diversity of thought and allows us to make investments in digital that flow directly from our strategic objectives benefiting the business as a whole. We’ve also introduced peer review from outside the business to bring in some challenge and fresh perspectives.
A great example of how this works is the role the DSG has played in meeting our key business objective to improve the efficiency of our design activity. We’ve been able to align processes and systems across teams in different offices so that a design team in one location can smoothly and easily support projects in any other part of the business. As you can imagine, this was a huge benefit when COVID-19 struck last March, minimising disruption and helping us get everyone up and working from home in less than three days.
Harnessing enthusiasm – but with discipline!
The simple fact of having the DSG in place has created buzz and enthusiasm around the business and we are getting lots of offers to get involved. As Jon Frost of BWB noted in his blog in this series, this has to be managed and the business needs discipline to select the right opportunities. Our solution to the problem of selecting “which horses to back” has been to create a technical development process, essentially allowing anyone in Tony Gee to submit proposals for funding and staff time.
The DSG has backed ideas with very specific applications, for example work on design automation and creation of 3D objects for laterally loaded piles in the marine environment – but also projects with group wide promise, including trials of software and hardware for AR and VR to support collaboration, co-ordination and communication on infrastructure projects.
Taking the business with you
A key learning point has been that digital transformation, like any change programme can be daunting, so its been important to be open to regular feedback from staff.
Also, we don’t want digital transformation to be something that is only a concern for specialists divorced from a lot of the day-to-day work of the business. The DSG members are therefore all contributing alongside their day job, which means it has been really important to recognise and respect that their time is limited.
That isn’t to say we don’t need specialists or to tap into the skills of a rising generation who have grown up with digital technology. So I’ll finish by writing about people.
Within our apprenticeship scheme we bring in at least one new digital apprentice every year. They work alongside our BIM director and are focused on helping us bring in new ideas and generate efficiencies. One of our digital apprentices always sits on the DSG and the current incumbent Mariana Palmieri-Torres has been supporting Tony Gee in delivering digital solutions and automation over the last two years.
Examples of Mariana’s brilliant contributions include the development of a carbon calculator tool integrated into CAD software. Mariana has developed a plug in for OpenBuildings design software that allows data to be created and stored in a CAD model in a from that can be processed automatically by the carbon calculator. She has also developed a second plugin for the Navisworks tool that automatically displayed all this data as a 3D heatmap, allowing the team to quickly and easily identify the areas of their designs with high embodied carbon.
Mariana has also developed software which allows our project teams to extract data from project content management systems (CMS) that automatically populate drawing files, ensuring they are always up to date and that they match exactly what is being managed on the CMS.
As well as all this, Mariana has supported the functional side of the business by improving existing processes in areas as diverse as software licence management, a car sharing app and health & safety assessments.
The campaign, Cutting Through the Hype runs over 2021 and is led by ACE's digital transformation group. This blog is the fourth in the series of five exploring digital transformation. Download your copy of the report below.