As befits a conference with smart infrastructure as a central theme, the appropriateness of a session examining how going digital can help enhance consulting engineering businesses was not lost on the 600+ delegates gathered at the FIDIC annual conference in Berlin.
Going digital and the challenges of technological change were a common theme of discussions at the conference with many delegates keen to get information on how to grapple with the fast-moving pace of digitalisation which is now having a profound effect on businesses operating in the infrastructure sector.
Traditional business models of consultancies (i.e. billing by the hour) are facing challenges as digital workflows enable engineers to do more things faster and owners focus more on the value of outcomes over the project lifecycle and digital would be key in addressing these challenges, Bentley Systems CEO Greg Bentley said.
Addressing delegates, Bentley said that communication between technological systems was crucial. “By going digital we mean that information found and created by one computer programme can be found and created by another,” he said. Collaboration was key, said Bentley, and his company were practising what they preach by working closely in the digital project management space with fellow software provider BST Global.
Bentley also said it was vital for software firms to work alongside their clients as part of the team to enable firms to get the most out of digital. “Software providers should be virtually embedded (though cloud services and a connected data environment) within the firm’s project teams, ideally from the project pursuit stage, to inform digital strategies helpful to winning the project.”
BST Global executive vice president Javier Baldor told FIDIC delegates that digital could assist firms in being more productive and improve margins. “When it comes to operating margins, industry surveys show that consulting engineering firms fall well below their professional peers,” Baldor said. There was a key challenge in the profitability arena where embracing digital could help companies be more successful, he said.
Baldor said that firms needed to completely embrace digitalisation or be swamped by it, but he also recognised that there were barriers to firms taking the necessary steps. He offered six steps to enable digital project management, where a people-first approach was essential as was a culture of innovation. “It is also ok to fail,” Baldor said, and firms needed to support and encourage their staff so they felt more confident in the digital space.
A number of delegates said that it was important not to be intimidated by the prospect of digitalisation and finding and working with the right partners was crucial in navigating digital change. The consultancy and engineering sector may have been historically slow to embrace digital but judging by the enthusiastic response to both Javier Baldor and Greg Bentley’s presentations, that approach looks to be changing, and fast.