As an outsider who isn’t caught up in day-to-day engineering, Denise Bower says she can bring a fresh perspective to Mott MacDonald’s new digital division.
At the Major Projects Association, we get a lot of questions around digital. The questions vary, depending on the maturity level of the organisations. Some are particularly interested in, say, digital twins as a means of unlocking better asset performance. Others want to know what big data can do in terms of forecasting, modelling and evidence-based decision making.
My new role at Mott MacDonald Digital Ventures (MMDV) puts me at the heart of the discovery process. It will lead me to learn about new technologies as well as the business-to-business relationships needed for digital transformation. Not just across contracts, but in every aspect of culture and collaboration that enables big projects to fully embrace what digital can offer.
I will give a lot back to MMDV too. As a non-exec, I will bring the fresh perspective of an outsider who isn’t caught up in day-to-day engineering or advisory. It’s vital that the conversation isn’t “what's easy for us to offer?” but rather “what do clients really need?”. My insights from across the infrastructure client space can help MMDV focus on priority areas.
Digital helps major projects articulate their vision
As an association, we always advocate that our members set out a clear whole-life strategy. Digital technologies can help them articulate what that vision is and provides the tools to better manage assets and evaluate progress throughout delivery and the asset lifecycle. Thames Tideway is a good example. They moved away from describing their vision as “building a very large sewage pipe” to “reconnecting Londoners with the Thames”. This created a very different type of conversation - and a more interactive platform to engage with end users.
Many people feel that infrastructure is done to them, rather than with them. Digital communications can allow projects to gauge and influence local mood – something the industry doesn’t always get right. Making a robust business case is also critical. That’s where big data can provide the evidence that leaders need to confidently and clearly define objectives and measures for success.
Digital also gives you greater visibility over your supply chain. You can drill deeper into what you’re doing with them, what you’re spending your money on, and where their areas of strength lie. The efficiencies from digital are well documented, but when technology improves collaboration, it makes partnerships more effective too.
Likewise, there are benefits around governance and assurance, as you can present a single source of the truth, with review points that give robust information to base decisions on.
Engineering must learn from other sectors
One of the main reasons I accepted the invitation to join MMDV was simple curiosity. I could see Mott MacDonald was trying to do something very different, and I am fascinated to see how it works from a governance and decision-making perspective. With my academic hat on, I am keen to see first-hand how a large international organisation goes about incubating and developing a digital business that, by its very nature, sets new rules for how to operate in the infrastructure space.
To this end, I am keen to bring cross-sectoral learning to the board of MMDV. Construction could learn a great deal from the aerospace industry which is very advanced in its use of global digital collaboration tools to sign off designs. Likewise, the ‘everything-as-a-service’ business models in the IT sector offer a different way of valuing your worth to a client. How long before subscriptions, licenses and percentages replace the traditional time-based fees in engineering?
I’m very excited to help MMDV embrace the opportunities that digital can bring to the industry, and major projects in particular. My first bit of advice as a non-exec? Identify what’s needed most and concentrate on doing that well. Trying to solve everything at once can end up solving nothing at all.
Denise Bower is non-executive director, Mott MacDonald Digital Ventures, executive director of the Major Projects Association and professor of engineering project management at the University of Leeds.