23 AUG 2021


Atkins’ Phil Davis says it’s time to create a generation of digitally literate workers who are ready to take our industry to the next level.

There’s virtually unanimous agreement on the need for better digital skills and processes in the planning, engineering and construction industry. What is harder to agree on is the best way forward. But with increasing business, legislative, and environmental pressure to evolve our ways of working, now is the time to set the groundwork, to create a generation of workers who are curious, digitally literate and ready to take our industry to the next level. 

The digital skills agenda isn’t driven by new technology for the sake of it, it’s powered by the things that affect us all. The UK has set out its stall to become a net zero economy by 2050, which will require greener buildings and more sustainable processes and infrastructure. With recovery from COVID-19 front and centre on the agenda, along with the need to protect investments, major building projects increasingly need data-driven insights to stay on time and on-budget. That’s why at Atkins, we’re moving towards delivering outcomes for clients, not just outputs. 

Delivering on that promise requires literacy in a fast-evolving set of digital tools, so that we can rapidly and successfully innovate and present new ideas and services to clients. Raising our digital standard requires us to work with our employees to change the way they think about and approach the work they do every day. More collaborative ways of working are also becoming increasingly important, not just on-site or in the office – but in the digital world too, for example when numerous designers, some of whom could be partners or competitors, are jointly working in a 3D model. Embracing that means adopting new processes and platforms that replace the ones we might have been using for years. 

Skills for the task at hand

Positive change starts at the top, which means senior management leading the charge in digital upskilling. However, if you look at how the technology adoption curve works in practice, it’s easy for senior leaders to be seduced by the achievements of visionaries and early adopters, while the hard yards are in influencing the early and late majority groups in the organisation that may lack the knowledge and motivation to change. Two significant factors affecting the uptake of digital technology that we found from doing internal research are: building an appreciation of ‘the art of the possible’ and showing people that adopting new technology is not as hard as they may think. 

That being said, skills training must be relevant for workers’ job roles and delivered at the point of need. Far too often, people are trained on new tools, only to have forgotten what they learned when they need the information because they weren’t given the opportunity to apply their new skills straightaway. This is something we have sought to avoid. 

Indiscriminate training on all tools for all staff isn’t necessary. What is important is that all staff are brought along on the digital transformation journey – encouraged to be curious, to adopt a growth mindset and to become comfortable operating in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world that we now inhabit. These characteristics are arguably as valuable as the technical skills they will learn along the way because with the right mindset everyone will be equipped to thrive. 

At Atkins, we’ve learned to encourage experimentation and have applied agile methods when creating training products – starting small, not being afraid of failing when trialling new techniques, and only scaling our initiatives and tools when small-scale tests have proved successful. 

Transforming the pipeline

In order to effectively roll out digital-first ways of working that will improve outcomes for our clients, we’re starting to recruit employees with new capabilities, for example Cloud Architects and Data Scientists. Having a steady flow of new entrants to the sector, who understand how data platforms work, is benefiting both industry newcomers and stalwarts at the same time. Both can learn from each other, and both need to be receptive to gaining new industry and data skills respectively. 

For this value exchange to work effectively, workplaces must become more conducive to new types of knowledge transfer, while also acknowledging the fact that people are learning in different ways to how they might have previously. Commonly used software applications, for example, get new functionality added frequently, sometimes weekly. Gone are the days of major updates every three years, with an associated rack of training courses. We all need to get used to noticing when something has changed, then follow up by indulging our curiosity for a few moments just to explore whether this change could help us – maybe taking a short online course over a coffee. Without that growth mindset in every employee, chasms will open up in digital literacy across the organisation, with groups left behind finding it increasingly hard to change. 

Our industry needs to usher in a new generation of worker that instinctively embraces learning and will drive forward new ways to tackle both design and build. This isn’t about replacing existing workers with new recruits; much of our corporate know-how resides in the minds of highly skilled and experienced professionals. It is about combining new people and new skills with those already working in the industry to elevate everyone. The challenges we face today require greater diversity of thought and skill, a digital-first mentality, experimentation, and creativity. By folding the knowledge that has served us well for years into a wider digital transformation plan, we can be fully ready for the connected future.

Phil Davis, director of technical learning and development at Atkins and SNC-Lavalin.


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