Construction as a learning organisation

Even though I wrote this blog for the Bouwkennis Businessblog (a Dutch trade publication) in 2014, it is still relevant today. Yes, we have moved forward quite a few steps since then, but being a learning organisation (let alone the construction business as a whole) is still far from mainstream. For that very reason, I am happy to share this blog with you again. “Bim is more than 3D-fetishism,” said Eric van den Broek at the BIM seminar for the lecture of Professor Arjen Adriaanse Msc at Twente University back in 2014. His words were echoed by one of the most experienced BIM experts in the field, the BIM manager of Abu Dhabi Airport, Issam El-Abso Msc. At the time, that very project had been one of the most prominent BIM projects the world over, with a lead time of 17 years. Seventeen years of bringing together the right parties, selecting the standards of information and learning to work with them the relevant systems and ways of cooperation.

Author: Marc Verhage

BIM is all about cooperation and information management. 3D-modelling or struggling to find one common language is not what matters most for BIM. However, in the Netherlands, that is where all the attention, money and effort is being focused. This is the real reason for the initial delay in BIM. Apart from the immense amount of effort it takes when people focus on and struggle to reconcile the differences in systems and standards, and the struggle to have the organisations working in the field all be united, it also provokes a degree of aversion in people and organisations. The effort lost in dealing with that very aversion could in fact be devoted to BIM’s key success factor: genuine cooperation. “Cooperating is business, but not business as usual,” said Professor Jos van Hilligersberg at that same seminar. This is exactly where all our BIM discussions ought to be focused.

Information and communication management
Let’s break this down into key elements of cooperation. Attempting to understand each other’s interests and investing in each of our languages is one element. Simply struggling to invest in a single common language is not going to work. What will work however, is determining which language will be used on a project (drawing up a protocol), or deciding how to connect the various languages. In doing so, information can be transmitted and understood by all, and produce results. The size of the project tends to determine the number of participants, each with their own language – supported of course by systems, standards and so on. Not to mention their own culture, working methods and interests. The project in Abu Dhabi which I mentioned earlier is a prime example. The preparation alone took 17 years, in order to manage the information of thousands of involved parties, creating a smooth-running project, tens of thousands of people working together to create something amazing – on time, within the budget, of the agreed quality. Cooperation is quite simply information management. The managing of languages, standards, cultures, agreements (on procedures), and so on.

Small beginnings
Let’s start by managing this one project at a time, before we throw ourselves into developing a national standard that everyone must comply with. Right now, there are several useful initiatives that offer instruments for intercommunicating in an intelligible language. I believe the decision of which instruments to use should remain with the relevant parties cooperating on a particular project. Which ones work well and which instruments need improving will become clear as a matter of course.
Let’s reinvent the wheel, or …?

In the Netherlands, a great deal of effort is still being dedicated to constantly setting up new initiatives for creating the ultimate goal: open (and free?), easily accessible aids including (classification) standards, databases of (product) information and dictionaries. While these initiatives are certainly commendable, it is definite proof of our Dutch commitment to improving the construction business in a structured manner. Finding out what is already available – in the Netherlands and abroad – is essential, to avoid doing things more than once. After all, no good will come of that, only distrust, obstacles and unnecessary competition.

Let’s remember to take a peep at other fields of expertise, too, for there is much to be learnt from them. At the moment, the personal, commercial or political interests are the root of so many different initiatives being set up. People won’t listen to each other, they refuse to speak with each other, or are not allowed to, or are hampered by the ‘not-invented-here’ syndrome. Besides, being in the bind of the hourly rate can be an obstacle to many ideas. Different parties are motivated by racking up billable hours, creating a ‘divide-and-conquer’ kind of mentality. The common ground of a single shared ‘system’ of language, standards, IT systems and databases will take a huge effort.

Construction: a ‘Learning Organisation
We really should invest in learning from our successes and our mistakes. Let’s make construction into a learning organisation, then. Hugely successful BIM projects, the Abu Dhabi Airport for one, can serve as inspiration of how it can be done. Investing in a system of learning needs to go hand in hand with the work that is done on tooling. A lessons-learned-database should include all the principles of a learning organisation. Only then will we succeed in creating a commitment to constantly advancing construction and only then will BIM truly be implemented successfully anywhere and everywhere.