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Road to Digitization: off-the-shelf or custom-built?


The construction industry in India is typically perceived to be a laggard when it comes to technology adoption rates. Being a labour-intensive industry, stakeholders have always had greater focus on managing, improving and optimizing human resources rather than opt for mechanization or automation. Adoption of technology has therefore been limited to the top 5-10% of the organized industry and that too is plagued by several hurdles from ideation to implementation.

That being said, the industry has seen a shift in focus over the past 8-10 years with the top players displaying a commitment to move towards technology adoption. Industry leaders and highly successful architects, developers and contractors have taken a leap with a variety of tech platforms. A few examples that come to mind are organization wide ERP, CRM for sales and marketing functions, BIM platform for projects, quality and/or safety management tools and others.

No matter what tech platform firms have adopted, there seem to be a few common factors which have turned out to be critical to successful implementation. In essence, these factors point us towards answering a single question “How does this application work for you?”. Considering that a large part of the experience (good, bad and ugly) that we have had has been on execution stage quality and safety reporting tools, this article predominantly talks about these applications and how the guiding principles or factors apply to them.

In our experience, most of the firms that we have worked with, have had existing, robust (though manual) processes for handling the function which they planned to digitize. All firms have their distinct identity and behaviours with respect to corporate and project functions. Therefore, in most cases, one size does not fit all which means that a single application having a specific workflow cannot be used seamlessly by all people, teams, projects and organizations. Here we shall explore various aspects which lead to these differences. Since digital applications are intended to replicate physical, manually operated processes, we shall look at this from the lens of input, process and output as these broadly determine how organizations differ in the way they operate their core processes.

Data Input

Organizations require different data or different type of data to initiate, continue and close the processes. Some cases for example, begin with a user (initiator) capturing only the activity which is to be performed in a particular area. Some others may begin with another authority assigning tasks to the user (initiator). In some cases, the initial stage might need the user to mention the schedule of the activity. The checker or inspector user may have to only approve existing data provided by the initiator in some cases whereas in other cases the requirement may be for the system to enforce attaching evidence (live photograph) and a narrative to supplement the approval event.

Hierarchy (Process)

Teams differ not only in size but also in terms of chain of command. Some project teams and organization structures are tortuous with instruction flowing down the chain of command and information or data flowing up. Other teams are relatively flat and have just two actors implementing the process. Typically, large teams require an extended chain of command whereas smaller organizations are flat and more agile. The digitization effort must be tailored according to this very important aspect. If this is overlooked, either one or more key players may be missed from the flow, or the digital algorithm might build in certain activities which nobody in the organization performs.

Control and Decision Making (Process)

A critical part of the process are the gatekeepers who control the flow of the processes. These are the most important actors in any SOP and might vary depending on the context and needs of the project team. An effective digital effort must carefully take into account this role around which the process revolves. In terms of RASI (Responsible, Approval, Support, Information), this would be the Approval role and must take center stage when replicating the process online. As an example, some day-to-day inspection approvals may be recorded by the inspector of the on-site project team whereas some other cases (NCR closure, Stop Work instruction) would require intervention from a corporate representative or a neutral third party (non-project user in both cases). The digital version of the process could break down if these aspects are not understood, incorporated and implemented through the application workflow.

Reports and Dashboard (Output)

One of the aspects about digital transformation that is highly misrepresented is the output data that is drawn from the information generated by the digital application. We are all familiar with reports that are created based on the data capture. However, some of the data represented at a macro level without the possibility of a deep-dive is incomplete and highly misleading. Information to be viewed in a report or on a snazzy dashboard needs to not only be well thought of but must also be relevant to the context of the organization and the project teams. Does your organization value information about external suppliers of material? The dashboard should then visualize supplier performance in terms of total volume and rejected quantum. Do you operate a reward scheme for project teams based on a comparative performance assessment? A cross-project dashboard might help showcase project wise performance on select parameters to help you decide which team to incentivize. The “core requirement” of showcasing information differs not only from one organization to another but also from project to project. A carefully considered outline in this regard would ensure the right design and visualization of data models.

Let us look at another reason why organizations find it difficult to implement and sustain their digital initiatives.

“Big-Bang” Model vs “Recreate-Enhance” Model

Organizations often erroneously attempt to implement a full scale, aspirational workflow which is sold as the “best-in-class” digital process. This immediately leads to trouble because of the large changes encountered at the implementation stage. Apart from the reluctance of project teams to suddenly adapt to disruptive changes, it is also likely that the large reconfiguration of workflow has missed out some essential requirements from the updated workflow environment. It is essential to calibrate the readiness of the teams to go from the current manual process to the aspirational digital process and an implementation roadmap is a must while undertaking such a project. We call this roadmap the “Recreate-Enhance” model which ensures that all participative stakeholders have sufficient time to adapt to the change.

We advise our customers (where applicable) to first recreate the existing workflow online and allow the involved users to become familiar with the digital version of the process. Once the responsible teams establish comfort with the digital process, the enhance stage can be targeted. The journey from current to enhanced process could require an intermediate stage, which would lead to a relatively smaller shift in the operating paradigm. It has been observed that gradual changes are more acceptable for the stakeholders, and this improves the possibility of successful implementation of the digital endeavour.

Summarizing all points discussed so far, it is critical to consider your digitization effort with the following questions:

  1. Do I have existing process that I am trying to replicate? Or is this a completely new process being implemented on the digital platform? An off-the-shelf solution could work in case of a new process but replicating an existing process would almost always require custom development.
  2. Always ask – “How does this application work for me?”. Does the application replicate my existing business or operating process? Are there any stakeholders who are not part of the process or are there some steps in the application’s process that nobody performs? In either of these cases, you might have a need to move from an off-the-shelf solution to a closer-to-home system application built specifically catering to the way your operations are managed.
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