BIM is a Tool

Building Information Modeling has hit the shores of the AECO industry as a tsunami wave quiet and unexpected. Owners, architects, engineers and contractors are feeling the devastation of restructuring work flows and business models to adapt to new tools and a flood of new information.  However, a tsunami of information is useless unless communication methods and styles improve to handle the volume.  Historically projects have been said to fail due to information issues, either lack thereof or incorrect, delimited by poor collaboration. While information issues have been a piece of the equation the underlying and deeper issue appears to be the inability to communicate the information efficiently and effectively. 

The question now since BIM intervention is “Are things getting better?” Are we still experiencing the same issues: busted budgets, extended schedules, low quality and meager safety? If the answer is that we do not see a significant improvement, then why isn’t the greater amount of information provided by BIM solving problems? The reasoning for such a conclusion and the ultimate part that BIM plays in the solution is the part worth exploring.

Information communicated appropriately is the focal point of a successful project. The right information at the right time oils the machine of progress.  BIM and communication technologies are improving the speed of communication and quantity, but our communication skills as humans is faltering. Complex personal communication styles from a broad spectrum of cultural backgrounds uniting to solve construction issues poses the real issue to progress in the industry.

Ultimately, whether you are the architect, engineer, contractor or owner, we are information managers. We have a responsibility to create, and to share what we have created to ensure the success of the entire team. How to communicate effectively and efficiently from person to person and company to company seems to be at the heart the problem.  My favorite saying is “95% of problems in construction are not construction problems but people problems.”  We all come together with a variety of needs, experience levels and backgrounds which translate into our own language. Sometimes even though we speak the same dialect we do not understand each other or our individual needs because of our historical silo work environments.

If our communication skills were poor before BIM, then BIM only serves to enhance our disability. If BIM cannot be hailed as the solution to our ailing industry and our flagging productivity, what is to be done?  We must utilize BIM as an improved tool of communication and increase attention to the methodologies of communication.  We must focus on quality and timing not quantity.  The quantity of information will never be a solution if it is presented poorly.

It is the age old paradox of communication and human nature.  I naturally communicate my ideas in ways that make sense to me, my needs and my environment.  Almost everyone communicates egocentrically.  Unfortunately most communication blunders and problems originate from this ego bias. As Stephen Covey said, “We need to first seek understanding before we seek to be understood.”

Here is an example to illustrate my point.  A design engineer constructing a five-story concrete building will almost always draw the building columns from the foundations to level five.  This is not the way the building will be constructed. The engineer designs and engineers the building from his own perspectives with a set of engineering parameters fitting the silo approach.  His purpose is to provide a safe, durable, cost effective and perhaps environmentally sound building that hopefully coordinates with the architects design intent.  The issue is the engineer considers his audience to be city inspectors and architects, not the field fabricator and construction foreman.  The engineer believes how the concrete and steel are assembled is constructability means and methods but in reality those means and method will often cause him more cost and grief that the city review. Ultimately a sizable portion of cost budgets depend upon how well he can communicate the construction of the building to the contractor.

Information silos and poor communication is certainly not limited to design; it translates into all the silos of our industry. Speaking from my own sandbox contractors historically communicate at a base level rarely considering the audience or our effectiveness.  I have seen too many avoidable issues and far too many RFI’s that would have been better suited to be written in crayon. As a whole we communicate only when we see it to be necessary and it is driven by the CYA methodology.

Newer project delivery methods like Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) offer hope that the information silos can be broken down; but do we need a new contract structure to dictate our interactions? A true integrated team must lay aside the traditional communication boundaries and egocentric natures and consider the ultimate goal and vision, regardless of the contract type.  A critical look at the methods of communication and everyone’s information needs will do far more than BIM will ever do in our industry.

Building Information Modeling is a tool, a single part of a larger solution, and not the only solution to the productivity and collaboration problems. BIM does not necessarily enhance our ability to communicate. BIM is helping preserve the loss of information throughout the lifecycle of a project, but quantity of information does not replace quality and timing.

So how do we get better at our communication skills? We need to practice being human before we practice our professions. The professional world is often myopically focused on transactions- where our focus is not building relationships but building our portfolio and bank accounts. Many problems exist from our electronic message methods to our egotistical perspectives. We pay for information and results, forgetting the human element of the situation.

In short, we must walk in each other’s shoes and be empathetic to the whole needs of the team. Then learn how to communicate these ideas to one another by talking to one another about the very issue.  Consideration for your constituents is the most effective path to communication. Perhaps think less of who is in charge and think about what task you’ve been charged with. Those construction and design firms that learn the great lesson of the audience will ultimately succeed. 

We cannot continue to be so completely inept in our interactions and expect a technology to fix it for us.  In fact, if you follow it to its logical conclusion, increased information transmitted by the same methods of communication will only lead to greater frustration, exhausted budgets and a perception that BIM was not really the answer we were looking for. People who are unwilling to understand how to communicate, and who continue down the same traditional path will ultimately flounder and fail. Not because of BIM, rather their communication foundation was lacking and BIM ultimately demonstrated their weakness. It is not the meek or the strong that will inherit the earth, rather those who adapt to transformation and communicate competently.