I had the pleasure of doing an interview with Paul Wilkinson, founder of pwcom.co.uk Ltd, a specialist PR, marketing and construction technology consultancy.
Paul has been working in construction industry marketing and public relations since 1987, with some of the sector’s best-known names in professional services and information technology. He is also a leading authority on the use of construction collaboration technology platforms.
Aarni: Paul, you are a construction PR and marketing specialist and a leading authority on construction collaboration technologies. What are you working on at the moment?
Paul: I am still an active observer and occasional participant in the construction collaboration technology market. I still blog about the sector, and make an effort to keep in touch with all the key vendors’ latest news, so that I can update readers on developments. I also undertake occasional PR and marketing projects for some of the vendors in this sector – with 25 years in construction and 13 years working in Software-as-a-Service in the industry, I can write quickly and concisely about the technologies (and sometimes I can reflect that learning back via the blog too.)
However, I also do PR and marketing work for other types of businesses. For example, I have a client who develops building information modelling software; I help another client run digital events; I provide website support and marketing services to an academic engineering organisation; and I provide social media training and consultancy services to several customers.
PR, Marketing and the Social Web
Aarni: IT development in the AEC industry has been focused on internal or inter-company processes. I feel that most AEC firms are not at par with many other industries when it comes to digital marketing, customer involvement or customer service. What do you think is holding the companies back?
Paul: Among some of my construction marketing friends, it is common to hear that the marketing function is the first to suffer cut-backs when money is tight. There is also a perception within many construction firms that marketing is just about promotional activity (the brochure team or “colouring in” department). Ignoring its long-term strategic function means that marketing professionals are often omitted from key decisions about what products to sell in what market, by whom and at what price.
Sadly, professional communicators rarely feature on AEC company boards, and so firms lose out on the strategic insights that good marketeers can bring. Such professionals can help firms understand (through market research and other customer and end-user engagement) why customers make their buying decisions. Remember, it’s about the five P’s: product (or service), price, place, people and then promotion.
Aarni: Even the smallest firms have a web presence of some sort. Some AEC firms are testing the waters in social networking. What would you suggest a contractor, or an architectural or engineering firm should do before they start investing time and money in social media?
Paul: Increasingly, just having a website and email is not enough. Many customers are weary of websites that are little more than electronic brochures and which fail to deliver their particular information needs. And email overload is a frequent complaint, so adding yet more e-newsletters and unsolicited emails to a recipient’s in-box won’t win them over. Social media does not replace these tools (or others like face-to-face events or literature). Social media adds more tools to your communications toolbox and allows customers to opt-in to your messages and content in different ways.
Any AEC firm contemplating using social media should first learn more about the range of tools available. They should audit what their customers and other influencers may be using (or be likely to use), and what competitors may be doing. They should also look at their own resources and check they have adequate knowledge, manpower and willpower to deploy the tools they select. With a clearer understanding of what needs to be communicated to who and how, they can then start a targeted campaign to engage with key stakeholders and create opportunities for them to opt-in to different types of online conversation.
Aarni: What would you say are the main areas where B2B companies could benefit from using social networking?
Paul: My background is in B2B professional services and information technology and I find that social networking can be useful in helping establish company people as experienced practitioners or experts with particular areas of specialist knowledge. Rather than dealing with faceless corporate gateways, social networking can help put a face to a name, and open up a dialogue that, if managed right, can become a business opportunity. So lead generation is important. Search engine optimisation is also important; if your website is your shop-window, social networking can help you get more eyeballs looking into your shop.
Aarni: You wrote a book on construction collaboration technologies back in 2005. How has the collaboration scene evolved since then?
Paul: 2005 was just a stepping stone in a process that has been going on since the mid 1990s. At one time, construction collaboration was all about paper-based communications. Email and the web took a lot of that online, but there are still many areas of the market – small projects undertaken by small teams of SMEs, for example – where paper is still important and where email is still the primary means of collaboration. Greater access to broadband has helped us move forward, as has increased acceptance of web-based Software-as-a-Service (few people worry these days about booking flights or managing bank accounts online), and the immediacy of online communications has also changed peoples’ expectations about how quickly decisions can be made.
We have also moved beyond thinking about construction collaboration as mainly involving file-sharing. For many projects of any significant size, web-based platforms are indeed used to exchange information, but as well as creating secure shared repositories for documents and drawings, these platforms are also increasingly being used to manage processes and associated reporting functions. The more sophisticated systems now include detailed workflows to manage particular contract processes, and to monitor the impacts of these processes on project costs, for example. And I hope we will see more customers adopting a joined-up ‘whole life’ approach which sees information collated during design and construction passed forward seamlessly to support future operation, maintenance and facilities management.
Aarni: BIM adoption has been more evolutionary than revolutionary in most countries. What is the outlook for BIM in the UK?
Paul: The prospects for BIM in the UK have improved dramatically over the past couple of years. Key to this has been the drive, championed by the government’s chief construction advisor Paul Morrell, to introduce BIM for all UK public sector projects by 2016. This is an ambitious target, but as it is dictated by a government machine which, centrally and locally, delivers about 40% of UK construction’s annual output, the industry has little option but to take notice and to adapt itself accordingly.
That doesn’t mean it’s all going smoothly, though. BIM is not just about adapting technologies – its successful deployment will depend even more on adapting people and processes (we used to say successful collaboration was 20% technology, 80% people and processes – BIM is the same). The UK Government has created a BIM Task Group that is driving change programmes on a wide range of issues: model ownership, intellectual property, contracts, risk and liabilities, training and education, insurance, procurement practices, technology standards, etc, etc. Working groups drawn from across industry are involved in refining these approaches – sometimes drawing on lessons from other markets such as Scandinavia, the USA and the Far East – with the objective of resolving most of the major issues before 2016. In many areas, it’s still “work in progress”.
Aarni: Chris Anderson wrote in the September 2010 issue of Wired that the Web is dead. Apps and semi-closed platforms are taking over. Will we see the same development in B2B collaboration, or are there other profound changes in the horizon?
Paul: I think BIM will present one of the most profound changes in construction collaboration. It will shift the industry away from focusing on drawings and documents as deliverables. The new deliverables will be based on data, and the future will increasingly involve teams progressively creating and populating models constructed of large volumes of structured data. We are likely also to see a shift from relational databases towards graph databases with semantic connections between data. Organisations will increasingly need to be proficient in how they use data, some of which will be in-house, but increasing volumes will be stored online and ‘pulled’ as required into organisations for their occasional use.
Current trends towards more mobile and flexible forms of working will also continue. Organisations will be looking for solutions that allow the right information to be accessed by the right individual at the right time in the right place and in the right form, regardless of the device. B2B collaboration will therefore continue its current, gradual transition from an office-based activity to being one that happen anywhere, anytime and on any device.
Aarni: Can you mention examples of online services or firms that are already paving the way to the future in AEC collaboration?
Paul: I have seen some interesting examples – some from start-ups, some from more established firms – where they are beginning to apply collaboration to BIM (and vice versa), enabling more mobile ‘social’ collaboration, or are taking steps towards improving interoperability from design through to ‘whole life’ information. As for examples….
- UK-based start-up KyKloud, for example (blog post), showed me an asset management solution that would allow asset owner/operators to take informed decisions about investment in their built assets, drawing data from both collaboration platforms and real-time asset operation systems.
- In presentations, I have mentioned Senubo which is using mobile platforms to provide real-time conversations about construction operations, using wall-type discussions rather than threaded conversations.
- I have welcomed the OpenBIM initiative as a step towards creating open standards for exchange of built environment information; I believe UK-based collaboration vendor 4Projects is developing solutions compliant with OpenBIM approaches; rival Asite has also been a strong supporter of BuildingSMART and its open philosophy.
Aarni: You write blogs and you’re active on several social media sites. What’s the easiest way to reach you?
Paul: When I switch on my computer, I tend to open up Twitter first (using either Hootsuite or Tweetdeck) so tweet me at @EEPaul. With a smartphone you always have email too, so people can email me . My website ( http://www.pwcom.co.uk ) links to my tech blog and my PR blog, but I also hang out on FourSquare, SlideShare, Wikipedia, Be2camp.com, Skype and other places.