AECbytes Viewpoint #65 (April 30, 2012)

Getting a BIM Rap: Why Implementations Fail, and What You Can Do About It

Josh Oakley
Founder and Principal, ANGL Consulting

The stage was set for an exciting meeting. After decades of operating from paper drawings, a large Regional construction firm was about to do things in a brand new way, using its Building Information Modeling (BIM) software on a job site for the first time.

So inside a trailer-housed meeting room, a projector was set up and more than a dozen people gathered. The room buzzed with anticipation: no longer would different disciplines run into onsite conflicts. If the electrical conduit was in a spot where an HVAC duct should go, everyone would soon know it—and would be able to quickly resolve it.

All that changed when the lead superintendent walked in.

He took one suspicious look at the projector and said, “Turn that thing off. We’re going to do things the way we’ve always done them. I’ve built buildings for 30 years. I’m not interested in changing.”

So the projector went dark, the computer was powered down and the enthusiasm in the room quickly deflated as piles of drawings were brought out instead.

Where did this company go wrong? The issue wasn’t with the software—it was a state-of-the-art package. And it wasn’t for lack of effort—as the prominent downtown site demonstrated, this company’s BIM software was just about to be employed on a high-stakes, multimillion-dollar project.

But this firm’s leaders failed to consider one key person: the on-site superintendent. No matter what happens in an air-conditioned office, on a high-pressure construction site, he has the final say. And if he wasn’t on board with BIM, it didn’t matter how many benefits it promised, or how many competitors were implementing it.

The superintendent isn’t to blame; in fact, most of us would have the same reaction. This frustrating day illustrates what we so often observe: BIM implementation is not really about software. It’s about organizational change—and wrenching, disruptive change at that. Our experiences—and the experiences of our clients—have demonstrated that people and processes are far more important than technology.

More Than Technology

For an architecture, engineering or construction firm, BIM is far more than a suite of software. Sure, we’d all love to believe that all you need to do is plunk down the cash for a license, then the technology will solve all your problems.

But there’s more to the story.

Of course, BIM is an absolutely wonderful tool, and it has great potential to streamline costs and processes, to help different disciplines communicate effectively and to ensure little confusion on a job site. But to get to that promised land of benefits, you have to pass through the wilderness of adoption, which always seems to hinge on organizational change, not technology. This is the inconvenient truth.

We have seen BIM adoption go wrong in a number of ways, and strangely enough, none of these have anything to do with the software itself. We’ve visited many companies where BIM has been mandated from the top down, with models included in each deliverable; yet on the job site it’s disregarded—just like the example at the beginning of this article. We’ve visited other companies where BIM has become another cost, instead of a cost-savings tool, because it’s been outsourced to meet a client-driven requirement.

In the short term, that’s understandable. But in the long term, it’s absolutely backwards.

Many design firms rush into BIM adoption with great enthusiasm, and they immediately push to roll it out across all their projects. But because the speed of the change is too great, they quickly get bogged down, and BIM is abandoned. I’m sure they didn’t spend tens of thousands of dollars on the software—and even more on training—only to have that investment go to waste. But this is what happens far too often.

Other companies deploy BIM initially with great success, but they ultimately aren’t able to sustain that success. This happens in companies who elect to hire an expert—or even a team of experts—and end up taking a “let them do it” approach, instead of having an entire organization become conversant with the software and the processes it requires.

And what happens when those experts are tempted by better offers and go elsewhere? A firm can go from the leading edge of BIM deployment and sophistication to the back of the pack. And that’s not just a hypothetical: we’ve seen it happen, in large companies with names you would recognize. That’s the major pitfall when BIM is a “bolt on” attachment rather than a language an entire company learns to speak.

Setting the Tone

What does BIM adoption look like when it’s done well? In an ideal situation, a firm has a Change Management strategy before the shrink-wrap is even removed from the software. Because BIM is such a big change, affecting every aspect of what a company does, it absolutely has to start with executive-level support.

And to work really well, it needs much more than mere support. There are many firms where an executive has said, in effect, “Get me some of this BIM stuff I keep hearing about,” and then expects middle management to do the heavy lifting. That’s usually a recipe for failure.

Instead, it’s best for at least one executive to invest in truly understanding BIM, what it means for his or her organization, and who can then champion its adoption. Most crucially, this leader should also have the power to create the right incentives and organizational structure for it to work.

One of the most effective BIM adoptions we’ve witnessed took place when a company’s chief executive officer became the leading advocate. Not only did he introduce the training sessions, but he attended them himself, sitting on the front row. This was a very busy senior executive, with many responsibilities and demands upon his time. So the example he set, and the vision he communicated, was very powerful.

That’s why it’s always best to begin with executive education, then guide leaders through a process of understanding not just BIM in abstraction, but what BIM will mean for their firm, specifically. What is the vision? What do they hope BIM will achieve? And what do they need to change in terms of incentives, resources, and basic organizational structure for this to be successful?

These are important to answer because they are different for every company. BIM adoption isn’t a one-size-fits-all change.

You may wonder why this level of commitment is necessary. After all, when firms deploy other pieces of software, you may not see the CEO at a training session. But few other pieces of software have the potential to change every aspect of how business is done, from design to construction to operations. BIM, when done properly, not only allows different disciplines to collaborate effectively, it essentially demands that they do.

Unfortunately, most companies don’t anticipate this. Suddenly there are governance issues, with org charts and hierarchies that need to change. In the short term, there are unavoidable inefficiencies, because BIM adoption comes with a learning curve. This process can be represented with the J-Curve, shown below. The J-Curve is an illustration of the journey most organizations take when implementing BIM. Its purpose is to visually clarify and establish healthy expectations in the process of introducing BIM into an organization.

Go Slow to Go Fast

Based on that unavoidable learning curve, it’s better for organizations to start slowly with BIM adoption to ensure the best chance of success. Instead of deploying it across the board, a firm should use BIM on just a few handpicked projects, carefully and deliberately, to give team members a taste. If done well, pretty soon everyone wants to be on a BIM project, and expanding BIM across the organization becomes an organic process.

Unfortunately, that’s rarely the reality—the ideal scenario for blank-slate BIM adoption is more of a rarity. Because what usually happens is that a company rushes headlong into it without making the proper organizational changes, and without working to make sure everyone, from the “C-suite” to the job site, is on board. And then, on top of that, the scope of a rollout is simply too big for something so new and different as BIM.

Often a beleaguered middle manager reaches out for help after he’s tried to implement BIM and has failed spectacularly, leaving everyone with a bad taste in their mouths. “If that’s what BIM is all about,” most people are thinking, “I don’t want anything to do with it.”

Then the task of picking up the pieces and getting it right is actually a bigger job than starting from zero. People are no longer neutral or ignorant about BIM; instead, they think they know what it is, and they don’t like it. So rather than rushing right in with another attempt, organizations have to step all the way back to be intentional and adopt this technology in the right way. Part of that is spending the time to learn exactly what went wrong and why.

Then, once an organization is ready, usually after several weeks of analysis, and armed with a Change Management strategy, they can begin again. The best way to build momentum is to string together some small wins. Select just one or two small projects to act as pilots, jobs that hopefully will go well, and get people excited about BIM again.

Don’t Skip the Soft Stuff

As we relate these war stories, you may be scratching your heads—and for good reason. Most conversations about BIM center around technology and training—good, old-fashioned problem-solving stuff—not “softer” issues like interpersonal dynamics, vision casting, change management and organizational design. Architects, engineers and construction managers live in a hard-hat world of urgent issues and compressed schedules, where time is money and problems need to be solved yesterday.

So we get it. No one wants to hear that it may take several weeks to work through the wreckage of a poor BIM implementation. No one really likes the suggestion that it’s better to go slow in the early-going. And many people feel suckered when they realize that adopting BIM is an organization-wide change, not just a piece of whiz-bang software they buy and are done with.

Yet the “soft issues” hold the key to adopting BIM in an effective, sustainable way. After all, in terms of technology, there is no discernible difference between the companies who do BIM well, and those who have fumbled the ball. Training is fairly standard as well. So that leaves the messier stuff.

Many are resistant to organizational change or any significant changes in how they do business—and for good reason. So, for change to be adopted, it requires leaders who have bought in to the change sufficiently enough to sell the benefits to all the skeptics down the line. As we’ve seen, many need to be shown the benefits rather than just told about them.

But we firmly believe that the effort pays off in the long run. The results speak for themselves.


About the Author

Josh Oakley is the founder and principal of ANGL Consulting. Before founding ANGL, Josh spent four years leading BIM implementation at The Beck Group in Atlanta, a nationally recognized architecture and construction firm. Today, he is an industry expert in BIM technology and the workflows and processes necessary for its successful application.




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