When it comes to digital transformation, you’ll never outrun the bear


There is an old joke about two hikers in the American woods who stumble across a bear. The first hiker reaches into his rucksack and pulls out a pair of running shoes. The second hiker looks at him in surprise and declares that he will never outrun the bear. The first hiker just smiles and says: “I don’t need to outrun the bear, I just need to outrun you!”

This is a great analogy when it comes to talking to clients about digital transformation – because you will never outrun the bear that is the data and analytics revolution that is upon us.

One of our clients is using automated rules-based software to reduce the time taken to deliver standard designs. They have a configurator that will design gantries across motorways and major roads in two hours, whereas it used to take a human a week to complete the same task. Similarly, Trimble’s Nova MEP tool will perform the heat calculations for a room, based on just a few inputs, in 20 minutes, rather than the day that it would take the human engineer. Kreo is an innovative start-up that is integrating the automation of tender design, cost and construction programmes, again producing outputs that would take humans weeks to create in just a few minutes.

Chart 1

While our gantry client is using technology better than its rivals, it is outrunning the other hiker, but not outrunning the bear. I asked the Managing Director what would happen when all its current processes had been automated so that they could be done in a twentieth (or less) of the time. Would he need a twentieth of the staff? He looked at me for a few moments in puzzlement. His response was: “That’s a few years away yet.”

Since you cannot outrun the bear, you need to embrace it – and find new, value-adding tools and services that you can provide. In this way, it is through optimisation rather than automation that success lies.

Chart 2

But what for us human engineers? Are we about to be rendered obsolete by the machines? No. Not completely. It will be a long, long time before buildings and infrastructure will be designed by machines alone. But the next few years will see a different sort of relationship between human engineers and the systems we use to organise and structure design tasks.

Chart 3

To misquote Eric Morecambe, many engineers are carrying out all the right design tasks, but not necessarily in the right order.

It cannot be right to allow someone to design the rainwater collection system on a building until the structural envelope has been signed off. But many consultancies give their staff free rein to decide what to do and which tools to use.

Combined and integrated systems of people and technology will ensure that the right task is done in the right order, whether by human or machine. A learning library of design processes – increasingly delivered on a ‘Function-as-a-service’ (FAAS) basis – will ensure that we capture best practice and do not constantly recreate tools over and over again. Workflow engines can be used to commission tasks from either software or human. Such a MicroSystems approach will see human engineers doing what they do best – solving difficult problems and interacting with clients. The days of repetitive design detailing are behind us.

An analogy to give us human engineers hope. Imagine it was 1980 and you were in the basement of an accounting firm – say Touche (the forerunner of Touche Ross and Deloitte & Touche etc). There would have been an army of people with adding machines working on the accounts. Then one day, someone came in and said, excitedly: “Boss, boss, I have just seen something amazing – it’s called a spreadsheet.” Forty years on, today’s Deloitte partner is part of a bigger, more profitable and more creative business than his Touche partner predecessor could have imagined. And while Deloitte does not employ people to add up numbers any more, it employs an array of people with disciplines and skills that did not exist in 1980.

While with digital transformation, we can never outrun the bear, we can make friends with it. Less of a grizzly and more of a teddy perhaps.

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