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Is BIM a Catalyst for Collaboration?


The big dictionary on my bookshelf defines collaboration as: “working in association (sometimes invidiously, with an enemy).”

For construction folk, this will ring a bell. Many of our contractual relationships can be somewhat adversarial, with each party doing the bare minimum to satisfy the terms of the agreement, and rarely (if ever!) going the extra mile.

But it doesn’t have to be like this––and for decades there have been initiatives aimed at getting more positive approaches to collaboration in construction. For me, collaboration is about co-creation. It happens when two or more people, or organizations, come together and combine their knowledge, expertise, and other resources to develop something that none could have delivered individually. It involves working in an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect, sharing information in common systems, and delivering the best outcome for the client.

At different times and in different markets, these objectives have been the aims of various construction initiatives or philosophies: “partnering,” “integrated collaborative working,” “integrated teams,” “integrated project delivery,” “lean construction,” and “alliancing,” to name a few examples. But let’s throw in another topical term: Building Information Modelling (BIM).

BIM: A Catalyst for Collaboration

Many people make the mistake of thinking BIM is just about technology, but BIM is a collaborative process. As such, it involves careful attention being paid to the people involved, their behaviors, their processes, and the information they exchange during delivery and whole life operation of a built asset. Technology is simply an enabler, or, as some have described it, a catalyst for collaboration.

However, successful collaboration will only happen when clients and their project teams look at the whole process and, from the outset, adopt an inclusive approach. This won’t happen spontaneously. Often it needs to be encouraged at the highest level––by the owner/operator client––who can mandate a more collaborative process, like BIM.

This is what started to happen, of course, in the UK in 2011. The UK government set an April 2016 target mandating ‘Level 2’ BIM for delivery of all centrally procured projects (ie, those undertaken by national government departments and agencies). As the public sector accounts for around 40% of the UK construction sector’s workload, this was a powerful incentive, and became more extensive as some private sector clients sought to achieve the same goals of greater collaboration, fewer cost and program overruns, and better whole life value.

Are we there yet?

However, even client demand won’t get the industry collaborating overnight. A year past that 2016 deadline, a survey suggests that the UK industry has yet to reap the full benefits of BIM.

The 2017 NBS National BIM Report shows that BIM adoption has reached a new high point. It is increasingly the norm for most design businesses to work; over 60% now use BIM, and 95% expect to within three years. Designers feel the UK government is on the right track with BIM, and that it is delivering on at least two of the aims: a reduction in the initial and whole life costs of built assets; and delivering time efficiencies, reducing time from inception to completion.

However, the report shows there is still work to do; it reflects that BIM Level 2 was just a step on the way and that more information and training will be needed––particularly for clients––to maintain momentum on their projects. Only 45% of project teams say they use a model from the start to the end of a project, and only 26% pass on a model for building management. The value of the information embodied in BIM is yet to be fully realized, partly because we are still developing the key building blocks for collaboration. As the NBS report says:

“BIM is collaborative. Standards describe the shared process, structures and definitions that allow collaboration. For collaboration to be successful, collaborating parties need to adhere to agreed standards.”

However, no one standard is yet used by a majority––the industry essentially started with a low level of standardization and the development and adoption of new standards takes time, and, increasingly, requires international cooperation. There is, as NBS says, further work to do.

Make some hard decisions on the ‘soft’ issues.

Some of this work is already focusing on people and process issues. The UK’s BIM Level 2 target was broadly about achieving what was possible with existing technologies, industry contracts, procurement methods, insurances, and intellectual property approaches. While data exchange and other technology standards will continue to evolve, achieving a “step change” in collaboration in any country’s construction industry will also involve radical changes in these “softer” areas.

For instance, new models of procurement and risk management are being evaluated. Some clients are selecting project teams based on “best value” not lowest price. Some teams are being incentivized by gain/pain-sharing arrangements. And, on some projects, individual company insurances are being replaced by single policies covering the whole project team (Integrated Project Insurance) so that team members’ collaborative capacities are no longer constrained by concerns about protecting their firm’s liabilities.

As other countries monitor the UK’s BIM adoption programme, it is clear that they, too, will need to look at how their industry structures, processes, and standards might encourage (or discourage) genuine collaboration. On its own, BIM technology will not encourage collaboration. Succeeding in a digitally disrupted industry means rethinking entire business models, not just tinkering with the tech.