Industries evolve when their participants find new and better ways to work together. How can organizations surf the wave of these shifting relationships?
How do industries evolve?
We’ve all seen it happen. Our industry is humming along with business as usual, staying more or less stable for perhaps years at a time. Then something erupts onto the scene—a new technology, a public health crisis, a major geopolitical shift, even a dramatic change in fashion preferences—that turns the industry upside down, leaving a swath of failed organizations in its wake. If we’re lucky, we avoid being disrupted, and we may even thrive in the new state of affairs. But what about the organizations that didn’t survive? Why didn’t they see the change coming? And if they did, why weren’t they able to adapt?
Disruption—unanticipated step changes in how an industry does business—is one of the main, certainly the most dramatic, forms of industry evolution. What’s less evident, though, is the underlying mechanism responsible for much of this evolution. Whether it’s Blockbuster falling to Netflix or Oracle’s successful transition to cloud, we tend to ascribe an organization’s failure or success in dealing with disruption to attributes of the organization itself. They’re too slow or too big or, conversely, unusually agile and prepared. But rarely do we dig deeper to ask: What are the Blockbusters of the world too slow at and too big for? What did Oracle do with all that agility?
When we examine the way industries evolve, time and time again, we find that it’s the relationships among organizations—their networks and interactions—that speed disruption along or stand in its way. Streaming video disrupted Blockbuster because distributing physical products requires different institutional relationships from distributing virtual products, and the role Blockbuster played in the physical supply chain simply did not exist in the virtual one. Transitioning to streaming would have required Blockbuster to unpick the property and franchising relationships that had hitherto defined its operations while simultaneously building new relationships for virtual distribution. It’s a prime example of a company where institutional relationships that had once been a competitive advantage became an insurmountable burden.
If we’re to spot and prepare for disruption, it’s more productive to focus on the verbs, the interactions between organizations, than the nouns, the organizations themselves. It’s changes in institutional arrangements, not primarily institutions, that drive industry evolution; organizations are only disrupted if the new arrangements no longer require them. To stay ahead of disruptive change, it’s thus essential to anticipate when potential disruptors could stimulate organizations to work together differently, and to position one’s organization to surf the wave of these shifting relationships.
In this essay, we’ll illustrate this principle with how some organizations in the construction industry are wrestling with technology-driven change—with considerable implications for the industry’s future.
A construction industry example: How technology is invalidating old assumptions
The construction industry has, until recently, been remarkably stable over time. The building process has unfolded in much the same way since the time of the pharaohs: Materials such as bricks, girders, and windows are brought to the construction site and assembled piece by piece, while inspectors regularly tour the in-progress building to oversee quality and compliance. Manufacturers make the components, construction companies organize the logistics and assembly, contractors (typically) perform the work, and regulators do the inspections, each carrying out its own well-defined role. It’s long been seen as an industry ripe for disruption—and now, the disruption may finally be here.
A confluence of technologies and tools, including digital twins, building information management (BIM) systems, parametric modeling, and flexible manufacturing, is making possible new techniques that are invalidating long-held assumptions about how construction should be done. A digital twin of a to-be-constructed building, for instance, allows engineering knowledge to be baked into the twin from the start rather than after an architect has designed the building. Previously manual outputs, such as diagrams showing how cranes should lift large assemblies, can be generated directly from the twin. 3D digital models of the building can be readily produced, enabling workers to use VR throughout the construction process (such as trades mapping on-site workflows) instead of just in architectural visualization.
The adoption of a digital-first process, known as Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA), has resulted in an explosion of creativity and innovation across the industry as construction firms rapidly absorb new (to them) technology. In DfMA, buildings are architected so that they can be divided into assemblies that can be quickly snapped together on site. These assemblies can be self-contained modules (bathroom pods are popular, though entire apartment modules have also been used successfully), standardized (and so mass-produced) structural components, or even large bespoke structural components. Assemblies are manufactured off-site at a factory before being shipped to the construction site, where the building is constructed by quickly snapping together the completed components. Unlike the traditional approach of preassembling smaller building elements such as wall panels and stairways, the DfMA process allows buildings to be constructed in a modular fashion, with entire floors quickly put together as assemblies are lifted into place by a crane.
DfMA’s invalidation of old assumptions about how construction works is in turn invalidating assumptions about how organizations can most productively work together, both inside and outside the construction industry. For instance, the DfMA process splits the work of building between the construction site and off-site factories—between building products and the building itself. The resulting blurring boundary raises new questions for which the building ecosystem will need to negotiate fresh answers. What, for example, qualifies as a building product—a tap, a sink, a bathroom pod, an apartment module?—to be certified versus a building whose construction is regulated? What construction regulations apply to a manufacturer that produces DfMA assemblies? Do these manufactured elements also need to be certified as building products? And what manufacturing regulations apply to a DfMA firm that brings the manufacturing capability in-house?
DfMA also calls into question the construction industry’s relationships with regulators. Currently, regulators want to inspect physical buildings rather than digital plans in a BIM, even though it’s possible to verify that digital plans meet regulation and then use statistical quality control techniques from manufacturing to verify that what was inspected was in fact built. The latter approach would be safer than sending an inspector to a site where they could suffer accidents; it would also be cheaper because the inspector could review a single digital exemplar of, say, 200 bathrooms instead of inspecting all 200 physical bathrooms. But regulators have been slow to adopt this procedure, not because they don’t have the technology to execute it, but because they need to learn to trust the new process and ensure that it provides them with the information they need.
Another issue for DfMA firms has been their relationships with banks. Banks rely on quantity surveying to manage lending risk. But quantity surveying conventionally requires walkthroughs at the build site, and because much of the fabrication in DfMA occurs off-site, the surveying can’t begin until after at least some of the modules are brought to the site and assembled. Yet DfMA firms need some of the funds before the on-site build begins to support the manufacturing part of the process. The reluctance of many banks to provide these upfront funds has led DfMA firms to self-finance early projects or seek alternatives to debt finance. In fact, banks have sometimes dismissed DfMA projects due to the smaller returns associated with a speedier construction project, without considering that the shorter timeframe allows a bank to fund more projects and therefore realize as much margin or more with more diversified risk.
It’s also worth noting that embedding cost data and real-time construction updates into a building’s digital twin could result in quantity surveying expertise being absorbed by the DfMA platform. Quantity surveying, in this case, could be done by the building’s architect and engineer, or even the custodian of the digital model. The relationship between the quantity surveyor and the financier may then no longer be functionally required—but would banks trust anyone else?
The emerging DfMA industry is not being held back mainly by organizations’ inability to absorb new technology. The barrier is the challenge of updating the ecosystem’s institutional arrangements—involving though not limited to contracting, debt finance, and regulatory compliance—to realize the opportunities the new approach provides. So far, these institutional arrangements have proved difficult to change. Unfavorable verbs are shaping the digital building industry’s evolution.
An example of this is DfMA’s difficulty in contracting with suppliers. A building might be designed to use steel framing. The DfMA firm constructing the building would like to buy the framing from a supplier, but they want to do so by exchanging digital information rather than paper forms, and they have very tight tolerances on the delivered product compared to those typical in construction. (Tight tolerances are essential to the success of the snap-together DfMA approach, as without them work migrates from the factory to the site, negating DfMA’s speed, safety, and cost benefits.) Even if a supplier uses a digital process internally, the need to map between paper specifications generated from the DfMA firm’s digital twin and the supplier’s own internal digital tools creates inaccuracies and costs that could have been avoided. Consequently, DFMA firms struggle to find suppliers that can contract in the way they would prefer, making it easier to vertically integrate and bring the capability in-house.
If suppliers and DfMA firms could find ways to facilitate tight-tolerance digital contracting arrangements, then leading DfMA firms might unbundle rather than vertically integrate, creating a new industry in the process. But if vertical integration remains the more practical option, then the construction industry will forgo the cost, productivity, and innovation benefits that the development of a broadly based industry brings.
Courtesy Deloitte. By Peter Evans-Greenwood, Damien Crough
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