Solving the Big Problem: What AEC CIOs Need to Know From a New Big Data Survey

by Terry D. Bennett
- Dec 14 2015 - 4 min read
Micke Tong

Big data is increasingly the big problem for today’s CIOs in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industries.

According to a recent big data survey of AEC CIOs from the new “Role of CIOs in the Era of Connection: Innovating America’s Future” report, 42 percent say big data and analytics would give their company a better business advantage (versus 29 percent for private cloud or mobile applications). But 76 percent of those respondents still have a focus to spend on “business as usual,” and 62 percent note that their biggest challenge is outdated tools and technology.

Why is big data such a big deal? Customers will expect not just a connected world, but an environment that understands and responds to their needs. Competitive advantage will hinge on leveraging data to make not just a better building or bridge, but a better experience and a sustainable one at that. And it’s not just the millennials; Gen Z will also shape the future, and for them, it’s one that includes data. Lots of it.

Around the world, industries have also been evolving as new technologies transform the way people create products, buildings, infrastructure, and more. Technology has always disrupted how things are made, and today those “things” are now deeply connected and related to each other, both physically and digitally. It’s happening now as the AEC industry enters the Era of Connection.

big_data_survey_cities_2This era is about building applications and solutions that not only connect a community of people to a 3D model, but also connect them to the new means of production, the new means of consumption. It’s the new definition of what a product is. Big data and the cloud are the backbone that is helping to drive this disruption.

While big data is a phrase most commonly associated with the finance and retail sectors, it has finally come home to roost in AEC, especially with the large amounts of highly trustworthy information using Building Information Modeling (BIM) technology and related systems. The question is, what might AEC organizations do with such capabilities, and what does it really mean to them?

Today’s decisions can no longer be made in silos, with limited insight. The good news is that this explosion in digital content is proving to be a stimulant for innovation, removing traditional barriers and shifting to outcome-based approaches in order to deliver the highest life-cycle return versus the lowest life-cycle cost of the built environment. And that’s poised to change the way industries think about how to plan, design, build, finance, operate, and maintain the built environment.

big_data_survey_era_of_connection_2Using big data analytics to drive down the number of mistakes made in the real world—in everything from asset design to operations and maintenance—is key. It’s far cheaper to get it wrong virtually than in reality. The phrase “if only” should disappear from the lexicon of project planning, design, and delivery. The productivity boost alone will be a boon.

The “Role of CIOs” report also highlights the fact that the slow adoption of big data in AEC is due to the huge barriers that must be overcome. Issues like interoperability, reliability, accuracy of the data, and, of prime concern to a CIO, privacy and security. Beyond the internal view, the external view must be taken into account. Some CIOs noted that, for the most part, it’s a trust factor. Consultancies using data for customer strategies in particular—like data-driven planning, design, or operations—may require their clients to open their data books or allow greater access to employees or customers for feedback. If this is a public client, the sensitivity can be tenfold.

Given today’s onslaught of information, AEC CIOs need to know what kind of data to collect, how to package and share that data within a firm, and how to use this knowledge to influence the firm’s future strategies to understand where new business opportunities lie. CIOs must look at big data operating across three axes: business data operations, project and engineering disciplines, and external reference data of clients.

big_data_survey_aecThe objective, of course, is to keep the business relevant by constantly improving. More and more, CIOs will be experiencing expanded external-facing roles and responsibilities. These include managing relationships with clients and managing competitiveness by innovating. For CIOs to really hit their stride in leading this change, they need to start building discipline about relevant data sources, how perceived buckets of information can relate to each other, and the connection of all the data sources to determine the value and meaning.

From the same CIOs surveyed in the report, big data is useful only when it can:

  • Be converted into knowledge
  • Combine analyses of different sources of big data, leading to better decisions
  • Produce actionable intelligence, making connections and patterns that you would not have otherwise have made
  • Lead to new business and client opportunities

Now is the time to define what big data means—not to finance or IT, but to the AEC professionals and firms who are the ones to deliver the future built environment. And big data should not only be defined, but there should also be a fundamental shift to investing in it. Innovation and the future of AEC businesses depend on it.

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