Expert Advice: Future Trends in Managing Construction Projects

Swelling population growth in urban centers around the globe has driven demand for roads, ports, housing, and more. Here are three approaches that bring greater innovation and impact to large-scale construction projects.

Written by Benjamin Breen • 30 September 2020


30 September 2020

Last year, PMI’s 2020 Signposts report outlined some of the global trends impacting projects around the world, including large-scale construction projects.

As the report highlighted, swelling population growth in urban centers around the globe has driven marked demand for roads, ports, housing, and more. At the same time, construction projects have faced marked pressure to do more with less, while driving faster project delivery times.

The construction industry has only seen these trends accelerated by the effects of COVID-19. I have been immersed in the world of construction since I studied Building Engineering at Victoria University in Melbourne and first moved to my adopted home of Singapore to work on major construction efforts like the iconic, US $5 billion Marina Bay Sands project. I love this work because no two jobs are the same, offering a continual range of new challenges to tackle wherever you are working in the world.

But I can truly say that I have seen much more change in the world of construction in just the last few years than any earlier time in my career.

As the world forges a path to recovery in the wake of the pandemic, it’s a worthwhile time to reflect on what we can do to bring greater innovation and effectiveness to construction projects. As governments and businesses around the world unleash pent-up economic demand in the form of major new construction projects, it will be more crucial than ever to wisely steward project budgets.

Here are three approaches we can take to ensure greater success in the future:

1. Minimize cost overruns with effective project management.

The plain reality is that many projects fail to effectively implement on their vision. According to PMI’s Pulse of the Profession research, construction organizations continue to waste far too much money due to poor project performance—an average of $127 million for every billion spent. The percentage of projects in the sector finishing late is also at 50%, another area in need of drastic improvement.

Think of the sheer waste these figures suggest—not only in dollar signs, but in value squandered.

PMI’s view is that the development of project skills across the industry requires far greater attention and coordination from organizational leaders. Capable and experienced project leaders play an invaluable role in helping teams to break up projects into manageable portions and navigate changes as they emerge.

A key challenge facing the industry is a lack of consistency around the world in respect to processes and systems. This is an especially acute challenge for junior project professionals learning on the job in an increasingly global economy. Project managers might execute a job in Manila and then move onto another engagement in, say, Hong Kong, where practices are done in completely different ways.

While some challenges may always be inevitable in respect to cost, schedule, and scope, there is clearly a pronounced need for construction professionals to be speaking the same language, following a similar set of standards of processes and systems—similar to how PMI has helped create a common language for the project management profession itself over the past 50 years. As economies build a bridge from the COVID-era to a “new normal” and dirt starts “flying” anew on construction sites, let’s focus on integrating greater agility and project discipline into the next wave of construction projects.

2. Embrace the potential of technology.

Construction may have lagged behind other sectors in the past in leveraging emerging technologies. But that is changing; McKinsey has estimated that construction and engineering firms have doubled their investments in technology over the past decade to reach $18 billion, including greater use of technologies like 3D printing, robotics, and modularization to boost productivity and shorten project timelines.

PMI Board Director Tejas Sura recently delivered a presentation on the future of the industry in which he discussed ways to “rethink, rebuild, and revive” the industry. He highlighted a few promising technologies, including augmented reality capabilities and Building Information Modeling, which gives construction professionals advanced insight into designing buildings and infrastructure. By digitally representing all aspects of a given structure, organizations can cut down on waste and delays by identifying potential challenges before executing in the field.

A notable example is London’s largest construction project underway—the Elizabeth line, a 100-km-plus expansion of the city’s famous Underground system, which has used BIM to streamline efficiencies throughout the mammoth undertaking. The entire project was mapped on BIM, saving the projects hundreds of millions of pounds by adding greater precision to where tunnels were dug.

In the post-COVID-19 landscape, safety will increase as a return, with greater considerations for physical distancing—another area in which technology can help move the needle. In some countries like Australia, only 25% of the workforce is allowed to physically be on-site.

But nothing breeds creativity like constraints; that’s why we see industry leaders like energy giant Saudi Aramco using drones to inspect projects from a safe distance and even leveraging augmented reality technology for training simulations.

I’ve been especially impressed by immersive mixed reality technology, as seen in the Microsoft HoloLens, essentially 3D glasses that allow the user to explore a design in extensive detail. Considered to be the world’s first fully self-contained, holographic computer, the tool offers limitless applications: imagine a deep sea project, in which the project leader is based in an office thousands of miles away in Sydney, working with a colleague out on an oil rig in the South Pacific to address a technical problem. Such advancements can open up entire new worlds of project breakthroughs.

The future will likely see more projects awarded on the basis of how innovative they are in approaching new public health requirements—and how efficient they are with their construction methodologies.

3. Invest in power skills and the ability to work effectively with people.

While some worry that efficiencies created by our emerging technologies will see workers displaced by automation, the outcome I expect is that humans will simply need to shift and evolve their skill sets. Companies are increasingly seeking talent that bring attributes beyond the traditional technical skills expected on construction projects. Indeed, project talent today are called on to wear more hats than ever and get accustomed to multifaceted job expectations.

Technical skills will always be instrumental, but they increasingly must be complemented by capabilities focused on working with people and leading teams. Rather than calling them “soft skills,” they should be considered power skills given how essential they are, particularly with more professionals working in dispersed virtual environments and across generational divides. These include attributes like creativity and collaborative leadership—the type of capabilities that won’t be assumed by even today’s sophisticated machines anytime soon.

Especially when engaged on complex projects that require the input of a variety of stakeholders, it’s essential that professionals can leverage these capabilities, including empathy for the voice of the customer and applying an innovative mindset.

Communication is and always has been a critical Power Skill in particular. It’s critically important to be able to communicate well with all parties. You can have all the knowledge in the world but if you can’t get your message across, it will have limited impact.

The future will no doubt present challenges, including some we may not anticipate like future pandemics or climate shocks. But I strongly believe in the potential of this industry to continue innovating and finding the silver lining in any challenge.

Benjamin Breen headshot

Ben Breen
Managing Director | Asia Pacific, Global Head of Construction, PMI

Ben Breen is Managing Director of the Association of South Eastern Nations (ASEAN) region where he will oversee business development and represent the chapters in the region bringing us closer to the needs of our customers. Ben also will spearhead the Construction Working Group for greater reach and focus.

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