The world is about to lose a vast amount of tribal knowledge in construction.  It’s an industry with negative productivity rates and single digit margins and where Forbes has reported that 35% of the costs of construction worldwide is due to material waste and remedial work.  And, it’s about to get worse.

20% of the construction industry is expected to retire in the next five years and the Millennial generation is expected to be the majority by next year.  Fewer people are joining the trade unions so workers are entering the workforce with less training.  Due to the tight labor market, contractors are hiring people and quickly moving them to the field to keep up with production requirements.

Further, it has been reported by the Associated General Contractors that 80% of their respondents to a recent survey noted that they are having a hard time finding qualified talent.

Sharing best practices among the industry reduces risk in construction. Today we live at a time in history when leaders have access to innovative, data-driven solution platforms that can keep workers better informed and more engaged in safety and productivity programs. The supporting technologies to collect and manage the data have matured significantly, becoming easier to use and far more affordable.

Unprecedented opportunities are emerging for all kinds of construction firms to apply SMAC technologies – social, mobile, analytics and cloud – to address the challenges of making construction safer. These tools are ushering in a new strategic era, enabling unprecedented tech-enabled collaboration among workers, trade unions, associations, GCs, subcontractors, CM / PM organizations, developers, owners, insurance companies, government agencies and consultants.

By focusing on benefits across all entities working on projects, from the edge to the center, including the government agencies, we’ll see benefits accrue not only to individual parties but also to the industry as a whole. Each firm will be free to contribute specific knowledge and expertise, without getting bogged down by complex, monolithic or proprietary project management systems that have characterized the centralized command and control systems typically used in the past.

Construction is a uniquely social and networked enterprise, operating in a large and fragmented industry. In the U.S., 80% of the ~ 700,000 construction companies, and 81% of the ~ 20,000 architecture firms have fewer than ten employees. As a result, a network approach works better than a hierarchical approach. This is all the more true when we consider the skills and interests of young people entering the workforce, who have high expectations for mobile technologies and easy access to information.

Despite known best practices, problems arise from the fragmented nature of the many organizations who need to collaborate in a constantly changing work environment. Construction sites feature frequent shifts in the nature of the workforce, tools, equipment, materials, methods, requirements, weather and so on. All these factors make safety and quality difficult to control.

I believe that the lack of knowledge sharing compounds risks inherent to such complex environments. By using modern tools to more effectively share checklists, lessons learned, situational awareness and other relevant data, project control leaders can build on decades (even centuries) of accumulated historical insights of thought leaders who have come before us.

For a construction project, inherently a social undertaking, albeit in a serious business context, all of the principles and tools of social website and Web 2.0 (such as tagging progress photos or sharing observations) can be applied through web-based applications that encourage connecting, sharing and collaborating among team members. These features are essential ingredients to move from a posture focused on compliance to a future approach characterized by proactive or predictive management of safety and quality across all of the organizations and professionals involved in the project.

Today it is feasible to deploy mobile apps connected to well-managed central databases you can access via securely shared websites. This is far more useful and cost effective than trying to manage the same set of information via paper, fax, email or attached spreadsheets.

Since job sites may be remote or lack Internet connections, each mobile app must work both when on-line and when offline. The app also must be available to and affordable for all individuals on a project responsible for safety and productivity, i.e. almost every worker. For websites, a person who logs on must have easy and secure access to only those data or reports permitted based on security credentials associated with his or her role in the construction project.

With the recent advent of mobile devices, low cost computers and high-speed networks, never has it been more true that what gets measured is what gets improved. The popular media have been buzzing for the past few years about “big data”. Certainly new technologies make it easier than ever to amass terabytes of big data on virtually any subject, including details about construction safety and related activities. However, more important than the quantity of data is data quality; meaningful performance metrics lead to insights or to actions that ultimately result in a safer job site or a more productive process.

The economics of cloud-based computing, also known as Software as a Service (SaaS) are compelling. Fewer IT department resources are needed, because you are procuring a turnkey service from the SaaS vendor. There is no need for a capital outlay to license a large, complex software package. Instead, you subscribe to a service that lets you pay only for features and benefits you need. It is easy to try, easy to buy and easy to scale up or down as business needs changed.

The SaaS model has taken off worldwide since it is inherently less costly than owning your own software or infrastructure. In the case of construction SaaS, the following benefits can also be realized:

In summary, of all the modern tech tools at our disposal today, the most significant for construction are cloud-based SaaS platforms integrated with modular mobile apps that enable social sharing of knowledge and best practices through standardized data, informatics and analysis; safety checklists; 360° surveys; and the collection and application of lessons learned.

We are at a place in history where we can no longer wait for things to improve in construction without forward leaning organizations to step up and reinvent the way knowledge is captured and shared across the industry.