Tools alone won't change our culture

1 January 2017

If BIM is to work we need better education, new contractual models to encourage collaboration and the leadership to develop teamwork, says Gary Sullivan.

Gary Sullivan

In the early 1990s I was introduced to a chap called Barry Ramsey, a Kiwi. Barry was working with Stanhope and others to produce a 3D modelling tool. 25 years Later we have BIM and while today’s technology is perhaps a little faster, they look pretty similar.

More recently I met Mark Bew. Like Barry, he’s a pretty smart chap too. So smart, in fact that, as with Barry, I don’t understand much of what he says. This is due to my lack of expertise, by the way, and not Mark’s erudition or eloquence.

I understand the words, I understand the intent, I even understand what it (BIM) can do and importantly what it can’t. What I don’t understand is: if it allows the supply chain to innovate, why don’t they? If it creates collaboration, which in turn creates lean and focused information essential to operational delivery, why hasn’t operational delivery improved?

Apparently when BIM arrived on the scene in 2011, it was going to create greater predictability and certainty, resulting in faster project delivery. It would reduce risk, there would be less waste and sustainability would be better.

Promised differences

No doubt I will be “trolled” by BIM Ninjas, it may become unsafe to walk past an architect’s office without incurring the wrath of God, or should that be Gods? But the questions have to be asked. If 3D modelling has been around 25 years or longer, and I know that BIM is a lot more than 3D modelling, why is it new and why isn’t it making those promised differences of more of somethings and less of others?

Before you jump on to any of your various devices to remonstrate with this upstart and Luddite, let me continue.

I am as much as a fan as anyone of a virtual walk through, anything that provides me with timely information can only be a benefit and who wouldn’t want a tool that lets you see what the future will look like?

But, to quote Steve Crompton of GroupBC.com, who in 2012 said: “BIM without the ‘I’ is just BM, Basically Meaningless.”

"The elevation or obscurity of BIM will not be about its power as a tool, or even about the skill of its users, it will be about the culture change that is taking longer than an average ice age."

The former general secretary of the UN, Kofi Annan, I am guessing, knows little of BIM, but he added to Francis Bacon’s famous quote by saying that “knowledge is indeed power, information is liberating and education is the premise of progress, in every society” — and therein lies the problem.

Human behaviour is not changed by tools alone. We have seen the power of technology in the exploitation of social media, but are we more knowledgeable today than we were before search engines? We certainly have more information than before, although it could be argued that we have too much.

I am not sure I agree that information is liberating, we are bombarded with data that we don’t always know how to interpret, it can be far from liberating, it often suffocates or blinds the recipient.

Then we come to the much-debated subject of education. We could discuss the issue of education, skills, experience and practice ad infinitum. However, I’ll say no more than it should be at the heart of all that we do, but it isn’t.

We have had reports from Latham, Egan, Wolstenholme and now Farmer, our industry hasn’t changed and it hasn’t died. We have not seen any substantial changes to the way our industry contracts or procures, nor have we seen change in the way it makes money (or doesn’t). Quality is traded for price and price remains the winning goal.

Our industry is full of amazing people, who can create works of art, people who can turn that art into functional infrastructure, they have talent and ability to rival any industry. People like Barry Ramsey and Mark Bew: talented, skilled and dare I say it evangelists for that illusive trait, collaboration. BIM, while not yet perfect, is an amazing tool, if only…

If only we were taught to play nice when we were young, if only we were taught to share and if only we could collaborate without consideration of money won or lost.

The elevation or obscurity of BIM will not be about its power as a tool, or even about the skill of its users, it will be about the culture change that is taking longer than your average ice age. “How do we speed that up?” I hear you shout. That is up to every leader at every level in this industry. Until you believe that collaboration is healthy, until you believe that knowledge is not power, actually knowledge dispels fear, and we can play nice when we operate without fear.

BIM is not a panacea, it is not integral to the construction programme and ignores logistics. To make BIM work, we need a few things to happen. We need to educate folk about the value of information as a transforming resource, it is not just data; we need to change the contractual models in construction to encourage human collaboration, not just data sharing via technology; and we need leadership to create that elusive prize, teamwork.

Gary Sullivan OBE is chairman of logistics contractor Wilson James


Please don't walk past our offices without coming in! As architects it might surprise you, that I would agree with observations. The intentions set out by the government have been lost in delivering tight standards. Although necessary, they are restricting innovation. When we first started our BIM journey in 2006 (We didn't know it at the time) we could see the power of software generating more transparent, readily understandable, clever and accurate designs. We were excited about the future. 11 years on, EIR's are born and have removed all chance of innovation by dictating how and when to deliver information, with more often than not, no understanding by the client (or their representative) of what or even why they have asked for something. Teams are assembled and contracted in the same way as before mainly on price, with little weighting for quality, behaviors or innovation.

What we are seeing are companies like Legal & General, rethinking part of our industry, making a factory produced product, designed, marketed, and delivered more like the production car process. As an industry we do have to respond to all other building types, by rethinking the client role, procurement and choice of final product/building. As you say, this will need collaboration and leadership, but I would add innovation and cultural change.

Robert Sargent, 4 January 2017

I agree with the gist of this article but collaboration is going to be difficult to achieve as long as designers, contractors and specialist subcontractors are in competition for first place with clients. This promotes mistrust. Also, companies at all levels require a steady and controlled flow of work to operate efficiently. This is not achievable in the market place.

M A Underwood, 4 January 2017

Good Point Gary.

You're quite correct in what you're saying, and the industry is far too slow to get on board with the changes that it desperately needs.
Both the Egan and Latham reports were written when I was still in college and are only now more common practice within the industry.
I have had similar experiences in the company I currently work for, when I have informed those in the upper levels about new legislation coming in, about sustainable development and necessary changes needed just to remain competitive, that have taken 3 years for them to be implemented.
The other point that you have raised about quality being replaced over cost, I have seen on every site that I have visited. I am quite ashamed sometimes to be associated with the industry when you see how much people are prepared to cut corners and basically put a smart finish over the top of the issue then bodge it and scarper.
I don't believe that people are actually reading the contents of these reports, and more to the point, understanding the message that they are trying to get across, for instance, the Industry Strategy report for 2025 is looking for reduction in building costs, faster-delivered projects and being more sustainable. But all that it seems to be doing is driving companies to go and select the cheapest option rather than the right one, I have had numerous conversations with project, site and contract managers, about alternative more sustainable solutions, but all I get back is we've done it this way for years, or you'll have to speak to their procurement department.
One of the main things I think that has basically been lost, is pride in the job, something that I had always had instilled into me from a very early age, not only by father, but also when I was at college, and is a trend that I stuck to throughout my career. But, and I'm sure you will probably agree with me, these days its not about quality, it's cost and who can they blame and claim from if it goes wrong, even if it's their own fault. Companies will spend more time and money proving who's at fault than they do in getting it right in the first place.
The industry does still need change and these changes need to be implemented quickly, with those that work with the industry needing to stop looking at the bottom line cost, and look at the benefits these changes can bring to the industry,

Paul Steels, 4 January 2017

Good article Gary. Reminded me of an article I wrote on 'why BIM isn't working' back in 2012:


Is it fair to say we haven't moved forward too far in five years?

Nick Pauley, 4 January 2017

In the last 2 years I have had dealings with a number of key players and it appears that the reality of BIM is quite different from perceived.

One main contractor (cert Lvl 2 BIM) decided that a project contracted at lvl 1 should be lvl 2 and changed the project PMP (half way through the design) to level 2 on a major revision without telling anyone they were doing so, hoping that their partners, the design contractors and client would sign off without noticing the change from 1 to 2. Of course it was spotted and created all sorts of mayhem and contractual complications. It was underhand and consequently half the project team resigned (unprecedented) as the exposure to risk working with this contractor was unacceptable. The reason for the change was a new guy wanting to win more accolades.

Another example is a company that had a BIM manager who knew nothing about the CAD systems, the capabilities and limitations and left the "information" aspect entirely to the discretion of the engineers who knew nothing about BIM. This guy had been with the company for 18 months and had not achieved Level 1 BIM; had dabbled with Navisworks and yet the company bid and won contracts on the basis they were providing a full BIM service!!

Navisworks seems to be the core of another main contractor's problems. These guys could not figure out how to deal with 12,000 clashes in Navisworks (had they any knowledge of the software this was probably nearer 1,500 actual clashes). So they did virtual walk throughs for design review and identify clashes. Likely this project will have a team on site long after construction sorting out lengthy snagging lists with potential access problems for equipment maintenance later down the line.

Just before the end of last year I was asked if I could help out a company that was running behind schedule on a major project, rapidly approaching penalty clause time. It turns out that the BIM process was overly complicated; consuming too many unscheduled man hours for the engineers and designers.

Most of these companies are Level 2 certified and in some cases the guys responsible sit on BIM regional committees that determine what everyone else is going to be doing with BIM!

Yet in those early pioneering days we never experienced any of these problems, the projects ran smoothly, were delivered on time, within budget and without compromising quality.

I would suggest that if we are looking for solutions to making BIM work better we first have to understand the real issues and I do think that collaboration is a long way down the list of priorities!

Mr H. Thomson, 5 January 2017

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