Construction’s Digital Divide: It’s culture, not age, that makes contractors tech-hesitant
Tom Jackson | August 15, 2016
Komatsu has sold more than 10,000 intelligent Machine Control machines, a not insignificant number. But the vast majority of contractors have yet to adopt the telematics and machine control technologies these machines employ.

Komatsu has sold more than 10,000 intelligent Machine Control machines, a not insignificant number. But the vast majority of contractors have yet to adopt the telematics and machine control technologies these machines employ.

The majority of contractors still aren’t using either telematics or GPS/GNSS; a fact that people in technology companies often lament.

The cause is usually ascribed to a so-called “digital divide.” The young kids get it; they were raised on laptops and smart phones. The old guys don’t get it; they’re just too slow on the uptake, or so the theory goes. And since the old guys write the checks and run the companies, that means technology is a hard sell.

But I would wager that the digital divide is not a matter of age…but of culture. For example:

 

  • In technology, terms and definitions are often vague and unclear. When a website asks for your user name, what it sometimes means is your email address. How do you turn “off” a Windows computer? You click the “start” button.
  • In construction, a 3/8ths-inch, hex-head, Grade 5, stainless steel bolt with 20 tpi, means just that…and nothing else. Construction is based on rigorously adhered to specs and standards. There can be no deviation or misunderstanding without serious consequences.
  • In technology, when a computer or digital system fails, the IT people usually have all sorts of workarounds and solutions. You may lose an hour or two, but, this loss of productivity is accepted as the cost of doing business.
  • In construction, if the forms you built for a concrete pour fail, you best move to a different city. Hari-kari is also an acceptable solution. Failure is not an option.
  • In desktop computing, users gained a major leap in productivity through refined windowed interfaces, around the time of Windows XP. Another leap was made with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 with the birth of the mobile app. Since then, developers and web designers have larded so many junk features, unasked for changes, cookies, tracking software and garbage code into their systems, that productivity suffers on some devices.
  • In construction, tools and equipment keep getting better, not worse. Load-sensing hydraulics, automatic transmissions in heavy trucks and hydrostatic transmissions in dozers have made equipment a joy to use. In the power tool category, cordless designs, keyless chucks, brushless motors, and impact drivers have all boosted the ease and efficiency with which tradesmen do their work.

 

When I ask contractors what prevents them from using more technology, they often say it’s the lack of training. And when they describe the training they do get, it’s always some guy who spends a couple hours on site swishing around with a notebook computer and talking too fast, before he disappears never to be heard from again (except sporadically via email). That’s the culture of technology, not construction.

In many cases, construction technology can be much more intuitive than consumer-grade electronic interfaces. But last month I listened to several contractors complain that every time they buy a new machine, they have to learn a new interface on the in-cab monitor—even when it’s the same OEM, same machine, but just a new series.

In the technology culture, learning a new interface is an interesting challenge. In construction it’s just burning daylight—an expensive waste of time.

The winners in this multibillion-dollar construction technology race are going to be the companies who adhere to the culture of construction. The will make their technology interface intuitive and standardized– and provide the kind of training and support that contractors expect from yellow iron vendors. As the late business guru Peter Drucker allegedly said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

 

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