The World Economic Forum calls on companies to ‘upskill the boardroom’ as one of 13 requirements for digital transformation. Darren Russell considers the role of Mott MacDonald’s executive board in our journey so far.
By 2025, at least 10% of our revenue should be coming from digital solutions – about US$250M. That expectation has been set out by our executive chair, Mike Haigh: as the infrastructure sector is waking up to the potential benefits of Infrastructure 4.0, our board is already onboard.
Infrastructure 4.0 is about integrating digital technologies with physical assets. It is providing new ways of generating, harvesting, integrating and analysing data. It enables information to be shared more easily and made meaningful to a wider range of people, from infrastructure professionals to citizens, government and investors. And it is enabling more collaborative ways of working. All of which makes for better decisions, greater efficiency, improved service and increased value – from both existing and new infrastructure.
A new report from the World Economic Forum, ‘Infrastructure 4.0: achieving better outcomes with technology and systems thinking’, sets out 13 recommendations to accelerate the pace at which Infrastructure 4.0 is adopted and value realised from it. One of those recommendations is that infrastructure companies ‘upskill the boardroom’. It is an important challenge: boards can block or enable change; their governance can steer change initiatives onto the rocks or put wind in their sails. To enable and propel the adoption of Infrastructure 4.0, boards have to ‘get it’.
An important illustration of this is the need for changing business models. Organisations like ours invest heavily to digitally augment their knowledge and experience in engineering, project and programme management, infrastructure finance, procurement and asset management – what we call ‘domain expertise’. Digital and domain together provide the means to perform routine tasks more efficiently, improve on past solutions, address new problems, and tackle challenges that have hitherto been too large and complex. Business models increasingly recognise value added rather than hours worked; the need for this shift is becoming better recognised and established in the infrastructure sector, as it has in other industries. But there a long way to go. Through the way they choose to do business, procure and transact, executive boards have significant control over the pace of digital transformation. They can encourage it, as our board has, or inhibit it, as many are inadvertently doing.
It’s been a journey
The digitalisation of Mott MacDonald has been under way for well over a decade. We started by connecting every employee in every office globally and providing standardised hardware and software, so that everybody could communicate and work seamlessly with everyone else, wherever they are. We have enterprise hardware and software agreements with the industry-leading providers, giving access to the latest product versions, backed-up with technical support whenever needed.
With our own foundation in place, we began helping clients and partners to get their digital basics right too, giving them the benefits of what we’d learned in the first phase of our journey. That enabled us to create virtual teams between companies, sharing data and working on common digital project models. We also upskilled our staff, helping them to exploit the full potential of the hardware, software and data at hand.
Our executive board provided visible leadership through their own use of digital tools, encouraging staff to engage through regular communication, sponsoring new awards to celebrate digital innovation and excellence, and supporting senior colleagues to take up leadership roles in external digital transformation initiatives.
Importantly, our board has provided funding. Plenty of challenge has come with that: our digital team has often been required to revise and strengthen its case for investment; but it has also at times been asked for greater ambition and stretch.
Domain x digital
In 2018 we created a new venture to address a key insight: around us, we could see a lot of inefficient investment in digitalisation that was technology-led – solutions looking for a problem. Our venture was, and is, the other way around. It develops digital solutions to specific challenges our clients are grappling with. Thanks to our domain expertise, we understand the detail of those challenges, the blockers and opportunities.
Each of our solutions consists of a digital ‘product’ plus service rooted in our domain expertise: common challenges will manifest differently between organisations; users tap into our expertise to address their unique needs and gain optimum value from the solution they’re using. The success of our solutions hinges on ‘ownership’ of the problem we’re solving by the domain part of our business, and partnership between domain and digital.
Our solutions and those of partners are hosted on our technology platform, Moata, which enables data sharing and interoperability between them. Broadly, solutions are either about optimisation (doing things better) or transformation (doing better things). With the technology in place and an exponentially growing flow of information, we’re now refining our business models for these two families of solution.
Past the tipping point
The momentum of digital transformation builds as more people become ‘default’ users of digital. The disruptive impact on working patterns of COVID-19 has accelerated digital adoption in the construction industry by eight years, according to research carried out for us by Lane 4, a consultancy specialising in creating high-performance teams. The more familiar and comfortable people are working digitally, the more they understand the potential of digital solutions, and the more likely they are to originate them, support their development, and use them.
In Mott MacDonald, we’ve already passed the tipping point. Digital is integral to what we do, how we do it and the future of our business – as illustrated by our revenue target. That’s not to say there are no barriers. We work in an industry that, for good reasons, is standards-based and regulated. It can be sceptical of innovation and resistant to change. It is also characterised by a culture that encourages ‘from first principles’ problem-solving. That’s great for developing new digital solutions, but a barrier when it comes to using solutions repeatedly, at scale, to maximise beneficial outcomes for everyone.
We need to keep on pushing, sharing knowhow and publicising the benefits of digital solutions as we continue our own transformation journey and help others pick up the pace in theirs. Our executive board recognises the danger of complacency, of assuming that past strength assures a prosperous future. They are driving our ongoing change at pace.