Driving social value must be key focus for digital programme management

The role of digitally driven programme management offices will be increasingly important in driving social value on construction projects, argues Matthew Jefferies of Atkins. 

Successful project management isn’t what it used to be – talented people doing the basics of planning, cost management and scheduling well – and even a growing focus on data and information is no longer seen by clients as a value add. Today that’s table stakes. As the nature of infrastructure projects continues to evolve at pace, so too must the programme management office, if it is to continue successfully delivering on organisational visions.

With the Covid-19 crisis now dramatically accelerating a ‘next normal’ for the industry and low productivity a continuing bugbear, the infrastructure sector is ripe for disruption and a combination of sustainability requirements, cost pressure, new materials, industrial approaches and digitalisation, is only exacerbating this.

Against this backdrop, the programme management office has a golden opportunity to take the lead on transformational change in major infrastructure delivery. It sits, after all, at the very centre of the client’s delivery programme and is perfectly placed to put data and technology at the core of infrastructure services. A network of the best people, with the best technology and the richest data, working right at the heart of client programmes to deliver on systems integration, organisational outcomes – and social value, which is becoming increasingly important.

The transformational power of data

Our industry is waking up to the fact that grand goals and compelling visions can’t be realised without data, which creates an opportunity for businesses to embed data-focused capabilities into existing service lines or create new ones. Today’s value add comes from more advanced analysis and the provision of effective insights, which emerge from being able to efficiently connect multiple silos of data, spread across different systems. 

This means modern, best-in-class programme management offices must now be able to help the client define their information requirements and integrate their systems. And it doesn’t end there. The demand for newer services like four- and five-dimensional building information modelling (4D/5D BIM), as well as augmented and virtual reality, is only going to increase now that these services have been made possible by a higher standard of more advanced data management and analysis.  

Managing and integrating these next-generation deliverables requires a different approach by programme management offices to the partner and technology ecosystem too and a willingness to work with smaller, more agile SME technology providers that offer more dynamic, quickly deployable platforms.  

Social value will soon be non-negotiable

The programme management office must be a key driver of construction businesses’ efforts to keep up with the pace of change, which today involves finding innovative solutions to burning issues, such as social activism, net zero and driving social value. And here the pressure is really on, with firms in all sectors facing increasingly strident calls from politically and ethically motivated public activists looking to impose stricter regulations, as well as commercially and ethically motivated activist investors, who now see environmental and social sustainability as inseparable from financial sustainability. 

Fortunately, the data-driven, analytics-enabled, systems-integrated approach of modern programme management services makes tracking and reporting on numerous environmental, social and governance (ESG) outcomes possible in ways that have never been available before. These outcomes can then be selected to measure project performance in key areas, such as social activism, health and wellbeing, inequality and carbon zero or carbon negative environmental impact. 

The creation of a ‘construction platform’ also makes it possible to pursue a new, more outcome-based commercial model overall, for the whole supply chain. In such a model, all suppliers will have signed up to support, and be measured by, these socially and environmentally sustainable objectives. This will mean a totally new dynamic between client, contractor, and consultant – one where ESG objectives are not data points in an annual report, but the shared responsibilities of a single team, working in unison and measured in real-time.   

The future programme management office

As the digital maturity of clients grows and data is increasingly seen as the enabler to organisational efficiency and successful delivery of project outcomes, programme management office services must adapt alongside growing technology capabilities to enable consistent levels of quality. As the measure of success for major infrastructure projects accelerates its shift to focus more squarely on social value and responsible operations, digital will become the battleground of innovation. 

If infrastructure firms want to be in a strong position five to ten years from now, they must allow their programme management office to lead from the front, as well as recognising and investing in response to data trends today. Especially if they expect to set the industry standard for driving positive change, rather than be disrupted by it. 

Although this may present challenges, the opportunity to create a built environment worthy of the future is even bigger - and that’s a mission we can all get behind.  

Matthew Jefferies is a project manager and digital lead at Atkins.

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