When I first entered this industry, technology took a backseat to everything else. People were using computers to assist them in doing their jobs, but technology was not driving their daily tasks. Technologists were largely support, acting in a reactive state handling upgrades and repairs. We as technologists were not part of the business discussion; with the technologies that were in existence back then, it didn’t make sense for us to be included. Throughout my career, the evolution of technology has completely changed this landscape. Our role supporting the backend infrastructure has simplified with the addition of cloud-hosted systems, virtualization, and automation. However, our role as a trusted business partner has grown exponentially.
At the same time, the number of additional technologies that are now in existence has complicated this environment. I’ve spent the last ten years of my career finding ways to better align technology with our business to better support and implement those innovations. It has gotten to the point where technology is now a large part of the business; it is driving the business forward into the future. My focus has shifted away from the actual technologies to the value they can bring to the table. This is a necessary approach, because there is so much out there that it is easy to lose focus on what can truly bring value versus what is just a shiny, new object.
Now, technologists are becoming integrated into project and design teams. Part of my job is to help coach their leaders because they are unfamiliar with how job roles such as software developers integrate and operate. I need to keep my mind around all of it and understand how the ecosystem works to help guide those project teams and managers on how to manage that type of role. It’s becoming less about aligning with the business and more about integrating with the business. Our design staff, especially the younger generation, are taking on more technology-related skillsets combined with their design skillsets, and it is becoming a major shift in our workforce.
Since I joined DLR Group, we have had big changes to our technology team structure. When I joined, everything was flat; we had IT managers, BIM leaders, and design technology staff all over the company doing wonderful things in silos. For us to be a technology leader in our industry, it was important to lay out the foundation of a technology structure to build upon. We have been able to restructure IT and BIM fairly quickly and are now building out our design technology structure. This has allowed us to focus on priority initiatives and get resources properly aligned behind them in order to move more rapidly. The pace of change, due in large part to technology, is only going to increase, and we are positioning to more easily keep up with it.
One priority initiative was the rollout of virtual reality to every office, which we were able to accomplish within six weeks. Identifying champions for any new technology is key so that it is not just the technology group trying to push it out and train the users. We ended up with more than 120 VR champions across the 30 offices, which helped us to quickly get people excited, on board, and trained. With the pace of change happening in our industry, this was a critical approach for our firm and one we will continue to repeat with many other technologies.
Building influence is one of the most critical skills for my role. Because technology changes so fast and since it is woven into the teams now, I can’t possibly own it all. But if we can make technology exciting for them, if they are getting something out of it, and if they really enjoy what they are doing, then the rest of it takes care of itself. The hardest part was identifying those people to be technology champions. Being new to the firm, I traveled to almost every office, and I essentially asked people to raise their hands and let me know what they were interested in being a part of. I probably identified half of those people just from that exercise and the other half from them talking to their friends in the office about the initiatives. One of the great things about our company culture is we have a lot of people who are willing and excited to raise their hand for things that aren’t necessarily inside the scope of their daily job, which has been encouraged by leadership at DLR Group. Our entrepreneurial spirit really drives us and is key to our future.
A value-based approach can be difficult because it’s not black and white, it’s feedback-based. Are we doing things faster? Are we doing things smarter? Are our designs getting better? Those are all very soft returns that are difficult to measure, but we do look at them. Then there are the hard ROIs — are we saving? Are we reducing our costs in printing because we moved to managed print services? Is the time it takes to collaborate with another office reduced because we consolidated our data into a cloud-hosted solution? Is the design decision-making process shortened because we are now using tools such as virtual reality? These are some obvious items that will have a sizable return on investment. These items will pay off financially in no time and reduce the amount of work we, as technologists, have to do so that we can focus our time and effort on further integration with the business.
As we move into the future, technology teams must adopt new skillsets. Those that are used to handling the hardware and backend infrastructure will need to learn how to manage applications and cloud providers, and move more to the front end. Skills in automating through scripts and software development are going to be more prevalent than they ever have been. I’ve suggested to my whole team that they should learn PowerShell at some level to understand how to write and understand scripting. Automation and the use of data is already a large part of what we do, and we will only see an increase in the demand for these skillsets.
Technologists need to understand leadership, people and empathy because in today’s world, “technical” doesn’t mean what it used to. I spend a lot of time talking to people and asking them about what they do every day and how it interacts with what everybody else does. In this way, I have a better understanding of how it all ties together — not just how servers, networks and desktops tie together, but how all the different technologies tie into how we do design and how it can improve design.
Above anything else, it is critical for people in technology leadership roles to understand empathy and emotional intelligence. Many leaders just don’t understand these topics. But these are critical skillsets for current and future technologists. I would go as far as to say they are critical skillsets for all professionals in just about any role. The days of hiding behind a computer or server are long past, and we are now much more integrated with the business.
A part of that development will be managing concerns around technology replacing current job roles. They may replace parts of a job, but they won’t eliminate it because computers, at least today, don’t have the ability to feel and understand empathy. We can put in parameters and it can give us options, but someone still has to look at those options and choose the one that meets the emotional need we have. For example, when we walk into a building, it evokes emotion, and that is something computers don’t quite understand today. Technology will speed up the design process, make it more technically accurate, and help us get make decisions much faster.
At some point, if we are not willing to learn new technologies, then we will become irrelevant and we will be replaced by those that do know how to use them. If we are continually learning and adopting technologies at a rapid pace and understanding how they fit in, we will be fine. It will be a long time before we see technology even begin to threaten the need for humans in design.
As we look to the future, we at DLR Group are openly talking about how to switch from being hours-focused to being more value-focused as a cost model. If we have a design that typically took 12 months and we can do it in three, we certainly do not want to lower our fees. So how do we focus on providing a high value design versus the number of hours it takes to do it? It’s a mindset shift, and it will take trying it with a few clients, seeing how it works, and growing from there. We could be providing much more valuable products to our clients because we have been allowed to spend more time being creative or training on new technologies that allow us to do things faster and better. That is where the shift will begin to happen.
This is a pivotal time for DLR Group and the A/E/C industry. As we begin planning for our 2025 Vision, I am excited for how technology will impact a much more efficient and creative future as we continue to “Elevate the Human Experience Through Design.”
Brooke Grammier is DLR Group’s chief information officer. She is a member of DLR Group’s executive leadership team and works globally across the enterprise from the Houston office. In this strategic role, she collaborates with leaders of the firm’s design, operational, practice, and technology teams to formulate a strategic vision for technology at DLR Group.