Atul talks with us about his professional background and his thoughts on where E&C innovation is heading. He also discusses how he fosters a culture of innovation at DPR and where he sees the biggest challenges for the industry, including the way projects are procured and teams are organized.
Dr. Burcin Kaplanoglu, executive director, innovation officer at Oracle Construction and Engineering, leads the discussion.
BK: What is your current role and how has your career evolved since you started in the industry?
AK: I lead the technology and innovation group at DPR. I also co-manage our corporate venture group called WND Ventures with our board member Eric Lamb. My primary focus is to ensure that technology is used on our projects properly and delivers predictable outcomes for our customers.
Our group is responsible for preconstruction, operations, scheduling, virtual design and construction (VDC), and construction technology. We handle innovation efforts, including managing funding of innovative project ideas and implementing various pilots—whether they’re technology or otherwise—on our projects. We also partner with industry players and have invested in ideas like digital prefabrication.
BK: Can you share your background? How did you evolve into this position?
AK: This is my 22nd year at DPR. I have a construction and civil engineering background and joined DPR as a project engineer after school. I earned my PhD from the Center for Integrated Facility Engineering (CIFE) at Stanford University in California.
I’ve always been interested in figuring out how technology can help make the construction process more efficient. At Stanford, I developed a keen interest in the application of virtual design and construction (VDC), as well as Lean construction to improve the project delivery process.
At DPR, I naturally progressed towards managing projects, mostly in health care as well as mission-critical data center facilities. These technically challenging projects have complex mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems. I applied VDC methods to ensure our projects were successful.
VDC, laser scanning, and field technologies
In 2005 I kick-started our virtual design and construction efforts across the company. Since then, I’ve been involved in pushing technology to improve project outcomes.
Once BIM/VDC became more mainstream, we eventually expanded to include laser scanning and field technologies in the construction technologies group I led.
I’ve also standardized our project management system, migrated our customer relationship management system to a Software as a Service (SaaS) platform, and developed an application for safety inspections.
About three years ago I combined our information technology (IT) group, our construction technologies group, and innovation group under the umbrella of technology and innovation.
BK: What is your view of the state of innovation in the industry, and where do you see it heading?
AK: Technologies such as BIM, reality capture, and mobile tools have matured quite a bit and are widely available. Our industry is ripe for adopting these innovative technologies.
The industry is also trying to figure out how to organize project teams so that they can take advantage of current technologies. Collaboratively integrating and utilizing these technologies on projects will create the opportunity for disruption.
BK: What are the biggest challenges to innovation throughout implementation? How do you foster a culture of innovation, and where do you see the biggest challenges?
AK: The biggest challenge is the way the projects are procured and teams are organized. Technologies have matured to a point where you can use them to deliver value—or as we like to call it “predictable outcomes”—for our owners. It requires a different way of thinking.
Teams need to leverage technology using an integrated process while keeping in mind a predictable outcome, like a high-performing building, for example. Teams who’ve set up a framework of integrated themes, processes, and systems to deliver value are seeing great results. The biggest challenge is the way projects are organized and procured.
BK: I couldn’t agree more – it’s about the people and the process. How do you develop the right culture for innovation? How do you deal with resistance, and what’s been your technique?
AK: We’re promoting an open innovation culture. We need to create a capacity to foster innovation within the company.
For example, we’ve created an internal funding mechanism where project teams—or anyone on the team—can apply for funding for their idea. This traditionally isn’t covered by our project budget. Management has committed to foster innovation by making this funding available and, more importantly, to encourage ideas.
We’ve also developed a process for supporting innovation. We use an internal system called Brightidea to shepherd ideas through the early stages, evaluation, funding, and pilot implementation. We track our funded ideas as pilots. During our pilots, we put more funding behind ideas that look promising while working with companies that have either developed the products or process.
Developing an innovative culture is based off two things:
1) Creating the capacity for a top-down/bottom-up approach. The top-down is creating the capacity and providing the funding. The bottom-up approach involves creating a supportive workplace culture. We’re encouraging everyone in the company to come up with ideas that provide real value to our owners and projects.
2) The industry has been reluctant to accept failure—including safety—for the right reasons. You don’t want failure when it comes to safety. But other areas, like experimenting with technology, should be open to potential failure. If some of these ideas fail, that’s okay. Creating that sort of dialogue within the company has helped us.
Stay tuned for Part II of our "Trailblazers" interview with Dr. Atul Khanzode of DPR.