Welcome to the second issue of "Trailblazers", our blog series exploring frontiers of innovation in construction and engineering. This series uncovers insights from innovation leaders in the E&C industry, including exciting emerging technologies, how to foster new ideas within an organization, and more.
Dr. Burcin Kaplanoglu, Oracle senior director of industry strategy and innovation, spoke with Ricardo Khan, senior director of innovation at Mortenson. We learn about his role in driving continual innovation and where he thinks the E&C industry is heading.
RK: My current role is Senior Director of Innovation at Mortenson. I lead our innovation program company-wide. Like any other career, it’s about a journey—following passion and taking opportunities when you can.
I grew up in a construction background. My father was a mechanical contractor in New York. Before he retired, I got my bachelor of architecture and practiced architecture for about four years. In school, I learned how to model in 3D back in the days of DOS and 3D Studio and found a passion in the digital world.
While I was sitting for my licensing exam as an architect, I decided to quit architecture and apply my architectural background to computer graphics. I focused on 3D modeling for web-based rich-media games, movies, etc. It was fun. I did that for about five years before my interests changed because I still missed the building world.
I was hired at Mortenson in 2005 as one of the first VDC (virtual design and construction) people in the company. Mortenson has always been innovative and forward-thinking. We were working to integrate BIM and VDC technology into operations to deliver more value to our projects and our customers starting in the late 1990’s.
VDC has been a breeding ground for innovation—where our team found new ways to solve age-old problems like coordination and how we plan, visually communicate, and drive decisions earlier.
Our VDC team was comprised of a group of diverse people—from architecture, engineering, mathematics, computer graphic folks, like myself, and construction management. We all came from different backgrounds and we were all innovating on our projects.
Over the years we started to focus on bigger and broader business challenges. We now have a formalized innovation program within the organization that I have the opportunity to lead. It’s been an interesting journey.
RK: At Mortenson, we’re a company of entrepreneurs and innovators. Harnessing the creativity and innovation of broad and diverse teams on hundreds of individual projects is constant.
We are always challenged with ensuring we are not chasing ‘shiny balls’…innovation is about solving business problems in new creative ways, so we always start with, what problem are we trying to solve.
What’s the business challenge? We approach innovation in different ways to help answer this fundamental question. It enables us to better focus our efforts and creativity on what matters to get to where we need to be.
Innovation is supported throughout our organization, across the company and with support from the leadership team. This is a vital element that really enables positive outcomes.
Our innovation program’s overarching purpose is to find new ways of creating value for our customers, within the organization, and for our business.
RK: We’re a fragmented, regulated, and old-school industry, which has not traditionally embraced R&D, change and technology. To change this culture, we must identify the core challenges of the industry and approach it from that point with respect to innovation.
We’re at a dynamic and defining point in our industry with the massive influx of venture capital funding, new start-ups, digitization, and industrialization. And we’re going from a digital transformation to a business intelligence era in a very short period of time, and it’s really exciting.
The speed of change in the industry is creating a heighten sense of awareness, and we are focused on the next 10 years.
RK: There’s this big debate going on about disruption in the construction industry. Some believe that it’s going to happen from outside, and some believe it's going to happen within itself.
I think it'll be expedited through external forces—from outside the industry—and it will generate movement internally within the industry to keep up.
We're already starting to see that happen with companies using new business models within the construction realm. Industrialized construction and blockchain is being tested within the industry. Look at automation and industrialized businesses—like manufacturing and aerospace.
We've been learning from those industries and plan to be part of the next generation of industrialized providers of the built environment.
RK: It starts with the company leadership, mission and objectives and is followed directly by our strategy for the organization. What are the key areas of focus for the organization, and how do we identify business problems that align with our strategy?
Culture is essential to drive innovation and we are very focused on continuing to nurture our culture of innovation.
A formal way to describe this is with The Three-Horizon Model, which allows us to identify key drivers that will impact areas of our business—whether it's financial performance, safety, customer experience, and just overall productivity.
And we start to understand what happens and what we need to do today, tomorrow and so forth? We assess where things are going to be for certain areas— like safety, finance, etc.— and then we need to build that pathway to get there.
That’s what energizes me about what's happening across our business and within the industry. We're collectively starting to reframe how we look at these problems from a longer-term perspective, because innovation does not happen overnight.
It takes effort and time to percolate an idea into a solution and a scalable model. We’re also finding champions at all levels within our organization who will encourage this kind of process.
Over the years, the response from our seasoned builders is shifting to, “help me understand” or “let’s try it” or “I wish we had this 20 years ago!”
RK: While it starts within the business process, we’re multi-sourcing innovation challenges. It’s been a success in a short period of time. We’re pulling from cross-functional teams across the business—not just around operations—but all parts of the business.
When you have this top-down leadership for innovation, and you identify key business problems before opening it up to the entire company, it’s amazing. There’s an infectious energy created by people who think,
“Well, I’m not an ‘innovator,’ but I’m contributing to larger-scale innovation challenges within the business.” Our culture promotes that every team member is an innovator!
I love seeing how much diverse talent we have within our organization. We’re excited about what’s to come in the next couple of years—and unleashing our own talent within our business.
We hope other companies do the same, because that’s where the real solutions lie—within their own organization.
Read the second half of our interview series with Ricardo Khan in which he discusses AI and other promising emerging E&C technologies.