Burns & McDonnell leader on the promise of AI and collaborative problem solving

October 6, 2020 | 6 minute read
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In Part I of our Trailblazers interview with Patty Sullivan, project manager, strategic initiatives group at Burns & McDonnell, Sullivan shared her professional background and her reflections on the state of E&C innovation.

Here, Sullivan reflects on the biggest challenges at her organization, why she participated in Oracle’s Transforming the Industry Influencer Program (TIIP), and her views on how AI and machine learning will impact the industry.

Burcin Kaplanoglu, executive director, innovation officer, Oracle Global Business Units, leads the discussion.

BK: When you look at your organization, both internally and externally, where do you see the biggest challenges?

PS: With innovation, again, the biggest challenge is finding complete solutions. My industry colleagues and I all seem to be trying to fix the same problems. These are not organizational challenges, they are industry challenges.

Those industry conversations made many of us realize we need to work more in partnership—not only with each other, but with the technology companies. This is the only way we can ensure tech companies are building what we need, not what they think we want. There’s been a big disconnect there.

A larger, more cohesive voice

But, if we as an industry work to communicate collectively, we have a larger more cohesive voice. This helps a company like Oracle focus their development in a more targeted manner.

Across the industry, a common problem is we spend plenty of money for these systems and it takes a long time to properly implement them—not to mention the impact of the change on your enterprise. When we roll out new technologies, frequently there's a 20-30% gap in the technology to cover a specific lifecycle.

So, we buy more technology to cover those gaps and there's yet another gap in that technology. It’s a never-ending cycle. Typically, we end up with multiple, similar systems that have crossover functionality. But each one does something slightly different.

To a project team, they aren’t sure which one to use and when. We want technology to have current, well-developed APIs allowing us to move data to another pillar which covers a different, but sometimes related, lifecycle.


"What we want—what we all want—is one cohesive system to cover a lifecycle."

Patty Sullivan, Project Manager, Strategic Initiatives Group, Burns & McDonnell


And that's where the communication back to the technology companies is so critical. But it isn't something that we as an industry have done well in the past. We have each individually been making enhancement requests.

And you, as the technology provider, are trying to decide whose request makes the next release as well as the enhancements you want to make to a product. Working together as an industry gives a company like Oracle an opportunity to build better platforms and bring more complete solutions to market. That’s a win-win for all.

Shifting dynamics in the workforce

There’s a lot happening in the industry that's pushing us to bring better technology into our companies. One of the things that our group considers is the shifting dynamics in the workforce itself.

You have a lot of knowledge that's leaving the industry. If you’ve been in the industry, it takes decades to build up a knowledge base. When you're starting to lose that knowledge base from the industry, how do you get new employees up to speed faster? This isn’t a concern to just our organization. It is something we, as an industry, are facing.

The individuals now entering the industry are technologically advanced. These individuals expect us to have easy-to-use, intuitive systems with a good user interface — that’s also mobile.

Additionally, they expect us to provide insights on customizable dashboards. Our team understands that if we build a core set of platforms and rely less on individual point-solutions across an entire project lifecycle — from beginning to end — employees can collect, learn, and predict based off those combined data sets.

AI and predicability

AI and predictability have a tremendous opportunity to help us in the areas of onboarding and knowledge transfer. We also realize that data isn't a byproduct of a project.

It's an asset of our company — if it’s done well. At Burns & McDonnell, we are pushing the technology transformation in the industry. We know what it can do for us if the technology is done right. Consequently, we push you, and we appreciate the partnership we have with Oracle.

BK: You participated in our Transforming the Industry Influencer Program (TIIP). You mentioned a lot about one system, one solution, and its value. What were you hoping to get from that exercise?  

PS: A lot of the TIIP started from a conversation I had with someone on your team about these standard industry challenges we’re all facing. There’s so much opportunity to learn from one another and to communicate back to our organizations.

There is even more opportunity if we communicate to you in a cohesive way. We can transform the industry through partnership.

As far as the Oracle TIIP, I want my industry peers to participate. It truly is a way to work together to improve an industry we are all devoted to. I spoke to several technology companies about this concept. Oracle was the first company that really connected with this concept and built the TIIP around the idea.

Oracle TIIP workshops

When Oracle does TIIP workshops, you're involving all aspects of the industry. You have owners, AEC and EPC firms and contractors participating. The workshops allow you to hear one problem from many different perspectives.

This format forces you to think about the whole process — not necessarily just how my company executes that process. This TIPP format forces us to have the conversation, and it forces the industry — not just individuals — to understand, communicate and resolve.

The TIIP format also helps you understand not just one market, or one segment of a market, but how a challenge is often similar from a multi-market perspective. Again, hearing those different perspectives helps Oracle understand the similarities, so that you can build a better and more complete solution for all of us. So yes, I’m excited about the TIIP and advocate for what Oracle is trying to do.  

I'm thrilled to see Oracle pick up the ball and be such a proactive partner. You’re really listening and interested in learning from our perspectives. Working together is the best way to get the complete solutions we are all searching for.

BK: Where do you see the biggest impact when it comes to AI and machine learning for the industry?

PS: There’s a lot of repetitive work that project teams do, whether it's a document review, drawing review or quality checks. Sometimes it's just little things, like do I have the right license number on my drawing? Do I have my right legal entity, branding or logo? 

These little things that take time. Quality reviews between specifications and drawings—that’s another area where I find AI interesting.

We are currently looking at some contract lifecycle management (CLM) systems. What they are doing with AI to speed up and improve the quality of contract reviews is amazing.  

Expediting information with AI

Will AI ever replace people? Absolutely not. You are never going to be able to really replace personnel with AI technology. But AI helps get people the information they need faster. And, it allows them to spend time on more important matters.

So, there's a lot we're looking to do with AI. We’ve had some great conversations with Oracle regarding AI as well. Bring AI into your current systems, and it will be a game changer for us.

We’ve already been working with your team to say, “I know you're working on AI to do this right now, but can we provide you the information to train AI to do this, too?” We will keep talking as long as you keep listening. Together, I know we can make a difference and evolve our industry—our team is committed to it.

Read part I of our interview with Patty Sullivan and then explore more insights into innovation and technology trends from our Trailblazers

See innovation in action at the Oracle Industries Innovation Lab.

Oracle Construction and Engineering, the global leader in construction management software and project portfolio management solutions, helps you connect your teams, processes, and data across the project and asset lifecycle. Drive efficiency and control in project delivery with proven solutions for project controls, construction scheduling, portfolio management, BIM/CDE, construction payment management, and more.




Corie Cheeseman

Corie Cheeseman is a senior content marketing manager for Oracle Construction and Engineering.

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