Constructing Innovation: Why it’s a Revolution from Below, with Interim CIO Chris Billimore

Constructing Innovation: Why it’s a Revolution from Below, with Interim CIO Chris Billimore

In Chris Billimore’s career he has worked at Director level IT across several sectors, frequently engaging in the PE-backed space. His achievements include overseeing the IT aspects of the sale of half of the De La Rue global business (Cash Systems, now known as Glory Global) to Carlyle Group, and developing and delivering the IT strategy for Ofcom and QinetiQ.
He has most recently held interim digital transformation leadership roles (including Group CIO) for two leading international infrastructure groups. 

In an interview with Emma Roderick from technology, digital and change recruiter La Fosse Associates, Chris discussed some of the more disruptive technologies to influence the construction industry, why the notion of top-down innovation is flawed, and how to initiate a digital revolution from below. 

Constructing Innovation

Innovative technologies are at the forefront of the construction industry, providing exciting new opportunities for those working across the sector, from architects to builders to operators.

One example is drone technology; whilst some companies are still reticent, its use is becoming more widespread. Drones can be mounted with laser scanners or photography equipment to make infrastructure condition assessments. In addition to quality, time, cost and safety benefits, this also lessens or eliminates the need for disruptive traffic management. The drones fly alongside long linear assets like power transmission cables, motorways and railways, reducing the need to temporarily close stretches of motorway lanes or railway lines.

The University of Leeds is pioneering a £4.2 million infrastructure research project on self-repairing cities. This includes a “Perceive and Patch” project, where drones are first used for early detection of wear in asphalt, and then mounted with a 3D printer to pre-emptively restore the surface condition before a pothole occurs (see video below article). The repair can take as little as a minute – the only traffic management necessary is a change in traffic light sequencing. Recently there has even been discussion of the drones projecting holograms of bollards around themselves.

Digital and innovation are gaining an increasingly loud voice in the boardroom, as NEDs are pushing them to the top of the corporate agenda. The high potential gains (time, cost, quality, safety) of adopting digital solutions, together with the availability of mature technologies, make digital a low-cost, low-risk strategy, and companies slow to engage will suffer competitively. For the newer technology initiatives there are even tax breaks – the government grants ‘Research and Development’ reliefs to companies working on innovative projects.

The Digital Conundrum

The notion of top-down digital transformation is flawed. CEOs recognise the need to embrace digital, but how can they confidently launch a digital programme without sufficient applied knowledge to identify the most beneficial technologies and methods for implementation?

Most of the people who, consciously or unconsciously, know where the true value in digital lies are not at the top of the organisation. They are at the ‘coalface’; on projects, with customers, using products, and dealing with inefficiencies and technological gaps every day.”

These employees are an organisation’s lifeblood, and they will be far less likely to ‘buy in’ to a programme which is perceived as a ‘corporate push’. Businesses can mandate adherence to formal processes, but a corporate decree – ‘thou shalt use BIM’ – will not be successful unless those on the ground feel a sense of involvement with, and ownership over, the digital solutions.
Until corporate leaders practically answer the question of ‘what’s in it for me?’, they will be enforcing a digital agenda amongst those to whom the technologies are not native, and who have seen no evidence of their benefits. Adoption must be a pull rather than a push.

The Flawed Suggestion Scheme

Organisations have historically attempted to generate solutions to local problems through a suggestion box on the factory floor, or more recently, using products such as Sharepoint. However, these are essentially 1-dimensional; employees make suggestions, which are directed centrally for assessment and triage.

This process relies on a significant element of central control and administration divorced from the local originating expertise, and there is limited scope for like-minded individuals in different parts of the organisation to collaborate and share.
The generation of good ideas can’t be mandated, so a suggestion-scheme in which every employee must come up with an idea is anathema. Innovation is something which you can’t force.

Digital From Below

Digital should be a movement involving collaboration and communication between employees across the entire organisation, in an environment where people have the permission and encouragement to be innovative without the expectation of guaranteed success. However, the methodology to tackle this is hard to conceptualise.

Whilst working for a leading international infrastructure group, Chris was seeking to find a solution to this issue. Each of the specialist firms he approached pitched variations on the suggestion scheme theme, albeit with clever accelerators, but all underpinned by blocks of expensive consulting. These attempted to reach the 1% of new, genuinely innovative ideas, but missed out on the collaboration which needs to take place to derive value from existing ideas, inside and outside the organisation.

So how can you weave a thread through and around your organisation and create a joined-up bottom up digital movement?”

There isn’t a perfect method, but Chris recommends focusing more on creating a culture of collaboration and communication rather than pushing people to innovate, beginning by leveraging the digital excellence which is already in place.

Identifying Existing ‘Pockets’ of Innovation

Assuming that no one else has ever tried to tackle any of your organisation’s problems before is a restrictive mindset. 99% of digital solutions will have been already implemented somewhere, and tailoring other people’s solutions to solve your own problems is a form of innovation: the “Perceive and Patch” project unites two existing pieces of technology to serve a new function.

It is therefore essential to visit and research others in your industry – partners, suppliers, competitors, customers, but most importantly – and easily – those inside your organisation.

The first step is to ‘shine a torch’ around the business and highlight existing pockets of digital excellence; an individual or team who has already invented or adapted a digital technology to suit their own circumstances.”

Local instances of innovation happen incredibly frequently, and once some of these have been identified, you can introduce the ideas to other teams, and challenge them to explore whether each could be relevant to them.

Campfires of Enthusiasm and Collaboration

Chris’s methodology was to run ‘digital sweetshops’, a title which deliberately sidestepped corporate associations. These brought new technologies and subject-matter experts together with 12-15 employees from one part of the organisation, who shared similar localised challenges and opportunities.

Each expert demonstrated the costs, benefits and typical applications of a digital solution. The group then brainstormed whether the technology could deliver a step change improvement in time, cost, quality or safety in terms of winning or delivering business. If so, a local owner was identified to explore further; if not, the discussion would move on to the next technology. In this way, 5 or 6 technologies were discussed in an hour.

Without fail, everyone left these sessions energized, many having identified ideas for the local application of a piece of technology. The process avoided the appearance of a ‘corporate push’ by granting attendees the freedom to access the technologies which they were excited about. Adoption was monitored, but never enforced; employees were given the contact details of the person who had the capability or expertise and allowed to pursue it themselves.

Organisational Pull Over Top-down Push

The collateral associated with the technologies was uploaded onto intranet pages which could only be accessed via a weblink, and this link was sent to each of the attendees. Though workshops had only been carried out with c.500 people, by the time Chris left the company there had been 4,500 hits on the site. This was caused by employees who were excited about the technologies they’d been shown forwarding the link to other colleagues. A bottom-up digital movement had been created.

At this point, the corporate communications can be retrofitted around the movement, with the digital programme posited as a response to pent-up demand for a place to collaborate. In this way, it is perceived as a scheme which has the corporation’s support, but which the employee stakeholders  can claim true ownership of.

A Future of Collaboration

One dimensional suggestion schemes have had their day; now we need to create environments which enable pan-organisational communication and collaboration.

Organisations must focus on promoting engagement with digital rather than launching agendas from above, and any corporate communications need to be positioned as leadership listening and responding to the demand across the organisation for a place to innovate and collaborate.”

If you are willing to invest some time in making digital an idea which is pulled from below rather than a top-down ‘corporate push,’ you will reap the benefits.

Chris Billimore | CIO Plus |  LinkedIn 


Using Drones to Repair Roads with 3D Printing demonstration. 

Source: University of Leeds.

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