Guide to digitization in for SMEs in construction

The construction and real estate industry is one of the most important sectors of the UK economy. Many small and medium-sized companies profit from it, whether directly or indirectly. However, for these SMEs, the requirements for success have changed radically in the last 20 years. The 21st century is the era of digitization, and those who don’t adapt risk being left behind.

Regardless of whether you welcome digitization with open arms, or whether you question its value for your business, as an entrepreneur, there is just no way to avoid it. To stay competitive in the long run and to get the full potential out of your company, you need to stay up to date. Proactively implementing digital applications ensures stability for you and your employees.

In the following article, we provide a list of questions that you should ask yourself when developing your digital game plan.

Image source: Ivan Samkov

Where does your company stand?

The first step in digitizing processes should always be to take stock of your current situation.

Ask yourself the following questions before starting:

  • Which processes in your day-to-day operations are already digital and which are still analogue?
  • Which tools do you already use? Most construction SMEs already use some digital tools – even it’s only email or WhatsApp.
  • Are the systems used compatible and coordinated with each other or are they isolated solutions? This question is particularly important if you want to make data usable across several functions – e.g. sending data from a construction snagging app to your accounts team so that they can pay workers for their completed work.
  • What is the state of your company’s digital infrastructure? Do you employ someone to maintain it or will you have to manage everything yourself?
  • What are the digital skills of your employees? This question will help you to predict how much time you will need to spend on training when introducing new digital solutions.
  • Which core processes must function in your company, no matter what? How do you ensure that all essential functions continue to be performed during the changeover phase? Think about things like billing, payroll, notifications of work to be done.

You should also take a look at the company’s expenses and determine in which areas digital solutions would save time and money. By doing so, you will find the areas where you can achieve the greatest possible impact with the least possible effort.

Identify your goals

Digitizing processes only makes sense if there is a clearly defined goal associated with it.

  • What specifically do you want digitization to achieve in your company? Get as specific as possible. Examples include: reduce admin or paperwork, manage employees’ work, track communication, collect evidence of completed work, etc.
  • How do you measure the success of digitization? Define key figures to measure success, like the amount of hours saved on paperwork and reporting or how many projects were delivered on-time or early compared to your previous standards.

Forward planning overcomes obstacles

Rethinking existing patterns and processes takes a lot of energy and courage. Prepare yourself for the fact that switching to digital solutions could consume a lot of resources in the short term. It’s recommended that you make fundamental changes during quieter business hours, not during the run-up to a major deadline. If you can, implement a new technology on a single project first, so that you don’t overwhelm yourself with a big task.

You should also ask yourself some questions about implementation:

  • Which systems and processes in your company are affected by the change and what could be affected?
  • Which people inside and outside your company will be affected? Don’t underestimate the importance of this point. For example, a key supplier or contractor might have problems with the digitization steps you are planning.
  • How can you involve your employees and other stakeholders in the system change and how will you communicate their feedback if there are problems? Digitization is much more likely to be successful if a whole site team buys into the need for the change and the specific solution chosen.
  • Have you considered data protection and data security? What conditions does any new digital tool need to meet? Bear in mind GDPR.
  • Who in your company is responsible for planning and implementing the digitization steps? Do they have the necessary skills and resources?

If you decide to digitize processes, detailed planning is the key to avoiding lost productivity and to avoid disrupting regular business operations. 

Understand the costs

In the long run, using digital applications will make your business more agile and efficient. For example, it will reduce costs in the areas of management and administration, which will create new room for new priorities, new projects – and will support in times of crisis. However, many owners of SMEs never get to see the results because the initial upfront costs of digitizing seem like too high a risk.

When considering if a new digital tool is worth it for your small or medium-sized business, ask yourself these questions about costs:

  • What are the expected temporary and permanent costs associated with implementing a new digital solution? Can you reduce this by negotiating or by sharing software licences between employees?
  • Will you need temporary external help to digitize processes, or would it be more effective to create new IT roles?
  • Consider whether the software you’re considering would also need you to upgrade your company’s hardware. Can you find a solution that uses your team’s existing phones, tablets and computers?
  • Will there be additional training costs?

As a rule, the cost of most digital solutions will pay off within a year of implementation. The representatives of the technology companies should be able to explain in depth what that might look like for your business. However, it is important that you have a realistic view of the costs involved with a potential solution before you commit.

Rely on experienced partners

As mentioned earlier, you may need the help of external partners when introducing new solutions to your company. These don’t necessarily have to be specialists. As a rule, the company from which you are sourcing a new digital solution should be able to provide you with advice and support.

As an SME, you probably won’t have a large, dedicated IT team. That means that any solutions providers you speak to should be comfortable walking you through the set-up and training your team. Remember, as the potential customer, you can ask as many challenging questions as you like.

Get out there and digitize

The questions and ideas listed above will hopefully give you a starting point for building a digital strategy that works for you. Arguably, SMEs have the most to gain from technology – automating certain tasks can free you up to take on more projects and really build your business. However, each business is unique – with its own challenges and needs – and understanding how your business could grow with a little help from technology can give you the confidence to reach the next level.