ALEC’s digital vision revealed

Sean McQue, Operations Director at ALEC, reveals how the construction giant’s ongoing digital transformation will help it achieve its 2026 mission statement and prepare it for an interconnected future

As one of the biggest contractors in the region, ALEC has been involved in some of the most high-profile construction projects in the GCC, such as One Za’abeel, SeaWorld Abu Dhabi, Dubai International Airport Terminal 3 – Concourse A, One & Only Royal Mirage, several EXPO 2020 Dubai pavilions, and Marina Gate, to name just a few.

Successfully delivering these projects has earned the contractor a strong reputation in the market, with a name synonymous with delivering quality and high-spec work. However, this reputation has been hard won, with the construction giant constantly working to refine its margins and reshape its construction processes and methodologies to ensure it can measure up to expectations.

Part of this never-ending quest to improve is the company’s ongoing drive to embrace digital construction technologies, with the aim of boosting project efficiencies and quality. Having recently rolled out a four-year digital construction strategy that is aligned with its 2026 mission statement, ALEC is well on its way towards achieving several of its short-term goals, such as achieving the BIM Kitemark certification – as per the latest international standard, ISO 19650, from BSI.

Two years on from the pandemic, digital construction is at the top of the agenda for every company operating in the built environment space. Seen as a potential equaliser that can be leveraged to tackle a growing list of issues, including logistic and supply chain challenges, talent shortages, rising fuel costs and construction’s impact on the environment, digital construction technologies are rapidly being adopted across the global construction sphere.

Given the scale and reach of ALEC’s operations, it is no surprise the contractor has gone down this path, with a number of initiatives and technologies being implemented as part of its digital construction strategy, while key figures have been appointed to lead the transition, including Andy Boutle, ALEC’s Head of Digital Construction, and industry veteran Craig Garrett, who has come on board as Digital Construction Manager for Saudi Arabia.

Furthermore, one of the goals of the builder’s digital strategy is to empower, train and upskill staff in the use of digital construction solutions. One of the goals for the company’s digital strategy for 2022 is to commence the roll-out of Operam Academy e-learning courses to 100 of its staff members by the end of the year. The courses have been specifically tailored to allow learners to drop in and out of modules to fit their education around their day job.

Overseeing the entire process for the company is Sean McQue, Operations Director at ALEC, who sat down with Big Project Middle East to discuss ALEC’s ongoing digital revolution and shares his thoughts about the future of the industry and how ALEC is positioning itself for success.

Q: Why did ALEC decide to implement a digital transformation strategy? What were some of the key factors that prompted the decision?

The construction industry is presently confronted by several challenges – skills and labour shortages, productivity issues, attitudes to change, outdated procurement models, lack of transparency and many more. The digitalisation of the section will undoubtedly help solve, if not at least simplify many of these challenges. Of course, this can neither happen overnight, nor could it be solved by a single organisation independently. A consistent maturity of the broader sector will be needed.

So, while ALEC is acting as a first move in driving this change, this current phase of our digital transformation strategy is also directed inwards – wherein we’re streamlining our own operations through digital technologies. This involves tackling interoperability, getting the information (data) layer standardised, as well as looking at how different technologies can integrate where required.

Fundamentally, focusing on digital transformation will make us more productive, efficient, sustainable, and accurate, whilst reducing risk and waste.  Our customers will therefore over time see an improved service and product, with our partners benefitting from the collaborative processes and technologies we put in place across our integrated teams.

Q: Having achieved the BIM Kitemark certification, how will this help ALEC achieve its digital aims and targets?

When setting out our digital transformation goals for 2022, we clearly earmarked achieving the BIM Kitemark certification as per the latest ISO 19650 standard as our first objective. I’m proud to say that in July, we achieved this objective which involved the realignment of our processes, templates, and tools to the requirements of the latest international standards. Getting information management right is absolutely critical to supporting all our other digital initiatives.

This quality mark will help us to drive best practices for information management across all our projects, giving clients assurance of our capabilities and approach, whilst supporting and upskilling our supply chain. Moreover, maintaining the BIM Kitemark certification requires us to be annually audited to demonstrate compliant information management across our projects which drives continuous improvement.

Q: Andy Boutle has said that the certification will drive best practices across projects, clients and supply chain – have you started to see evidence of this happening already?

While it’s still early days, I can say that we firmly believe the certification to be a very positive move that will no doubt bring value. As Andy mentioned, we are already starting to see this gain momentum as our clients too have begun moving towards the Kitemark system. It is being recognised and respected in the region, which in turn is driving adoption not only by contractors, but also consultants and end-clients.

Q: What has the reaction been from ALEC’s clients and supply chain partners to your digital transformation strategy? Are you seeing enthusiasm to get on board or resistance?

There is no doubt that digital transformation is a hot topic in the boardrooms of construction firms. There’s good reason too as analysis by McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) shows that investing in technology and innovation is one of the key factors in boosting the construction sector’s productivity by up to 60%.

But while digital technologies — ranging from Building Information Modelling (BIM) and augmented/virtual reality, to robotics, drones, and cloud software — are heralding a new era of possibilities and efficiencies for the global construction sector, there has generally been a lag in adoption of these technologies in the region. This is largely because there remains trepidation in the region due to the steep learning curve and challenges around integration between systems and deciding what investments will yield maximum positive impact.

As a leader in the sector, ALEC has successfully leveraged the latest technologies on several projects, and we are now doubling down on these digital investments. In doing so, we will inevitability promote technology adoption among our customers and partners, leading to a digital-first mindset across the industry that advances the sector towards greater efficiency, quality, and sustainability.

Q: What sort of future investment do you have in mind for the company as part of the digital transformation strategy? Are you investing in hardware technology as well?

Having successfully achieved the BSI Kitemark ISO 19650 certification for information management using BIM, we are now turning our attention to other areas where we can leverage digital solutions to enhance operations. We are currently deploying a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system that will digitalise our internal processes to enhance business intelligence through analytics and reporting.

Q: How is the process of upskilling and training staff going? Are there any transformation targets in place for subsidiaries and departments?

Constant training has always been a focal point for ALEC. To maintain our market leadership, we actively develop new internal learning and development programs to develop and enhance new skillsets within its workforce. An example is the ongoing development of employees through the ALEC EVOLVE program. In its EVOLVE C variant, the program is aimed at the company’s entry and more junior level staff. This program combines various learning initiatives including mentor support, classroom training, book reviews, PDPs and project delivery.

This is rounded out by THRIVE, our Leadership Development program that aims to support employees at the mid-management level on their journey to become senior leaders. With the ultimate goal of nurturing their emotional intelligence in order to refine their ability to manage people, this program covers topics such as ‘Leadership as Coach’, ‘Hiring and Firing Effectively’, ‘Data Storytelling’ and ‘Improvisation’.

Q: How important is the digital transformation strategy when it comes to the Saudi market? How do you envision it helping you expand ALEC’s footprint there?

Even a quick look at the recently unveiled designs of NEOM offers sufficient insight into the Kingdom’s ambitions for the construction sector. The scale, technicality, and aspirations of these futuristic giga-projects can only be realised by using the very latest in construction technologies and processes. Digital Construction is therefore key to facilitating the ambitions of KSA’s built environment and we’re seeing major developers in the country place stringent information requirements on their supply chains to deliver against, with a vision of connected digital twins and smart cities.

Q: What are some recent projects that have benefitted/will benefit from ALEC’s digital transformation strategy?

Recently when working on a theme park mega project in Saudi Arabia, we took the opportunity to build our BIM execution plan and information delivery plans in Morta, knowing we would also need to export static PDF/Excel versions for sharing to the CDE. We had the usual client-provided templates for resources and sought provisional acceptance that we would follow the structure of the templates but develop in our own solution/format – the client-side BIM specialist was happy with this.

After some initial training and guidance, building the BIM execution plan online became more efficient. Being able to drag/drop sections and subsection content to reorder and creating tables where specific text could be entered just once but be displayed in multiple places for varying purposes (we all know how many times we have to type the same information in multiple locations with a Word-based BEP) was even somewhat cathartic.

Q: Finally, what does the future look like for a digitally empowered ALEC?

The fruition of our digital vision would be the seamless interconnectivity of best-in-class digital solutions and systems such that all data is fluidly available across our enterprise. For example, an initiative we currently have underway at ALEC is to generate real-time progress updates in our project models – made possible through the integration of technologies such as HoloBuilder, laser scans that produce point clouds for Systems Under Test (SUT), and traditional manual data recording.

We will also look to leverage the latest technologies in meaningful way. So, while some may imagine AI to be a sort of all-encompassing solution to critical decision making, at ALEC, we are taking a more practical approach. Our intention is to leverage AI to increase efficiency by automating time-consuming, repetitive processes so our qualified professionals can win time back to focus on high-value tasks.

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