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Why Big Data Is The Route To Success

Future Technology: Programme Management

Cameron Tonkin and Tim Embley make an interesting double act. It would be no exaggeration to say that Costain’s director for advisory services and the firm’s group innovation and knowledge manager respectively represent the transformation that is taking place at the company.

Tonkin became part of Costain when the firm acquired independent consultancy Rhead Group for £36M in August this year. Now he is leading the effort to strengthen Costain’s programme management capability. Meanwhile, Embley, who has been with Costain since 2008, is tasked with delivering a pipeline of innovation and providing him with the technology, the research and the people to be able to do this.

“What we’re focused on is helping customers to save money, reduce hassle and provide certainty on programme management,” says Tonkin. “One of the key areas we’re looking at is early project phase – enabling customers to make informed investment decisions, particularly by the use of new technology.”

Embley says big data and the intelligent interpretation of this data is core to this approach.

“For a number of years, Costain has been working on data level information, and the use of this data for us as a business and as an industry is exciting because it starts to give insights to our customers allowing more informed decisions,” he says. “You’re able to look at particular challenges in ways that you were traditionally unable to and from that you’re able to deliver new and very different value adding services to the customer.”

When asked to elaborate, both say they are excited by cloud-based working in the business and its potential for new innovative approaches on projects, and making sure that the knowledge that is accumulated in delivering them isn’t lost.

“It’s what I’d define as single data source collaboration. The cloud creates a culture of real-time information sharing, feedback and transparency that previously only existed in the physical world,” says Tonkin.

“Technology and the programme management technology we’re talking about here are really enhancers and enablers to make more informed decisions”

Tim Embley, Costain

The company has invested heavily in Microsoft Office 365 to enable customers, multiple stakeholders, contractors and specialists to collaborate across multiple locations and multiple electronic platforms. Embley and Tonkin both say industry is moving rapidly away from a world in which companies save their data to a local server or where the lessons learnt from a project are buried in archive boxes in a dusty basement. They think clients are looking for businesses that can provide services that are enabled by the cloud and can provide information in real time.

Another advantage of cloud-based working is that it allows for remote working. Tonkin uses the example of a carbon capture and storage project that Rhead worked on in Masdar.

“Our people were sat in our office in Coventry and we provided project and programme management information from there – that saves Masdar a lot of money in subsistence and travel costs,” he says.

But Embley says cloud-based working also has the potential to influence the more traditional aspects of programme delivery.

“Where you’ve got a range of different data sets, you can bring those data sets together and simulate what’s actually going to go on,” he says. “You’re able to take data sets about traditional project aspects and you’re able to add them to other data sets which might be about people, the weather, vehicle movement or the environment and actually look at complex projects in a new light simulating different scenarios to predict the future.”

In the case of its work with water companies like Severn Trent and the Eight2O Alliance working for Thames Water, Costain has worked collaboratively with other partners on the programmes, and shared data around the five year programme pipeline of work to organise it more efficiently.

“Programme management is becoming integrated with very specific technical skills that can actually understand the data and offer very specific domain knowledge capability,” says Embley.

“For Thames Water, through that early involvement with the customer, we’ve been able to influence offsite manufacture and new approaches that allowed us to halve the budget on schemes and importantly not to disrupt the asset, so the customer isn’t inconvenienced.”

“One of the key areas we’re looking at is early project phase – enabling customers to make informed investment decisions, particularly by the use of new technology.”

Cameron Tonkin, Costain

In another project for Network Rail, Costain’s research partner Cambridge University carried out a number of studies at major train stations to understand how people interact with each other in such an environment to inform how to manage the programme of works in a complex train station upgrade. The learning and data accumulated in these studies can be applied to future major infrastructure works to allow stations to better manage their stations during periods of change.

This work has continued to evolve, says Embley. ”Not only is technology a valuable tool for collecting data across the redevelopment of the stations and other associated assets, it can provide those who have to manage such a programme insight into traveller needs and designing assets that meet the end users requirements,” he explains.

In general, Embley thinks reductions in the cost of new technology and its availability is allowing companies to integrate these approaches cost-effectively into their solutions.

As a corollary of this, he is enthused by the amount of data that it will soon be possible to collect from our infrastructure and how infrastructure owners are actively providing access to this data.

“We’re moving into a world of machine-to-machine or machine-to-human learning and digital infrastructure, connected through ‘the internet of things’ where we’re able to collect information from structures – maybe through wireless networks or a Lidar system which remotely digitally scans a railway line or a highway,” he says.

“You’re able to bring that data into a virtual environment, process it quickly, and then get it into your simulation systems to assist teams with decision making processes that can reduce time and optimise the end solution they are working on.”

Not only does he think that this will generate efficiencies when it comes to maintaining an asset, but it will also allow delivery teams to understand how they might extend asset life. “For example if you want to extend the life of an asset, such as a power station or water treatment works or a nuclear power station, to get more capacity out of it, how can you use technology to get that outcome? The world is constrained for resource and we must remain agile and be able to adapt solutions in a sustainable way.”

All of these innovations point to an exciting and efficient future but Tonkin doesn’t think they will preclude the need for human intervention altogether.

“Technology and the programme management technology we’re talking about here are really enhancers and enablers to make more informed decisions, but they don’t make the decisions,” he says. “It’s people that make the decisions and not the technology, and I’m a big advocate that success is driven by disciplined execution and clarity with your customer, stakeholders and teams.”

“This is why we continue to invest heavily in graduate, apprenticeship and other skills development programmes including our Centre of Excellence in Programme Management which is focussed on developing the next generation of project and programme managers.”

To this end, Embley talks about the investment Costain has made in strengthening the technical capability of its workforce.

The company has strategic partnerships with eight different universities and has been taking on new recruits at an assiduous rate across 16 different disciplines.

Each of these recruits, and in fact everyone in the business, is tasked with identifying areas where it can use technology to improve delivery.

“The company has developed a strategy called Engineering Tomorrow whereby it is the job of every single person in the business and across partner businesses to identify challenges and develop innovations,” says Embley.

“All of our systems are aligned to that strategy and we think it has made the business go faster assisting our customers with some of their most pressing challenges.”


This article first appeared in NCE