Rekha Kharbanda is Digital Transformation Leader at Tonkin + Taylor. She has a background in software development and a broad understanding of digital, innovation, transformation and technology. We caught up with her to look at how digital technology integrates into the consulting and engineering sectors.
How is digital information transforming the consulting and engineering sectors?
If you look at the environment we are in now, especially with COVID-19, I think the sector has started to wake up. The consulting and engineering sector hadn't undergone a significant amount of digital transformation and innovation before COVID-19, but the last six months have seen a massive acceleration in the process. Businesses are now looking at making data a strategic asset and using technology as the springboard for the simplification of procedures.
Have the consulting and engineering sectors been slow to embrace technology as compared with other industries?
When I compare the engineering and consulting sectors to banking which I worked in, we are what I would call 'laggers'. The banking sector is well known for the way it embraces new technology to serve their customers better. There was always a race to make sure banks could delight their customers and keep up with changes in their behaviour. I think our sector should be making decisions which allow a more customer-centric approach. Our industry is changing, but there are still many rigid frameworks, including the way projects are funded and planned. These rigid structures don't make for an agile industry that can embrace new technology which is available in the rapidly expanding digital world. This lack of agility continues to be a barrier to the implementation of new technology, and we must implement change that will create a modern environment that is more accepting of digital technology.
Where do the opportunities lie for the sector?
First, we need to transform the mindset of people who are involved in the decision-making process, including government agencies, engineering businesses and consultants. Unfortunately, it seems that digital transformation is not one of those things that are at the forefront of company thinking. To initiate change in a businesses digital strategy, we need to start with a top-down approach, and our clients must also be integral to the process. The government also needs to make it clear that data must be treated as an asset so that we have the opportunity to do our next job better. Businesses can generally find funding for large projects, but somehow digital transformation ends up at the bottom of the pile. We need companies to think about how the implementation of new technology can help us to do a better job for the business, our clients and the community.
What effect will the advancement of technology have on the sector?
I have been on a journey with Tonkin + Taylor, where we have helped our clients improve their understanding of how good digital practices can improve their business outcomes. IoT applications, artificial intelligence, machine learning and blockchain technologies are some of the technologies making a difference in our sector, and they are the current disrupters for the industry. We should also be seriously thinking about the jobs that are likely to go away over the next five years. For example, my position as a digital transformation leader didn't exist in our sector just five years ago. We have got to look at how we are doing things now and look for new, better ways of doing them. For instance, in the water sector, we undertake hydraulic modelling by having a flow survey person visit a site which is a seasonal, slow and non-cost-effective way of gathering data. We need to flip the process to allow real-time data modelling, which would become a less labour intensive and more cost-effective way of collecting data.
What are the barriers to digital transformation?
We are still to democratise the control and transparency of data fully, and this is an essential step if we are to move forward in digital integration. Everyone is holding onto their data, and many businesses are reluctant to bring that information into the open space, which would allow innovation to occur. An example of this is how Netflix was at the top of the game when it was selling DVDs, but they identified the need to move into the digital space so that they were able to stream videos on the internet. Netflix used emerging technologies and data to create a much-improved experience for their clients and customers. The engineering and consultancy sectors must develop a data enabling environment that will help us embrace emerging technologies to move our customer experience into a new space. There also needs to be more buy-in from our clients in the trialling of modern technology. Currently and probably understandably, many clients are somewhat reluctant to put money into a trial that ultimately may not be successful. Still, we need to find new ways of enabling that process.
Are workers prepared to step out of their comfort zone to embrace new technology?
I think most workers are prepared to embrace change. I have been at Tonkin + Taylor for some time, and I know that our engineers are excited about the future of digital technology in the industry. Many say that the implementation of new processes will relieve them of the mundane jobs which will give them more time to do the technical work that they enjoy. I have spoken to a couple of contracting firms who are seeking tools that will help them do their job more efficiently, improve health and safety and to prevent staff from feeling that they are working in a silo. I think the industry is moving in a positive direction, but we need a clear roadmap to the future, which includes buy-in from management, staff and clients.
Is digital technology evolving quickly?
I am a techno-optimistic with a firm belief that technology is growing exponentially. Not long ago, we were talking about the move to infrastructure 4.0; now we should be talking about 5.0 and 6.0 may not be too far away. IoT, blockchain and machine learning have all developed to the point where they can be safely used in the development of sustainable solutions. The man-machine interface used in robotics is growing at an incredible pace, and I believe that AI is mature enough to be used as part of a new suite of solutions for our industry.
What learning needs to occur in the engineering and consultancy sectors?
The first thing to learn is customer-centricity which in our case means getting closer to the community. We are not just building roads; we are building communities to improve people's lives. Connecting with the community more collaboratively can change how we think about our work. We should also be striving for greater efficiency in our businesses and always consider whether there are better ways of achieving a more desirable outcome for our projects. We should be more open to the implementation of digital applications and new technology rather than thinking this is just another thing I have to learn. When you consider how the development of cloud computing has changed the way we work over the past few years or so, it seems evident that new digital technologies will have a similar effect on our sector in the next few years. I think the development of new technology will enhance the work of engineers and consultants and make our industry more exciting and attractive to younger people in the future.