There's no point in turning up with a hammer looking for a nail when a client wants to bake a cake – with Steve Abley

Steve Abley is the founding director of Abley, a firm who designs, develops and implements transportation plans and infrastructure. We caught up with him to discuss how technology has always played a big part in his business. 

Steve Abley

Steve, how did your career in consultancy begin? 

I started my career with a small consultancy in Christchurch. I was extremely fortunate to receive the chance to join the company in 1988, as it was just a year after the infamous stock market crash. If you were a graduate coming out of engineering school in 88, there was a good chance you would have to leave New Zealand to get a job in the consultancy industry. I had no particular skills, but my manager thought he could see some potential and gave me a job as a junior draughtsperson. Interestingly, as a 17-year-old who was straight out of school, I believed it was such a large organisation, but with a staff of just 25, it really was a small consultancy business as compared to the size of firms in the sector these days. 

What prompted you to start Abley? 

I had a desire to form a small specialist consulting firm with a difference rather than folding myself into a giant organisation. I don't consider myself a control freak, but I just wanted to be able to put all my energy into projects that inspire me, while over-investing in areas I found exciting. 

How did you begin the introduction of digital technology into the business? 

The first person I employed after starting the business worked in the digital technology and web development sphere and arrived with a geographic and geospatial background. Initially, we did some really cool stuff around transport, which was often delivered via a web platform. In 2006 that was pretty innovative for the consultancy sector, so digital technology and engineering have always been closely coupled within the business.   

What role does digital technology play now at Abley? 

It is a phenomenally large part of how we deliver our outcomes. At our core, we are a professional services firm, but the way we provide advice has changed significantly over the past few years. We now have a software development team which is focused on delivering many of our recommendations interactively. The software that we have developed allows us to demonstrate the outcomes to our clients via a 3D platform which enables them to deliver better value to their customers through a digital interface. We still use our statistical and geometric skills to develop the solution to the problem, but our point of difference is the way we deliver that outcome to the client.  

Does your team develop the software internally? 

We don't develop software as a product. We often have clients who will come to us looking for a particular software solution. We engage our user experience and interface specialists to develop the best software solution that fits their needs. Recently we had a client that was moving digital platforms, and they came to us to discuss the development of a payment gateway that suited a specific service that they provide. Our team did some bespoke software coding that enabled the collection of online payments.  

What are the internal challenges that you faced with the introduction of digital technology?  

As a small company, we haven't had any problems with the introduction of new technology. Digital technology has always been a significant part of Abley's DNA and delivering solutions differently has been at the heart of what we do since the formation of the business. We sometimes have the opposite problem, as there are times when I think it may be appropriate to wind back some of the technology to achieve an optimised outcome. We have a lot of younger people in the company who are technologically savvy, and they see the solution to every problem coming through technology. However, with a few years' experience under your belt, you tend to look at things through a different lens, and there are times that I feel particular projects don't require a highly technological solution. In those instances, we can go to the shelf and say "look, we already have developed an answer to this problem." 

How do you determine where technology will add value to the business? 

The sweet spot with implementing digital technology comes when you understand how the challenges can be solved through data transformation, a change in presentation practices or automation.  

However, sometimes it helps to know what the solution is before starting the project.  

Also, we often know what is possible to achieve with digital technology but don't know what the problems are, and that creates a difficulty in understanding precisely what to sell. There's no point in turning up with a hammer looking for a nail when a client wants to bake a cake.  

How do you marry the traditional skills of a consultant with digital technology? 

Although our software and digital engineering team can produce an outcome that is based on technology, they wrap it up inside a professional services model which is effectively built around trust. Our team doesn't push a particular solution that is on a shelf; they aim to develop a fit-for-purpose solution for a specific client. It could come to the point where we decide that the client needs to approach a different company that can offer a solution that is more closely aligned to their problem. That is where I think we give added value because we are working inside a professional services model 

What is the future of digital in the industry? 

There is a massive opportunity in the digital arena, but we have to remember that technology is a mechanism to achieve better outcomes. The technology isn't the outcome in itself. I think that ACE member companies see what's bright and shiny but also have the integrity to determine where those solutions lack substance. We must make sure that technology is an enabler for a solution but doesn't become the purpose of the exercise. Some businesses have been burned by the development of digital solutions that have been oversold, not fully understood or not fully integrated into their business requirements. It is critical when discussing digital solutions that the client understands the solution in a way that can be easily explained to their organisation. Businesses are often frightened away from digital solutions because they fear it could become a money pit. The internal advocate for the digital solution must bring the client organisation along on the journey to ensure there is universal acceptance right across the company.  

Connect with Steve Abley on LinkedIn