PCL Construction: transformation through people and culture

PCL Construction: transformation through people and culture

Founded in 1906 in Stoughton, Saskatchewan, PCL Construction is a construction company operating primarily in Canada, the US, Australia and the Caribbean. Now headquartered in Edmonton, Alberta, the 100% employee-owned company currently employs over 4,000 full-time professional and admin staff and more than 10,000 hourly tradespeople. Operating primarily on heavy industrial, civil and building construction, PCL has attained consistent results and broad geographic diversity to ensure its continued success. The company works on 700-800 projects each year, and is the largest contracting company in Canada and the seventh largest in North America overall. 

Mark Bryant, Chief Information Officer (CIO) at PCL, joined the company seven years ago with the aim of helping the business understand how IT-based solutions could bring benefits and drive efficiencies. “I've always had an entrepreneurial vibe and a big interest in technology,” he explains. “I'm one of those guys that's always bridged IT and business, even when I started at Toronto Dominion Bank, where I spent the first nine years of my career.” Having the fortune and talent to work for some of the largest, primarily Canadian, companies in the market - Davis & Henderson, and WSP - Bryant found that one thing consistently attracted him: great work culture and great colleagues. Regarding the honour of being named the 2019 ‘Canadian CIO of the Year’ by ITAC, Bryant was clear on what he regards as the key to his success. “It's a pinnacle award for me from a career perspective,” he says. “But if you don't have an amazing team around you, you don't win ‘CIO of the Year’. My team at PCL has been instrumental in executing the vision that I've had.”

For PCL, that vision meant making a fundamental shift away from ‘legacy IT’ and towards becoming an integrated business technology group. “Initially, IT was focused on keeping the lights on,” says Bryant, describing the limitations of the previous tech culture’s scope. “One of the things that I'm most proud of is my team’s transition to realise our new strategic vision.” More specifically, Bryant has spearheaded a new range of products and services for PCL to drive productivity, efficiency and safety. 

This approach has proved crucial in an industry that is typically slow to adopt the latest trends in digitisation. Bucking the trend, PCL has been focused on developing this aspect of its operations for over 30 years. From homegrown estimating software to staff management applications, the company has striven to be an active participant in the change, rather than merely reacting to it. According to Bryant, there is a reason for this. “The construction industry historically has been underserved by the software development community. As one of the oldest industries in the world, a lot of practices in construction haven't changed.” Due to the nature of the work, which requires a vast amount of manual processes to function, construction has been among the last industries to embrace the digital revolution.

However, with investment capital starting to flow into the industry, a huge influx of new thinking has opened doors for IT and business professionals. “There’s a lot of opportunity for change. If you're open to change, it's a pretty cool place to be right now.” The digital transformation for PCL began with what Bryant calls the ‘four pillars’: cloud, integration, mobility, and data analytics. Shifting the company’s large volumes of data from its hundreds of yearly projects to the cloud was a significant move for efficiency, as was integrating its technology more intelligently to allow innovations a quick gateway into daily operations. “If something new comes along that's better, faster, or makes more sense for our business, we can rip out the incumbent technology and plug another one in. An integration framework allows us to be very agile.” This shift away from a ‘waterfall development cycle’ also means that applications and services can be brought out in weeks or months, rather than years.

Mobility and the ability to collect data from the field is also crucial to PCL’s operations. With the advent of smartphones and tablets, the company was able to find a way to gather this information more simply. More data also meant that an overhaul of the way the company performed data analysis was crucial. The launch of PCL’s smart construction platform Job Site Insights™ - a key Internet of Things (IoT) based platform and one of the core focal points for the company in 2020 - meant that data could be collected and utilised in fascinating new ways, such as monitoring conditions at the work-face of construction. “The IoT platform is 100% data driven, enabling real time alerts to anomalies and is extremely extensible, allowing for the addition of new capabilities quickly. It allows us to make better decisions because now we're doing something with data that wasn’t historically available.” says Bryant. 

Another great example of data being an enabler is a hazard inspection safety application exploiting AI technology to scan photographs and identify hazards. PCL has been able to reduce the time and labour spent on a crucial task – safety inspections - without sacrificing quality. 

His goal is nothing short of the total digitisation of the construction industry, including how it measures quality, safety, financials, work schedules, performance and more. Data is the essential element of the large-scale improvement PCL is striving towards, as are close relationships with the partners and suppliers with which the company works. Emphasising the collaborative nature of the construction industry, Bryant believes that PCL’s business relationships in 2020 are going to be of paramount importance. “I’m really focused on continuing to build a partner ecosystem of companies that want to share our vision and success as we digitise construction.”

“We have a fantastic relationship with Microsoft,” he explains (Microsoft provides PCL’s cloud-based services). “They're not a supplier to us, frankly. They’re a partner with a vested interest in helping us drive efficiencies.” Microsoft will also be instrumental in PCL’s integration of blockchain into its logistical operations, as well as billing and receiving. 

Similarly, Pype has a special relationship with PCL; the company leverages Pype’s ‘AutoSpec’ product to enhance operational efficiencies. “They're a great example of a startup in the construction industry that is using artificial intelligence (AI) to review submittals and show us areas that we should focus on.” 

Another partner offering exciting solutions to PCL is Australian company Willow, providing ‘digital twin technology’ to create a virtual model of assets, processes, systems, and other entities. “The concept of a digital twin has been in the airline and automotive industries for years,” says Bryant. “It has not been applied to construction, so Willow will be a significant partner for us in their smart building strategy.”

Even though he has established an exciting technological vision, Bryant hasn’t forgotten that changes in the construction industry are not easy to introduce. With new technologies being introduced at breakneck speed, it’s possible that staff will reach a saturation point in their ability to adapt. However, it is by fusing the knowledge and experience of its field staff and technology staff, who have been working on-site for 40+ years, with the latest IT tech that PCL hopes to gain a major advantage in the market.  Adopting a ‘crawl, walk, run’ philosophy of introduction, Bryant is confident that PCL will add new digital aspects at an appropriate pace. “It blows my mind how complicated our business is and how our people do such an excellent job,” he states. 

This represents the crux of PCL’s digital transformation for Bryant: “Our people and our culture really are the difference. I am passionate and excited about what we're doing. I couldn't find a better company to do it at.” Thinking about the journey that PCL is embarking upon, Bryant considers the upcoming change to be inevitable. “Digitisation is not an option. Digitisation is an absolute necessity. You're going to see a big difference between those companies that realise this and those that don’t. PCL Construction is a juggernaut of innovation in the industry and, to me, that's super exciting.”

Mark Bryant