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In the latest in our series of innovator interviews, we caught up with Sam Stacey, Skanska’s Head of Innovation.

Skanska is emerging as one of the UK’s most innovative main contractors. Sam joined Skanska in 2011 in a new role as Head of Innovation. Sam has responsibility for developing innovation across Skanska’s UK organisation.

 

Innovation in Skanska

In order to stay competitive Skanska recognises the need for continuous improvement and staying at the forefront of technology. Skanska’s customers are increasingly demanding innovation and it is becoming an important factor in winning projects.
Skanska invests around £12 million per year in research and development, as defined by HMRC, and actively searches for grant funding opportunities across the UK and beyond. This enabled them to work with external organisations such as BRE, universities and other companies to collaboratively find solutions to the challenges faced by Skanska and its customers. Skanska now has a significant portfolio of grant funded projects.

Innovation Structure

Main contractors are systems integrators, taking designs from a multi-disciplinary team, incorporate diverse inputs from an enormous range of suppliers and installers and integrate all of that. Main contractors need to think about innovation in that context.
Main contractors, like Skanska, need to develop the awareness, understanding and infrastructure to enable innovation. Skanska has set up innovation networks across the organisation. Each part of the organisation has an innovation representative who has intrinsic knowledge of the customers’ specific needs and the structure of the supply chain. The role of the core innovation department is to upskill all of the people involved in innovation and bring in expertise, such as academia and specialist suppliers, to provide the answers to the challenges that are faced.
Developing the tools and mechanisms to support innovation was critical. Sam needed to mobilise and engage Skanska’s 5,000-strong workforce. Skanska recognised that everyone at every level within the organisation had innovative ideas. Through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with Reading University Skanska created an infrastructure to enable people with great ideas to share, communicate and take the ideas forward. An associate from Reading University has worked in Skanska for two years and has developed an online mobile solution called IdeasApp. The app is now widely used across the UK organisation, people are commenting on and liking each other’s ideas, providing Skanska with a very vibrant innovation community. Critically Skanska has put in place processes to select and develop ideas that come through the system.

Constraints on Innovation

Sam is upbeat about the sector’s ability to innovate. Like any industry the construction industry has boundary conditions within which it has to operate such as regulation, client constraints and priorities. Main contractors need to ensure they are delivering exactly what the client wants and they are not incurring risk on behalf of the client.
Skanska, like any company investing in innovation, needs to be efficient in how they invest in innovation. Initiatives such as grant funding and R&D tax credits are tremendously helpful in making the business case. The UK government and European Commission are pro-actively supporting innovation activity in the sector.

Advice to Innovators

To many innovators the construction sector can appear difficult to enter. Sam recognises that it is very complex with multiple tiers of supply chain. Collaboration is the main message to innovators, they need to understand the different tiers in the supply chain and liaise very carefully with the relevant organisations that they need to interact with. For example in relation to Building Information Modelling, innovators might need to be providing data in a particular format that other partners can use. In relation to products they need to take on board the other trades that they are going to connect with, e.g. a piece of roofing will need to interface with the cladding and drainage systems. Innovators need to work in the context of their interface with other organisations.

Next Challenge for Skanska

The next innovation challenge for Skanska is to build on the current foundations and take on the challenge of industrialising the sector, realising the vision of Egan and Latham. Skanska plans to take efficiencies and lean and automated techniques from other sectors and apply them in construction. Construction is a highly complex environment with an enormous range of performance requirements and stakeholders. Realising this vision requires a diverse range of organisations to work together and Skanska is looking establishing an offsite manufacturing school to upskill a wide range of suppliers in this area.

Confidence in our abilities

Sam believes one of the barriers to innovation in the sector is that construction companies simply don’t realise how innovative they are. People across the sector are tremendously good at solving problems and they do it without really noticing it. The sector needs to be more confident about innovation. Many companies across the sector have very strong innovation and problem solving capabilities which they aren’t realising to their full extent. At a site level people are solving problems all the time, but they are not publishing and sharing that knowledge. The sector needs to capture and share knowledge at all levels of the sector and this will help create a culture of innovation in the industry.

Skanska’s Innovation Projects

Ali Nicholl
About the Author
Innovation Network Manager @BRE_Group helping companies to innovate within the built environment. All opinions my own.

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