Stakeholder management is a crucial part of a successful public sector scheme and yet it could still be considered old-fashioned and often inefficient in its approach. Built environment consultancy Curtins is challenging this by adopting a number of innovative methods throughout its projects. Matt Woodhall, Associate and Lead for the Birmingham office, discusses its approach.
Effective stakeholder management is one of the most important parts of the project process; it’s vital that everyone involved works together as an interdisciplinary team to make sure it is a success.
Traditionally, the engineering sector’s approach to stakeholder engagement has been seen as quite old fashioned, but that is really starting to change. Technology is more prevalent than ever before and we now have access to so many different tools, which can help us when we are talking to stakeholders throughout the project lifecycle.
In the past, all you would be able to discuss with stakeholders would be drawings on a piece of paper or on the computer, which isn’t the easiest way to explain why you might need specific engineering solutions; but technology has changed that. Our digital-led approach means that we have a real wealth of different data, images and video content which can be shared with stakeholders, allowing them to really understand the process and see how the finished product will actually look, rather than having to visualise it themselves.
Bringing engineering to life
Very often as engineers, we are asked to make recommendations based on various factors, none of which are necessarily simple to picture in your mind. For example, we may be asked to look at loading or vibration criteria and how that impacts particular design features – it is easy to see how non-engineers may struggle to picture their impact even with in-depth workshops and presentations.
As an industry, we are already embracing 3D modelling technology as part of the BIM process across the board, but even that doesn’t necessarily go far enough when it comes to stakeholder engagement – especially if you are dealing with the general public or others for whom this might feel ‘too technical’.
Technology, however, has made that a much easier task as we are now able to really show stakeholders what an engineering solution will look like in practice. Virtual reality (VR) is one such tool which we are implementing more and more; it allows people to see and feel a design, helping to bring our recommendations to life – and encouraging people to get excited about what a building will really look like.
Virtual and augmented reality
The architecture industry has already embraced the potential of VR and it is now commonplace, with augmented reality not far behind. But despite its obvious advantages the engineering sector has been slower to embrace the technology.
Compared with a traditional 2D architectural drawing, VR or AR can alleviate the need for technically-informed imagination to visualise a building or structure, thus making it easier for stakeholders to engage. By using this technology, we can show people a finished product – and communicate where and why we have made certain decisions or recommendations. It demystifies some of the process.
As well as the obvious benefit of being able to show your stakeholders a finished project, these are also incredibly useful tools in terms of identifying and illustrating potential problems or pitfalls along the way. By enabling us to solve issues before they happen – and encouraging stakeholder involvement in the project process too – technology really does offer significant benefits, which is one of the main reasons we utilise this across the business with our clients.
A more accessible solution
Utilising technology to engage with stakeholders need not be high cost; there are tools available to help you go the extra mile, without huge increases in budget.
For example, Google Cardboard is a great tool to be able to use when engaging with a number of different stakeholders – such as during a public consultation or showcase for a particular scheme at an open day, for instance.
We used this to great effect while working with The King’s School in Chester on the delivery of an extension to the school. Stakeholders ranged from the property team at the school to its teachers, pupils and their friends and family, so we needed an engagement tool that would span each of these different audiences.
The Google Cardboard headsets allowed us to create a virtual reality experience for a large number of users, without incurring the costs of a full-on VR set up. This was done by exporting a series of 360-degree panoramic images, which were accessed via QR codes that users could scan on their phones before using the headsets in situ to view what the extension would look like.
This was a great way to encourage a number of different user groups to engage with a project, allowing them to see and feel what their new school would be like once completed. By working closely with the client, we were able to devise this innovative and relatively low-cost approach – and ultimately assist them with their own stakeholder management and generating excitement about what was to come.
Collaboration at the heart
As engineers, stakeholder engagement within a project team is just as important as external stakeholders such as end users or local community. As such, it is vital the entire project team works together to bring along the entire stakeholder group with them on the journey.
A consistent dialogue as well as the use of project management software, for example, can ensure that any problems are spotted and solutions devised at an early stage – saving your client time and money, working toward the concept of clash prevention rather than clash detection. This collaborative approach is really important to us, and we believe is the best way to deliver exceptional results.
Much of the technology used to engage with external stakeholders can also be applied here; we use BIM and virtual reality to create 3D models and view or change potential design solutions; our active project management systems ensure clear communications channels with all stakeholders, and we are continually looking at other ways to improve our engagement with all parties.
For example, we are integrating health and safety signage into VR films, making it clear to all stakeholders where risks potentially exist within a project – this can be particularly useful for site teams.
Stakeholder management: the future
As technology continues to develop, we will see more and more innovative ways for the construction industry to engage with its clients and stakeholders. We have already made real strides towards developing more effective ways to communicate not only the vision for a project, but also utilising available technology to identify potential pitfalls and to develop solutions early in the project lifecycle.
This is particularly important for the engineering sector as, so often, the challenges or recommendations we have to make can be difficult to visualise – and advances in technology will undoubtedly allow us to better engage with stakeholders moving forwards.