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Internal innovation grants help employees leverage ideas and tech

Posted by Chad O'Connor  April 2, 2013 11:00 AM

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As the local economy continues to improve, boosted by the recent surge of construction activity in Massachusetts, it has become even more evident for forward-looking companies to spend time, energy and resources to create new and innovative technologies to utilize in the field in order to stay ahead of the competition.

In 2010, we (at Skanska USA) launched our Innovation Grant Program which dedicates resources and financial support to encourage employees to think creatively about new ideas and technologies that help make jobsites more efficient. With additional funding, our employees are able to refine and implement ideas destined to transform the way the construction industry does business, while also promoting 100% collaboration across all job sites and regional offices throughout the U.S., including right here in Massachusetts.

Through partnerships with prestigious universities, like Harvard, Stanford, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Duke, Texas A&M, the University of Washington, and Oregon State, Skanska has not only created an environment that cultivates innovation, we are investing in the future of the industry – both in technology and in talent. As a result of the program, we have adopted the strategy of developing our own applications which is vastly improving the effectiveness of our field operations, changing the way we communicate with clients, manage construction on jobsites and deliver on projects.

For example, several years ago, one of our teams was working on an active jobsite at the Tampa General Hospital, adjacent to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Like all work in sensitive areas, the crew would measure levels of dust, particles, noise and air pressure to ensure construction wasn’t posing a risk to the NICU. This required Skanska team members to manually walk the site on an hourly basis to read and record each sensor’s measurements.

While this is standard operating procedure, the team recognized this inefficient monitoring strategy and also saw risks. What happened in between the times when workers weren’t taking readings?

A few project team members saw their smartphones and realized they literally had the technology to change this system in their hands. At the same time, a different Skanska project team at Duke University was investigating how to develop custom applications for mobile devices. The team recognized the power of real-time information delivered through a simple user interface, and was actively developing several concepts for apps to use on jobsites.

The two teams collectively developed a product called the inSite Monitor, an iOS app that measures environmental conditions in real-time 24/7. The application remotely monitors the environment at jobsites via three different sensors - a noise sensor, a pressure differential sensor and a dust particle meter. Each monitor communicates with custom software on a tablet PC, which sends data to a central server and then delivers it in real time to one’s iPhone and/or iPad. If the system detects any readings determined to be problematic, it issues an email alert immediately to project managers who will respond to the problem.

The results and feedback of the inSite Monitor were so positive that we are now rolling out the app on all of our healthcare projects nationwide. Through the use of this app, we are able to ensure that patients and staff on our hospital jobsites are always safe. The application also saves the hospital money because there is much less downtime all around. Not only that, but the system allows complete transparency for the client. There is no filtering of information, nothing happening behind the scenes because the speed of information is instantaneous and available anytime the client wants to check. This ensures more trust in the partnership which could lead to additional work and references down the line.

In Boston, we are currently completing a renovation and expansion project that involves the demolition of 40,000 square feet of an existing building and the addition of 60,000 square feet of new space. Due to the size of this project, our teams handle over 10,000 documents that are constantly being changed and updated. To increase efficiency and optimize green practices, we introduced the use of electronic software programs such as SharePoint and Bluebeam. These programs have allowed us to maximize our use of iPads on and off-site.

SharePoint provides us with a style-sharing platform for our partners and subcontractors to access all project materials and PDFs in one central secure portal - any time, any place. By moving to this electronic-based system, we are able to distribute project materials to all subcontractors simultaneously and eliminate the need for paper. As a result, we have saved significant amounts in labor costs, freed up additional space in our office and are helping to make a positive impact on the environment.

We have further utilized Bluebeam (a program similar to Adobe) to convert all documents and drawings into PDFs, and includes a feature that mimics a pencil. This component lets people draw, take notes and make changes – essentially do anything that you can do on paper - regardless of whether or not they are sitting at their desk or using an iPad on site. The program has helped foster a more collaborative, productive and sustainable construction process all around.

You cannot underestimate the effect on corporate culture when employees fully realize there are resources to support the development of their ideas. It encourages entrepreneurial thinking that pushes employees to think beyond standard operating procedures. Our Innovation Grant program helps foster this atmosphere by helping take the money factor off the table. If a field crew has a great idea, our senior management team helps bring their idea to life.

At Skanska, we encourage the exploration of new programs and welcome innovative, problem-solving ideas from employees. We believe our employees are our greatest asset, and for that reason, innovation is at the core of Skanska’s culture because it provides employees with an environment to think creatively while helping to guarantee the best end results for our clients.

For many project teams innovating, it’s simply providing good client service. From the outside looking in, it’s an industry-changing idea.

Paul Hewins is Executive Vice President, Area General Manager for Skanska USA Building Inc. in Boston.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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