Michael West and Terence Blythman, from GHD explore how the digital age is changing the way we manage projects.

We write this article not because we see a new dawn on the horizon, one filled with exciting new technologies and innovation. We write it because the digital age is already here.

Yet the role, behaviours, and expectations of project managers in the construction industry does not seem to be keeping pace with this change. Few of us now doubt that the digital age is upon us. Artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning – we are in the thick of the digital megatrend, referred to as the fourth industrial revolution.

The World Economic Forum has considered the future of construction. And where construction goes, so too does project management. This includes the lifecycle from design and engineering through to construction and operations, and the unbroken thread of things like data, visualisation, BIM, embedded sensors, and cybersecurity.

(Source: The World Economic Forum)

This ‘new’ perspective shows why things are starting to look different for project managers. Designers are now producing data not documents, construction methodology looks different (e.g just-in-time, pre-fabricated and 3D printed modules), contractors and construction have a more integrated role with the client and most importantly, an end-to-end view of a project has become paramount.

What does this mean for project managers?

We need to consider that implementing projects successfully in the digital age requires new skills and different areas of focus for project managers.

For example, there is an increasing demand for skills in digital literacy, critical thinking and creativity; taking over from traditional project management skills like team work, communication skills and the ability to build effective relationships.

Failing to respond to the new ‘requirement’ could have serious impacts in the project management profession and pretty quickly turn us into dinosaurs.

Changing the way we work

So knowing that digital is important, how do we as project managers decide on what digital innovation to adopt for our project delivery, and how do we avoid the initiatives that sound cool but don’t move our project forward?

We focus on three areas outlined below. The more a digital initiative responds to these areas, the more likely it will be that the investment is worthwhile for the project.

1. Does it help with better decision making?

Good project management involves the robust facilitation of project decisions. Decisions need information and information needs data and data is now digital. Look for initiatives that help with the following:

  • More effective governance
  • Risk assessment and management
  • Managing complexity and integration
  • Compliance, auditability, and transparency
  • Ongoing operations, maintenance, and management

​2. Does it help with better communication?

The better information you can relay to stakeholders, the more support you can garner for your project, and the more aligned everyone is. Digital innovation should therefore help with:

  • Visualisation
  • ​Increased breadth and depth of understanding
  • Controlling the message
  • Real time information
  • Clearer picture of the solution
  • Prefabrication
  • Assembly/shutdown rehearsal

3. Does it help with better understanding of performance?

There have been many performance metrics tools available for years, however, for the most part these have been disparate, narrow focused and difficult to integrate. Now we have the opportunity to integrate a number of existing elements (e.g. via BIM / digital engineering). So focus on the tools or systems that improve:

  • Data accuracy
  • Data integrity
  • Data consistency


Having a strategy

One of the key project artefacts on major projects will now be the digital strategy. Having a focussed digital strategy will help navigate the tensions created by all that we have discussed in this article.

And just like any other technical discipline on your project, you need to make time to plan and implement the digital strategy – don’t let it emerge accidentally. As a project manager, you won’t know the answers, but there are some key aspects to developing this strategy:

  1. Start at the beginning
  2. Think end-to-end
  3. Get the right people doing the right thing – people who know digital
  4. Be a leader and embrace integration
  5. Treat digital as a ‘discipline’ and give them a voice
  6. Have real conversations with your clients about what they want. Can you move forward even incrementally when it comes to digital?
  7. There will be missteps. That’s ok
  8. Maintain curiosity


By embracing the digital age, showing leadership and taking the role as integrator, you as a Project Manager will be taking responsibility for the advancement of the industry and successfully delivering your projects to a happy client.