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What can BIM teach us about Diversity & Inclusion?

As an Executive Coach, I often work with people's awareness of their biases, assumptions and beliefs and thus the wider topic of diversity & inclusion holds my interest. I also still have a foot in the BIM (Building Information Modelling) world through hundreds of contacts, LinkedIn BIM groups and a successful history as a CAD/BIM consultant. It was inevitable that the two worlds collide at some point. So here I am, reflecting on the path of BIM and comparing it to the architectural industry's slow meander down the path to 'diversity and inclusion'. I thought there might be a few lessons the BIM journey could teach us.

LESSON 1: Get clear on your definition

As a CAD Manager, I first heard of the term BIM around 2005. But I was slow on the uptake even then. In 2003, the engineering firm whitbybird (now Ramboll UK) had already been awarded the Bentley Success Award for the outstanding use of Bentley's BIM technologies. It was later, in 2007, when I gave my first talk on BIM: "What does BIM Mean". Back then, every conversation was all about definition; Building Information Modeling vs Building Information Management. In fact, even as I write this on LinkedIn, there is yet another discussion about the definition of BIM in progress.

When the conversation turns to diversity & inclusion I hear this: "We are very diverse here at ABC Architects, we have 56 languages". I wait for more, but that's usually it. It's easy for us to think of diversity on a visual basis - age, race, gender and even sexual orientation. We need to get better at looking at the wider definition - the unobservable. American diversity expert, Dr. Linda Burrs, lists further types of diversity:

  • Personality
  • Communication
  • Leadership style
  • Economic
  • Cultural
  • Social Education
  • Privilege etc

We don't usually define our diversity by these criteria. What if we did? Though we know now that diversity isn't enough on its own: it is only when coupled with the habits of inclusion that we seek to embrace these differences and not merely tolerate them. As with BIM, we must look beyond the first obvious and most public definitions and get really clear on what diversity and inclusion mean to our companies and employees. (I recently facilitated a LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® workshop on "What Makes a Workplace Inclusive?" - what is it about the culture that promotes inclusion and also detracts from it?)

LESSON 2: Refer to Standards and Industry Guidelines

By late 2008, mid-recession, it was clear that technology was seen as the architect's upper hand. The CAD community really started to look in earnest for leadership - government, industry bodies and internally - BIM champions. In response to this need for leadership, the AEC (UK) BIM Standard was released in November 2009. From a slow dawdle, momentum gathered and now there is an avalanche of standards, from BS, PAS, to COBie and CIC (refer to Bond Bryan Architects blog for the lowdown). And they have, in reality, helped everyone get their BIM act together.

Standards for Diversity and Inclusion are somewhat harder to pin down, especially in relation to a specific sector. The Law Society developed a Charter for Diversity and Inclusion in 2009. A collective statement of commitment, signatures, protocols and reports. Could this be what the architectural industry needs? Closer to home, champions are needed, not just at top-level (Virginia Newman is RIBA's appointed Ambassador for Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity) but internally: male and female.

LESSON 3: Get it into the Strategic Plan

By 2010 my colleagues and I were talking on "BIM Deliverables" and "BIM Deployment Strategies" and CAD Managers started talking about contractual obligations.  Until this point, the BIM remit had been thrown in the CAD Manager's corner (as yet to call ourselves BIM Manager's). CAD Managers found themselves in the unique position of having to educate staff from new - entry employee all the way to boardroom. As clients starting asking for 'BIM',  senior management started taking it rather more seriously. We started writing company BIM Statements, marketing blurbs and had to fill in BIM questionnaires on tender documents. But it wasn't just a top-down mandate that was needed - it was having senior management hold up to their statement. BIM only got serious when it stopped being that 'software pilot' and got written into the strategic plan.

We know there is a business case for diversity. But there is no point in thinking it's a series of short-term directives, thrown towards HR to solve at the recruitment phase. Think long term, think advantages, disadvantages, think messages, think culture, think accountability. An example of an informative Diversity and Inclusion Strategy is by Network Rail:

Diversity and inclusion strategy 2014-19 - Network Rail

LESSON 4: The Time Factor

Shampoo makers, Pantene once said (circa '90) in the quest for hair shine "It won't happen overnight, but it will happen". Which was a bit like the hey-ho path BIM took. Until 2013-15 when panic ensued. It was not until 2011 that the Government announced that the use of Building Information Modelling would be a requirement of all central government construction contracts by 2016. The NBS April 2015 survey of 1,000 UK construction professionals revealed that BIM adoption had increased from 13% in 2010 to 48% in 2014. Oh, what a deadline can do to shift an industry.

Diversity and Inclusion strategies need an element of urgency about them. No, I'm not saying that you can build a new culture overnight, but failing to build time into your strategy might be a recipe for failure. Letting the issue coast for another ten years is, ultimately, going to reflect on who you attract to your company. I now coach senior women, who actively look at the company leadership and are willing to question an all-male board, the company policies and future plans for diversity.

There are many further lessons we can glean from the BIM journey (not least the staged implementation of BIM -> Diversity Level 1/2/3 anyone?). But instead I will leave you with some critical questions that may spark your thoughts:

  • How will you get an open and honest dialog on diversity and inclusion matters?
  • What might others be seeing when they walk into your office?
  • Who do your policies exclude?
  • What will a successfully implemented strategy look like for your company?


Further reading: "The Fruits of Inclusion: A Smart Business Guide to Creating a Sustainable diversity & Inclusion Program", Dr. Linda J Burrs.