I am a project management professional who has led a $1bn project and multi billion portfolio. I know how hard it is to deliver projects and know that things need to change. Research from Oxford University has shown that only 0.5% of major projects in their portfolio deliver within the sanctioned time, cost and benefits envelope. This is something that mortifies me and I am on a crusade to change it. This requires much more than a tweak, it needs a fundamental re-think of how we work. Using advanced data analytics to take away the burden and leveraging our collective experience to shape interventions and improving outcomes. This is a summary of our journey so far.

Our journey so far

Lone voice  In 2017 I reached out to a number of large organisations to discuss project data analytics, but the majority of them either didn’t get it or didn’t see it as a priority. We kept getting knocked back. As a lone voice, I knew that delivering transformational change would be impossible. One organisation told me that project data analytics was akin to marketing; something that all organisations do, but not necessarily associated with project delivery. I recognised that the road ahead would not be an easy one.

Power of the crowd   So in late 2017 I founded the project data analytics community, which has since grown to >6,000 members. A community that shares a common interest and a passion for data driven and transformational change. We knew that if we create enough noise we will stimulate change. Sponsorship has been hard to come by, but we keep going. We believe in it.

Project:Hack   We knew that we needed to do more. So we worked with Sir Robert McAlpine and Microsoft to create Project:Hack. A community hackathon to solve industry problems using advanced data analytics. Not a conventional hack, with a room full of ninjas who perform magic and then ride off into the sunset. But a hack that inspires people on the art of the possible whilst also giving them an opportunity to learn new skills. We have held 6 hackathons with up to 250 signed up for each one. Outwardly it looks wonderful, commercially it is dire. Our last hack had £1k sponsorship, which paid for the prizes. But we believe in it and remain convinced it is a key part of the jigsaw.

Data Trusts   We realised that the next challenge would be accessing the volume of data needed to drive advanced analytics. We worked with Sir Robert McAlpine to develop a Construction Data Trust. Working in the interests of the collective, rather than amassing data on a winner takes all basis. Our quest is to collate the huge data plume that is discharged during a project and work with the community to leverage it for the benefit of all.

We submitted a bid into Highways England and 2 into Innovate UK. We took the feedback from the 1st Innovate UK bid, addressed all the comments, expanded the team from 2 to 12 with letters of support from a raft of others. Our score increased by only 2 points despite weeks of effort on the new bid. It was deemed to be too bold and undeliverable.

The CEO of Sir Robert McAlpine went public in Construction News reaffirming his commitment to the vision. We haven’t managed to get external funding (you’ll notice a theme here) but we are making it happen. It just requires a bit more creative thinking. Momentum is rapidly building.

We also worked with the Oil and Gas Authority, Oil and Gas Technology Centre to develop a data trust for their sector. They kindly provided funding to help develop the governance, technical architecture, security etc. But progress stalled when the oil price took a hit and teams of digital professionals were made redundant. We are working to remobilise around the £50bn decommissioning challenge, but the journey so far has been >2 years. It takes time.

Up skilling    As momentum built we saw that there was a split between data and project professionals. There was an urgent need to create a new cadre of professional – a project data analyst who understands the domain, project delivery but can also develop data enabled solutions. People who still need to reach out to data and project experts for high end support, but they have the capability to deliver a lot of work themselves. We worked with industry and developed the project data academy, aimed squarely at an under served niche. Our vision aligned with the UK government’s vision for apprenticeships, so we became an accredited provider; but this took over 15 months with a lot of knock backs. All apprentices get involved with the meetups and the hacks; a virtuous circle of learning and enrichment.

Task Force   Despite all of the above, the key barrier to progress has been fragmentation and the lack of a uniting vision. Around 3 times a week I get contacted by students performing research into project data analytics, all along a similar theme, trying to do their best but disconnected from the challenges that industry is facing. We contact government and get passed from pillar to post; they have lacked the appetite for change but this is starting to evolve. Vendors approach clients to sell them the latest tool, which adds more turbulence into an already complex environment. There was a clear need for a group of enlightened people to drive change and provide a unifying, coherent voice.

In July 2020 we founded the Project Data Analytics Task Force. A group of 11 people on a mission to transform how projects are delivered. Comprising industry, academia, government, project delivery companies, clients, vendors, SMEs and a professional body. By working together we realised that we could move much more quickly than working alone.  We are developing a White Paper and aiming for a 30 September launch date, setting out our shared vision and a high level plan to deliver it. We now have a group of great people who are working in the interests of the collective and society.

But we still have so much more to do.

Democratisation   Most of the solutions in the project data analytics space don’t need to be delivered by high end expertise; it comes from the application of off the shelf methods, tools and algorithms. The high end expertise typically refines the application of the algorithm to squeeze out marginal performance. But imagine a world where we work together to share how we have configured these methods, tools and algorithms to help us to solve problems. If we can democratise these solutions we enable organisations to accelerate their journey into project data analytics. We’ll still need top end skills and tools for network analysis, scenario planning and some of the more complicated aspects of advanced data analytics, but we can make huge inroads by applying the capabilities that are available at our fingertips.

We are exploring with Microsoft how to set up a portal to enable access to these capabilities.

By the end of 2021 we will have a cadre of 100s of apprentices; all working together in hacks and exercises to further the quest. They become an engine for change. Plus all the other elements of the ecosystem.

At last, the momentum is becoming unstoppable.

The message

When I set out on this journey I never imagined that it would be this hard and take so long. We’ll only deliver it by working together, for the benefit of all and society. If you have a dream it is worth fighting for. But resilience is key.

I’ve had a significant number of senior people advise me that my business strategy is wrong; we should be focused on developing software where the big money is. We’ve had a few wobbles and periods of self doubt. We’ve had weeks of never ending snakes and few ladders. We chew things over between us and are now able to get through the Kugler Ross change curve (shock, denial etc) in 20 mins so that we can move on and focus on the next challenge ahead of us.

What has been incredibly important to us is a few champions who believe in the fundamentals. Grant Findlay and Gareth Parkes at Sir Robert McAlpine have been key to our success. As has Stephen Ashley at the OGTC. With too many others to mention. Without these, we would probably have dropped the vision and pivoted to simple day rate consultancy. The dream would have faltered.

We’ve had a few lean years. But for me, life isn’t just about cash. It is about doing something you enjoy, investing in building deep foundations to enable the vision and making a difference. Opportunities to make money will emerge as the vision becomes a reality.

Martin Paver is the CEO and Founder of Projecting Success, a consultancy that specialises in leveraging project data to transform project delivery; from high end strategic consultancy through to apprentice training. He has led a $1bn megaproject and a multi $billion portfolio office. He is the founder of the Project Data Analytics community, comprising ~6,000 members who share a passion for leveraging the exhaust plume of project data. He regularly blogs and presents at international conferences, helping to ignite the professional imagination and inspire change. He is helping to lead the charge for disruptive change.