by Divina Paredes

CIO50 2019 #7: Brian Northern, Fulton Hogan

Mar 28, 2019
Business ContinuityCloud ComputingInnovation

The fast paced digital environment means CIOs are rethinking their traditional mix of technology partners.

Such is the case with Brian Northern of Fulton Hogan whose team worked closely with a startup when the organisation used virtual reality (VR) to create a safer working environment for their field staff.

The project involved the creation of an application to train their staff in a high risk activity, the bitumen boil out procedure.

“This is a highly dangerous activity as any mistake has the potential to cause explosions resulting in potential bitumen burns. The innovation was worked on in conjunction with the business subject matter experts and the business outcome has been better more cost effective training,” says Northern.

Previously, Fulton Hogan organised a series of classroom training to enable staff to be able to be brought up to speed in this area before any practical training was completed.

This training can now be done on demand by VR when there is crew downtime opposed to guessing when there will be downtime usually due to weather.

This drastically increases the efficiency, cost and safety in this area, he says.

Northern says the application was developed with a startup in Christchurch to bring this new technology into the construction sector.

“Working collaboratively with the startup company and our engineers enabled the application to be gradually refined and specific to the equipment used at Fulton Hogan.”

He says the project also demonstrates to clients that the company is using technology in innovative ways to provider a safer environment for staff, which is crucial both for clients and the industry.

“In an industry focusing on safety, any development in this area is seen as a competitive advantage,” explains Northern.

He says the concept has been successful and it’s now being expanded to other areas such as site inductions and hazard identifications.

“It’s a good example of how a new technology can be applied in a business context as a result of effective collaboration,” he says.

“Essentially the innovation came about with an IT focus on the application and working on an opportunity for deployment in the business.”

Northern says the ICT team continues to look at emerging and disruptive technologies and how they can be utilised across the business.

The digital team, for instance, is now using depth sensing cameras and machine learning to determine people at risk behind their moving plants (vehicles that carry equipment on a construction site).

“Our clients are demanding innovation in this space and this approach is the first of its kind in this area,” he says.

“This is a real game changer; currently the constant reversing beeping has desensitised people to the dangers of a moving plant and this is one of our critical risk groups,” he explains.

The camera not only determines at risk people behind the machinery but also has the ability to recognise a person on a large piece of machinery or out of the danger zone. This means there will be no false positive readings, which addresses the complacency issue in this field.

As he explains, health and safety is of utmost importance to the organisation. Historically too, increases in safety have also resulted in corresponding increases in company profitability, he states.

“Our clients want to work with organisations who take safety seriously and introducing new and innovative ways promotes us as an organisation,” says Northern.

He stresses, this project was not led by technology, but developed as a result of good collaboration with different business units and the digital team who were given the brief “to come up with something that can improve the safety of working around mobile plant”.

Northern says Fulton Hogan has also introduced robotic process automation (RPA) in their shared services centre.

“Our approach is to chunk up business transformation firstly into the quick wins of digital business process optimisation,” he says.

This allowed them to transform manual, inefficient costly business processes and use RPA to replace these with automated processing. “We removed the cost of rework due to human inaccuracies and sped up processing,” he says.

“Culturally a lot of change management activity was undertaken as we add high value tasks to individuals replacing their transactional processing tasks,” he states.

At the same time, they rolled out electronic data capture apps such as integrated electronic time sheets with the electronic daily job records, reducing cost from this business process.

“This is a good example of innovation fostering innovation,” he says.

“We view innovation as a continuous activity, not a project. As a result of this, we are now looking at how we can use the data generated for additional efficiencies or insights.”

He explains culturally, Fulton Hogan is a decentralised business with local autonomy.

With these initiatives, the company has a very strong focus on change management and communication.

“We invested a lot of time visiting regional sites throughout New Zealand and Australia,” he says.

The ICT team demonstrated the solutions, held user training programmes, and followed these up regularly with the users until the innovations were adopted.

He says structurally, they had to first adopt an agile methodology in addition to their traditional waterfall projects.

“We had to refocus part of our IT team to set up a product management function to not only support the innovations but also enhance them,” he says.

“Our innovation culture doesn’t stop at the adoption of the innovation,” says Northern.

We are constantly looking at how we can make innovations better, replacing paper with digital processes and then sensors and IoT to replace the digital keying element.

“We also have to ensure that operationally the correct support structures are in place,” he says.

“As we outsource our helpdesk, the outsourced provider needs to also be included in the adoption as well as the insourced second level support.”

Northern is part of the leadership teams in New Zealand, Australia and the whole Fulton Hogan group.

“My role is to bring the business perspective of technology – encompassing the standard to keep the lights on, cybersecurity, digital and innovation – to the executive table,” he says.

“My focus is on how technology can achieve the strategic objectives of the organisation.”

He says one of the most effective ways of influencing other C- level executives is to build digital initiatives that directly align with the KPIs of the other functions. An example is using gamification to help with the HR goal of upskilling staff.

“The demonstrable link with our strategy to achieve their KPIs not only enables buy-in with the activities we are undertaking but also influences their thinking and direction, thereby getting support for our aligned IT strategy,” says Northern.

His team also visits their sites regularly. They provide updates on their latest digital and technology projects, and share cybersecurity tips that will help staff be safe both at home and at work.

He says a number of these sessions are held at the regular work tailgate meetings, just before the crews start work for the day.

He says they now plan to put together a roadshow on technology innovations that they will hold around branch office events.

Northern says it’s very important to ensure their communications are always tailored to fit throughout the various levels of the organisation.

This was ingrained in him when he first started presenting the company’s IT strategies to the board, and his executive peers.

“The lesson learnt here is to make the message for the board understandable and in plain language focusing on risk and governance, the language of the board.

“The executive were more interested in innovation and business enablement – so ensuring the message was centred on those themes helped get all messages across.

“Finally at a lower level the message had to be centred on ‘what’s in it for me?’ ’’

His other key lesson is the importance of having a diverse team, with diverse skill sets and personalities, to achieve the best possible outcome.

“Smart people with a team attitude and a single focus has been our recipe for success,” he concludes.