Technology beyond simple support

June 22, 2018 by Stefan Summesberger

With Ivo Willems we got a profound expert for big scale information management as Keynote Speaker for this years SEMANTiCS. He works as an Executive for Fluor Corporation, one of the largest publicly traded Engineering and Construction companies in the world. In his role as Global Director for IT Research & Development and Knowledge Management, Ivo and his team drive technologies and methods to improve collaboration on Fluor's engineering and construction projects. In this interview, Ivo talks about information challenges as well as the benefits of semantic systems and automation in his particular sector.

You are a business transformation and information management executive at one of the largest construction and engineering companies worldwide. Which information challenges does your organization face?

When it comes to information challenges in the EPC (Engineering, Procurement, and Construction) industry, there are various aspects that come to mind. One could almost say that there is a dichotomy between the need for speed on one hand and the way EPC projects are organized on the other. In a highly competitive market our customers require results fast with exceptional quality and for low cost. The success of our customer projects often depends on time-critical components. Delivering a project late can significantly diminish the rate of return for our customers. The industries we serve, demand highly skilled personnel (engineers, cost controllers, chemists, project managers, construction craft, etc.) coming from different departments. This makes EPC projects become large orchestrated efforts, where lots of data have to be handed off from specialist to specialist. So this makes it challenging to maintain the correct contextual level of information with each floating piece of data. Typically the information (and data as part of that) is further looked at within the specific project context, as our customers demand highly tailored solutions. This makes it difficult to be able to leverage information from project to project.

You are a keynote speaker at SEMANTiCS 2018. You will share project insights and explain why semantic technologies can help to resolve your challenges. What are the risks for an organization like yours if semantics would be not considered carefully enough in the information architecture?

I believe that the use of semantics, in one form or another, is inevitable. Semantics will enable us to gather data (be it structured or unstructured) from dispersed systems without the need to rewrite these source systems. This would be a far more costly proposition. Semantics will also enable us to do more with data than ever before. The opportunities to veer into analytics and RPA (robotic process automation) capabilities can hardly be envisioned without semantics.

Fluor is probably working with a wide range of technologies. How important is AI for you? How does semantics come into play here?

With the ascent of the Internet and capabilities provided by companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, etc., we all are exposed to some of the benefits (and drawbacks) of technologies such as Artificial Intelligence. In all honesty, to date it is inconceivable that we execute our work without utilizing Google/Bing, LinkedIn, Youtube, etc. This means we are already dependent on various technologies which are present under the hood. Semantics, Linked Data and Machine Learning are part of that toolbox. We now are moving into a phase where we also will utilize these types of technologies straight up; not as part of other tools or environments, but as main enablers for our own automation efforts.

You work on automation projects for many years now. What are your most important learnings so far?

The attitude of our internal customer towards automation has changed in a few ways: First, our engineers now embrace automation as an enabler, and not merely as a support function. Automation can make a significant difference. Secondly, Many engineers have more powerful equipment at home than they work on in the office. There is a certain expectation in terms of performance (not just raw speed but also issues such as search capabilities) which they compare with what they have at home. And thirdly, in particular the younger engineers now come forward with their own initiatives to improve work processes through automation. They are not always patient enough or have sufficient understanding as to the need to build something robust before a global roll-out, but nevertheless we need to listen more to them. Just because someone is not a member of the IT organization doesn’t mean the person doesn’t have a good idea (and sometimes even a good implementation of an idea). A second thread of answers to this question would encompass anything that has to do with organizational change management. Even though we use more automation and we get more comfortable with technology that doesn’t mean we are good at dealing with change. And if one thing has become clear over the last 10+ years, it is that change is happening at an ever faster pace. A good organizational change management program can do wonders; omitting this step sometimes creates poorly managed transitions, underutilized technologies, and ineffective new work processes.

What kind of innovation is Fluor currently working on and what is the vision?

As a globally operating EPC company we are always working to improve in various areas. Lately data-centric execution has been a major area of focus. This is a topic that reaches many aspects of our company. Examples are: revamped work processes, focus on data quality vs document quality; introduction of different governance processes, etc. Semantic technologies, information management, work process re-engineering are just a few key elements that enable this kind of innovation. Data-centric execution is neither a theme that was picked in isolation, nor is it instigated by Fluor’s Information Technology organization. Innovation, such as enablement of data-centric execution, is most often a natural progression of our business community’s awareness of new capabilities, which can be applied in support of the company’s overall vision to be the preferred choice in our industry through our commitment to safety, cost-competitive innovation and execution excellence.

In your role you are at the cross-section of business and IT. You are also working closely with the Research & Innovation team. Which kind of knowledge transfer is needed to make an organization more efficient across various disciplines and departments?

Knowledge transfer sounds much like a succinct and separate effort to accomplish something. I believe that in order to bridge the gap between different disciplines and departments, first and foremost there needs to be a willingness to collaborate. Have integrated work processes and allow for some form of cross pollination, even if the area of expertise on the other side of the bridge is not something you are very familiar with. A way of accomplishing this is to make truly integrated multidisciplinary teams, responsible from cradle to grave for the project or sub-project. To date, even though multiple disciplines work together it is more an orchestration of handing off work products than that it is an integrated team environment. And although we talk today mainly about technologies and methodologies, most of this collaboration has to be accomplished through something completely different, but crucially important, organizational change management. If we think that this can be solved via technologies and methodologies only, I am afraid we will be terribly disappointed.

Discuss the potential of artificial intelligence and semantic technologies with Ivo at SEMANTiCS 2018.

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The annual SEMANTiCS conference is the meeting place for professionals who make semantic computing work, and understand its benefits and know its limitations. Every year, SEMANTiCS attracts information managers, IT-architects, software engineers, and researchers, from organisations ranging from NPOs, universities, public administrations to the largest companies in the world.