Innovation: Not Just Shiny Widgets

Michael Silla, Senior VP, Skanska USA Mission Critical Center of Excellence
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Michael Silla, Senior VP, Skanska USA Mission Critical Center of Excellence

“Risk” is a four-letter trigger warning for many businesses. The desire to control as many factors as possible has taken on new importance at a time when unpredictability is a daily assumption. Businesses can suddenly find themselves on the wrong end of Twitter outrage with little warning. Malicious attacks on a company’s systems are also a constant threat.

As more and more businesses rely on the Cloud for their bottom lines, one could be excused for trying to continue doing business as usual when it comes to building and expanding data infrastructure. There are so many balls in the air to keep track of that traditional construction practices can seem like a rock of certainty for businesses.

The truth is, though, the traditional bid-build model of construction–and the traditional data center designs that have been prevalent–are quickly becoming a phantom risk to the bottom line. Traditional approaches have led to over-investment in infrastructure that needs updating almost as often as a new smartphone comes out. Total cost of ownership, power usage efficiency and more are not optimized when using traditional delivery.

More than anything, with all of the innovation going into the consumer-facing products and services being supported by the Cloud, why does it make sense to not seek to innovate when it comes to construction delivery?

The answer may be that “innovation” has too often come to mean shiny physical and virtual objects. As the Cloud becomes more dynamic, it has also become more essential to businesses. While downtime would be a significant hit to the bottom line, traditional construction approaches leave a trail of bad investment of capital. Simply put: with data needs and vulnerabilities changing so quickly, the time is ripe for a fresh look at how we build data centers.

  ‚ÄčInstead of viewing innovation as the newest physical piece of technology, we need to work on innovating our processes  

Bringing New Ideas to the Table

You wouldn’t ask your surgeon to perform a knee replacement based on an idea in your mind about how it should work. Instead, you’d consult with the doctors who do it for a living, asking them hard questions, but also letting the doctor know things about your lifestyle, hoped-for outcomes and more. The specialist would work with you to determine what procedure is right for your individual needs and would work with you to develop a post-op rehabilitation plan to help you realize the goals you set.

Why is it that, often, when it comes to construction, we do the opposite? When we ask contractors to simply execute a design, are we really doing everything we can to make sure stakeholder outcomes are considered throughout the process? Not at all.

Our industry should look to lessons from construction methods like design-build and integrated project delivery, where project stakeholders all come to the table to combine their areas of expertise, each informing other partners on the way to reaching a shared end goal. The results can be clear.

For example, time to market pressures should be understood by all at the start. If a new service is going to demand a certain amount of data capacity in “x” months, contractors and designers can understand how critical schedule is to an owner’s revenue and work accordingly. In a recent project Skanska worked on, that meant working with designers at an early stage to determine how prefabrication of certain data center elements could not only ensure schedule adherence, but also be cost effective.

Bringing subcontractors into the fold can have benefits, as well. In traditional construction, mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems are often treated as one. Considering the vast amounts of MEP systems in the typical data center, we should seek to find better ways to deliver. If an electrical subcontractor has a suggestion, we should examine it instead of defaulting to “this is how it’s been done.”

Innovation, then, isn’t a shiny object. It’s an idea that changes how we work.  Fully taking advantage of the opportunity takes bringing parties to the table early in the process. When designers and contractors share the same stake in results as the business they’re supporting, they can ensure it informs every step of the process. Owners too, should consider who gets to start the conversation. Traditionally, the CIO is the one and, likely, should continue to be. That said, the CFO can often provide a view that informs project decisions, as can leaders of business streams that the data center will support. The results should be leaner processes, efficient operations and scalability that addresses the unique needs of the sector the data center will exist within.

New ideas, though, will not blossom in a culture that doesn’t seed and cultivate that mode of thinking.

A Small Risk with Big Benefits

People do not like change, especially at work where new processes can lead to stress, at least initially. Not changing because we’re too busy to do so at the moment heads off that risk, but it is also a recipe for falling behind. Progressive companies are the ones who are willing to disrupt the norms for the bigger payoffs later.

That is the thinking that needs to happen to truly innovate the data center construction process. It may feel uncomfortable to let go of certain aspects of the construction process, but the difference could mean the ability to discover ideas that not only lead to construction efficiency, but better ultimate outcomes for data center operation and future expansions and upgrades.

Fortunately, it is not a change that has to be made in the flip of a switch. The innovative spirit that is fueled by collaboration can start long before an RFP for construction services is ever issued. Discussions with designers and contractors that help connect them with business needs and problems can help create a place where those partners start thinking of solutions earlier. They can use their networks to source new ideas. At the very least, construction proposals and interviews will be a lot more fun for everyone.

The mindset change, though, is the important part. Instead of viewing innovation as the newest physical piece of technology, we need to work on innovating our processes. Collaboration will change the way we deliver mission critical facilities that are already changing the way business is done and the way consumers engage. The Cloud is changing rapidly. It’s time for data center construction to keep pace.

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