A systems approach to secure a data rich future

Mark Brown, Strategy Director
19 December 2023
Cityscape with a bridge over a wide river
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There are few areas in life today that digital technology doesn’t reach. The deep use of data is central to the UK’s economic growth and now a key part of virtually every business strategy, as we strive to find ways to increase productivity and boost outcomes against a backdrop of rising input costs, falling margins and limited skills and resources.

Data and analytics are now recognised as being central to the efficient delivery of infrastructure and the management of assets. But as with other aspects of ‘best practice’ in infrastructure and asset management, data requires a broader context, or framework, within which it can generate both project value and wider social outcomes.

To be successful in this rapidly evolving market, organisations like Amey must think differently and more holistically. We must integrate the power of data, analytics and digital technology alongside a range of skills, technologies, and partners and put our collective power at the heart of the services that create better, more fulfilled lives for individuals and that bond communities productively together.

Amey is investing to meet these challenge as we press forward with our growth strategy as one of the UK’s leading providers of full life-cycle engineering services. Our unique business model as a developer, maintainer, operator and a consultant, puts us in great shape in a hugely competitive sector. But like most businesses today, our core markets are evolving and will require an understanding of holistic methodologies alongside new skills if we are to succeed.

Primarily this means ensuring that our teams can take a broad view of the complexity and underlying purpose of every infrastructure asset we manage and are thoroughly grounded in systems thinking. It is an approach that, in many ways, flies in the face of current industry practice.

Traditional approaches need rethinking.

The traditional approach to infrastructure management has been to adopt a reductive siloed view, focusing more on outputs from activities than overall outcomes from wider strategic plans. As a sector, we have tended to think narrow not wide and the performance of our businesses and the returns on our investment has reflected this reality.

And in many ways the widespread adoption of technology as a tool to boost productivity has forced us to be more specialised, with individuals and teams set up to focus on elements of an asset be that the structures, the power supply, guidance technology or vehicles.

In short, we have become an operational industry and lost sight of the overall outcomes that those activities and assets deliver. Emphasis too often has been on optimising the technology solution rather than improving the overall performance of the system to deliver the best possible service to the public and our clients – which, of course, is the overarching purpose of any infrastructure asset manager.

Yet if we are to truly extract value from the use of data and digital technology, we must switch thinking towards management across the whole life of assets and adopt a systems approach to driving performance and delivering social and economic outcomes.

Setting projects up for success.

Embracing a systems approach turns this on its head by setting projects up for success, recognising their complex interfaces and interactions and using digital tools and data to manage assets across their whole lifecycle to maximise outcomes for the client.

There are three key features that help drive this focus on outcomes.

1. Leadership: On our project modernising the Core Valley Lines as part of the South Wales Metro credit has to go Transport for Wales for setting up the project from day one as a system, seeking solutions that delivered true outcomes for the travelling public and the public purse – highest service frequencies, lowest journey times, best train and station environment and true sustainability. Technology was vital but the focus was on the required outcomes so when, for example, the budgets got squeezed, value engineering retained the outcomes that really mattered.

2. Management: When Amey started to use a systems approach to manage bridges in Scotland it required a total reboot of the culture normally associated with the management of complex assets. By breaking down the siloes that existed around maintenance, operations, monitoring, policing, planning and community engagement to embrace a new systems approach, we have been able to transform the way these assets are managed. Bridges now stay open longer in bad weather and are closed less for essential maintenance because we understand the need to focus on the social and economic outcomes that drive the use of the assets. Having a recipe or methodology for success is not enough; you need a secure management process for delivery.

3. Education: Through our degree apprentice programmes we are increasingly working with universities to teach systems engineering, a discipline which has in many ways become unfashionable and subsumed by other topics. This lack of educational support is partly due to our current obsession with spreadsheets as the ultimate analysis tool when seeking value. A systems approach helps to widen that thinking to include the many more elements that make up overall outcomes, allowing our project managers to vary their management style to suit.

Clarity of purpose; clarity of outcome.

The reality is that most projects and businesses fail when they lose sight of their purpose. This is either because it was never stated or discussed at the outset or because it got lost along the way. A lack of clarity at the start typically accelerates failure down the line as we either chase efficiency through unstructured value engineering or allow schemes to become gold-plated; in either case quickly losing sight of the outcomes.

The first part of any project therefore must be to draw a wide boundary around the desired objectives; in setting up our systems approach we must also avoid boiling the ocean. Digital technology and data analysis tools then allow us to focus effort and converge towards the key outcomes and then to maintain a course towards delivering these.

But while this presents a strong case for data analysis, it has to be at a systems level. It must create clarity around outcomes and enable decisions to be taken based on the reality that, over time, it is inevitable that objectives will shift, and so desired outcomes will also change. Feedback loops – constantly verifying against the objectives – are crucially important to maintain control. The ‘V-Model’, adopted from the software industry, provides engineers with a means of reflecting such aspects of systems thinking in the way they set up projects and manage change within their lifecycle.

Flexibility to cope with inevitable change.

Systems thinking and an objective framework gives you the ability to be flexible; to work with those changes and remain on track to deliver the best possible outcomes. And it gives you an audit trial to demonstrate that those outcomes are still the most important and the most effective.

Achieving this flexible approach, backed by rigorous methodology, will build trust and enable the safe and effective management of complex systems.

The outcome is positive both economically and socially. Not only have we seen the overall costs of asset management fall for the client, but the assets also perform better, delivering more consistent, more reliable and more sustainable services offered to customers.

Local thinking to break downs silos

The challenge, of course, is to persuade more asset owners to embrace a systems approach and to invest in the digital technologies that support this new way to manage assets – not an easy task given that the development and management of assets are historically enmeshed in the traditional, centrally siloed thinking that results from how we fund, regulate and administer infrastructure.

Of course, we understand that someone will always ultimately hold the public purse strings, underlining the need to find the right institutional structures to allow systems thinking to thrive and the power of data to help unlock social value.

And while this change starts with strong, informed leadership, experience to date suggest that when powers and responsibilities are closer to the point of delivery, the incentive to embrace a systems approach and to focus on ultimate social and economic outcomes becomes tangible and far more achievable.

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