Construction Firm Builds on 'Tech Prowess'

FRAMINGHAM (01/28/2000) - John Voeller can attest to the importance of having upper management's support for innovation. In fact, he's pretty sure that if he'd wound up at almost any construction company other than Black & Veatch (B&V), many of his ideas would never have seen daylight. "I have a lot of good friends in competitor firms whose innovative ideas were crippled or killed by limited vision at the top," he says.

During his 27 years at Kansas City, Mo.-based B&V, Voeller has had the chance to develop, implement and guide hundreds of innovative information technology ideas. In his current role as chief knowledge officer and chief technology officer, "one CEO and several business leaders fought for my freedom, and now the new CEO is doing the same," he says.

Management's willingness to give Voeller a free hand is particularly impressive considering his ideas are often radical departures for the construction industry and involve technology that won't hit the general market for years.

"John challenges people to re-evaluate fundamentally what they are doing," says Matthew Phair, editor of equipment and technology at Engineering News-Record, a construction industry trade publication in New York. "He looks [at technology that will reach fruition] five, 10 years down the pike."

Voeller's vision has paid off big for his firm. "In an industry that's all too often stereotyped as low-tech, and where it's not uncommon to win a job based on low price, B&V very often wins on technical prowess," says Phair. Last year, Voeller received the Award of Excellence from Engineering News-Record for his pioneering efforts.

Still, "it's important to remember that it isn't just John Voeller; it's Voeller working for the right company" that has resulted in so many successful innovations, says Phair. "Upper management views him as a long-term investment and doesn't keep asking, ‘What are you working on now, and how will it improve our bottom line in the third quarter?'"Voeller was a key player in the event that got B&V turned toward IT innovation as an ongoing competitive strategy.

Fifteen years ago, the company's CEO came to the IT organization with a simple - but at the time revolutionary - suggestion: Store all the information generated by construction projects in one place. IT responded by developing a huge relational database that became the basis of Powrtrak, a powerful project control and information tool that B&V uses internally and sells commercially.

Most important, the technologies allowed developers to distill information that most IT departments treated as static documents into a "metalanguage" that could be searched and sorted by a database.

Engineers designing a new power plant can use Powrtrak to call up detailed information about similar previous projects, down to man-hours and the number of nuts and bolts used. It eliminates most of the guesswork, boosts productivity and quality and reduces risk, Voeller says. It also saves money.

Today, B&V projects typically involve just a few change orders (for changes that must be made to the design during construction) instead of thousands, saving up to $10,000 per order in paperwork alone.

Facilitating Change

In his role as chief knowledge officer and chief technology officer, Voeller acts more as mentor and facilitator than hands-on implementer. "He tries to take a backseat role, encouraging people," says Ken Smith, operations manager of B&V's advanced technologies division.

Yet from the backseat, Voeller has played a central role in fostering an innovative, risk-taking spirit among B&V's IT managers and at Black & Veatch Solutions Group, the for-profit IT division that B&V spun off in January 1998.

Indeed, Voeller's take on innovation could be summed up as "If other people are doing it, it won't provide us with an advantage."

"He plants seeds," says Smith. "He identifies a technology he thinks will [be useful] and says, ‘We ought to look at this.' He has a perspective from about 30,000 feet; he looks at the whole landscape."

The Value of Innovation

When Voeller finds information on a promising technology, he passes it on to one of the many bright, young "kids" who work for him, but he retains a mentoring role. "He's the kind of guy who drops you an e-mail with a word of encouragement," says Smith. "You wonder how he finds the time to always know what's going on, but he does."

Voeller has taken great pains to reward innovation - and not just ideas that B&V can directly use. "This is an incubator for ideas," he says. "[If] someone has an idea for a girls' computer game, I try to come up with funding, a mentor, something to support the person and their idea. People need to believe we think ideas are important, and not just ideas that might make us money."

The flip side of encouraging innovation is reassuring employees that they won't be punished if an idea doesn't pan out. "Permission to fail is key for a successful innovator," Voeller says. "You have to assume at least 50% of ideas will be wall-hitters. You have to absorb those failures and make sure you don't have a body count afterwards."

Failure is by no means the ultimate disaster, says Voeller. "The worst scenario is when an idea with potential business impact doesn't get a hearing [and] ends up on the street or, worse, at a competitor," he says. "Fire someone [when a project fails], and your innovation energy drops to zero."

Horwitt is a freelance writer in Newton, Mass. Contact her at ehorwitt@world.std.com.

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