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Resilient Company

AI creates the best COWI team across the globe

With Jerrik Bagger Sørensen, CIO, COWI

At COWI, employees' knowledge and experience are the most important products on offer. It is important to always be able to provide the right skills, and this is among other things done via digital AI systems, says CIO Jerrik Bagger Sørensen. The consulting engineering company also plans to set up its own data science academy.

As a consulting engineering company, COWI makes a living by providing knowledge and advice on everything from hospital construction to national infrastructure. However, if one of COWI's key employees falls ill or is otherwise prevented from carrying out their work, projects come to a standstill. Therefore, one of the most important tasks for COWI's CIO, Jerrik Bagger Sørensen, is making sure that digital tools are available which can locate a new employee with the same skills. Even if this means that the task moves from India to Poland or a third country.

– We have an IT strategy with two competency centers, one in Lyngby, Denmark and one in Vilnius, Lithuania, where all competences are more or less evenly distributed, which gives us a spread of risk. If both organizations are affected at the same time, then we have a strong partner strategy with selected partners that are part of the contingency plan as buffers, Jerrik Bagger Sørensen explains.

COWI's digital tools can, among other things, analyze employees' CVs using Natural Language Processing and AI, which removes language barriers. That way, the system can quickly find all employees who, for example, have worked with soil analyses or bridges. The tool can then be used to present employee profiles to customers. This means faster quotes and projects staffed with relevant resources, which is essential in an industry where speed is an important competitive parameter.

Cleaned Chennai out of mobile broadband
Once the right team has been set up, the task can usually be performed regardless of geographical constraints. For the past three years, COWI has been working to improve opportunities for increased mobility. They benefited greatly from this when, in connection with the Coronavirus outbreak, it became necessary to go from 500 to 7000 remote users in a few hours. The biggest challenge was ensuring that all employees had a stable internet connection, which in some cases required creative solutions.

– At the Indian offices in New Delhi and Chennai, we sent people out to buy all the mobile broadband they could possibly find. Our security is tied to individual devices. We protect the endpoint so that employees are not dependent on running on our own network.

Like many other companies, COWI has found that working from home can be very efficient. Jerrik Bagger Sørensen also expects the permanent increase in hours spent working from home to make it possible to reduce the number of office spaces by approximately 20 per cent over the next 3–5 years. Even with expected employee growth, it will still work if everyone works at home for two days a week, on average. This also includes a new standard of customer contact.

– The lesson we have learned is that we can easily be close to customers, even at a distance. From the very beginning, we decided that in all projects, everyone, the project manager and every single employee, had to be in contact with the customer at least once a week.

At COWI, the value of flexibility and resilience is unmistakable. While the European market for consulting engineering services has generally dropped sharply, COWI has performed extremely well throughout the year, all things considered. Now it is important to maintain this positive development and strong order pipeline.

Clear governance for the digital transformation
As a framework for new digital initiatives, COWI has established a Group Digital Transformation Team, of which both the executive board and Jerrik Bagger Sørensen are a part. The team also has several digital directors who gather ideas from the departments.

– The responsibility for our digital innovation was deliberately placed with the business, not IT. But, from the beginning, we help advise and assess whether an idea is possible. Generally, we have clear governance for what needs to go on to proof of concept and operations, which means that we can scale faster, Jerrik Bagger Sørensen says and continues:

– In many cases, different perceptions are the biggest barrier, both internally and externally. It is difficult to sell future-proof ideas to customers who are not ready to realize that a project which costs 1 million more will soon pay for itself through operations. Internally, there are often different perceptions of what digitalization actually covers. For example, is it digitalization to automate internal processes or create a basis for new sources of turnover that can take us from selling hours to subscription services?


Digital academies secure the food chain
To further strengthen the digital and agile mindset in the group, COWI operates with very digital training tracks, anchored at the line manager level. Here, time is allocated for employees to participate in initiatives run by the digital innovation team.

In general, COWI does not struggle to recruit and retain employees with the right IT skills. However, Jerrik Bagger Sørensen expects that it will become increasingly difficult to get the right resources in data science. Therefore, COWI is making extra effort to build its talent pool in this area.

– Three years ago, we set up a BIM academy (Building Information Management) in India, and we plan to establish a data science academy following the same concept in another country to secure our food chain. We have had great success with retaining the people we brought in through the BIM Academy, and we expect the same for data science.

Digital facts about COWI

  • COWI uses IT and digital tracks to support the rest of the business' focus on sustainability. A concrete example is a database that shows the CO2 impact of various materials in connection with the design of buildings. The database functions as a dialogue tool that is linked to the 17 UN global goals. This way, COWI can help customers focus on the global goals that make the most sense for them.
  • A fundamental IT principle at COWI is “Cloud first, when feasible”. The latter is important – it should never be cloud for the sake of cloud. The use of the cloud is crucial to the risk diversification that enabled COWI to quickly redistribute resources when employees were sent home.
  • In recent years, COWI has largely moved away from comprehensive tailor-made solutions, focusing on standard systems instead. This has been a significant part of the increased agility of the organization.

Jerrik Bagger Sørensen's tips for the resilient CIO

  1. Leave business innovation to the business and let IT be an active partner. Those with close customer contact should drive it, and IT should stay close.

  2. Have a communications expert in IT. Someone who, in layman's terms, can talk about new initiatives across all platforms. Part of employees' work is to familiarize themselves with new initiatives which are on the way. That is why it is important that IT can communicate.

  3. Remember to ensure governance. Innovation is great, but it is just as important to be able to kill ideas if they are not commercially sustainable.