Scaling data, school of fish
Digital at Scale

Faults and flaws picked up on the way: COWI’s digitalization means better designed buildings

At the consulting engineering firm COWI, digitalization is closely tied to the opportunities of winning prestigious assignments at home and abroad. This fact is emphasized by COWI CIO, Jerrik Bagger Sørensen, who also sees improved digital tools as a method of better project planning to the benefit of both the customer and COWI.

Since its foundation in 1930s Copenhagen, the Danish consultancy engineering company COWI has left an impression on global design. Hospital buildings in Norway, the Danish national treasure of the Great Belt Bridge, the World Bank-funded sanitary infrastructure in Nairobi; all created from a COWI desktop. But if the company is to win prestigious projects in the future, COWI will need to succeed in their ongoing digital focus areas, explains CIO Jerrik Bagger Sørensen.

Winners think ahead
According to Jerrik Bagger Sørensen, the market for consultancy services is not itself characterized by a particularly high degree of digitalization – and it is certainly not notable for digital first movers.

"If we look generally at the market, we are very good at a global level, but the consultancy industry is traditionally not among the most digitally mature. For us and the rest of the industry, the big drivers are in essential areas such as BIM (building information management)", says Jerrik Bagger Sørensen.

An excellent example of this is COWI’s latest hospital construction in Norway, where the company built a 3D model of an operating room. Here, hospital staff were invited “inside” to provide input and suggestions for improvements. One such exercise led to COWI moving 50% of the installations in the workspace because the original design did not match the needs of the end users. The use of BIM solutions here means that COWI can, for example, utilize the hospital staff’s practical knowledge to pick up on unsuitable solutions much earlier in the process.

In addition, the opportunity to showcase projects and solutions is key to winning projects in the future, according to Jerrik Bagger Sørensen:

"Since our clients are primarily the construction managers of institutional organizations such as the World Bank and various governments around the world, we are generally expecting huge sums to be invested in projects over the coming years. Our ability to think ahead and understand what the project involves, how it is designed, and how it matches the real needs of the end-user is therefore crucial to our chances of winning a project. If we add projections in the form of climate, water and the environment, we suddenly have an extremely strong hand of cards to play with."

Digital transformation is a matter of culture
However, according to Jerrik Bagger Sørensen, the digital transformation and scaling of COWI’s business should not be exclusively driven by a portfolio of smart new tools.

"In my view, digital transformation is more about culture than what happens in the engine room. If you do not have your employees on board, you will not be able to carry out a successful transformation – then you can forget all about reaping potential innovative gains. One way to embed your digital strategy is through so-called 'lighthouse projects', where COWI globally encourages its employees to try and come up with new innovative solutions – even if there is no guarantee of success."

"We recently ran our 'digital days' program where employees from all over the world, regardless of age group or job description, were invited to pitch their ideas. A total of 120 ideas were created; many were about different kinds of optimizations, but also about new business areas," Jerrik Bagger Sørensen explains and continues:

"We can look at this in the same way as an investment fund: If 1 in 10 projects becomes reality, and this one project, for example, provides new revenue streams, introduces new types of partnerships, or increases efficiency, then it is a success. Our management team is fully committed to such goals because we have a failfast policy, so that good solutions are only scaled once we have proven their viability through a pilot project."

Digital assistants for project managers
COWI is also investing in cloud solutions to take the company in an increasingly digital direction. But Jerrik Bagger Sørensen stresses that not everything has to be cloud at all costs.

"We operate on a 'fit to project' and 'cloud first when feasible' policy. We don’t want to blindly choose cloud unless it makes sense in the long run. Cloud should not only be chosen to save money, but also to scale up and down on relevant processes as necessary. You can compare it to walking on an escalator where sometimes you go with the flow, while at other times you need to be able to go up a gear and accelerate – if this doesn’t lead to any cost optimization, then you haven’t negotiated the price well enough from the start".

Among other things, Jerrik Bagger Sørensen expects the scaling opportunities in the cloud to strengthen COWI’s use of cognitive assistants that help project managers optimize the more than 14,000 projects COWI is annually involved on around the world.

"The idea is to help project managers in their decisionmaking process. For example, they might be able to ascertain that projects with an above-average EBIT margin have used a particular method as good practice. The assistant might also be able to extract essential information for a specific situation so that the project manager can avoid spending time and resources on identifying such information. It can also strengthen our risk screening as the assistant can structure the project and ensure that all choices are made in the right order. Ultimately, the project manager’s work should be made more intuitive and much easier.


Jerrik Bagger Sørensen’s best tips for the agile CIO

  • Make sure your organization is ready to accept change. Involve the IT department and let them challenge the approach to both projects and customers. What value, for example, should a particular GDPR certification provide to the customer?
  • Communicate with customers so they understand the digital opportunities - this is absolutely essential. Once the project has been established, your organization needs to ensure that you have a contact person at all stages who can communicate at eye level with users. Even though the manager has bought into the project, it is your customer’s end users who have to carry it out.
  • Don’t just take it easy on the escalator. Standard solutions and streamlining are all well and good, but when your organization needs to get moving, you need to accelerate without delay.


Digital facts about Cowi

  • COWI’s innovation work is largely centered around digital units that currently focus on the development of new methods and workflows in areas such as BIM (building information management). The digital units consist of employees from various departments, and this ensures that digital initiatives are business-driven and viable.
  • COWI enters into collaborations and joint ventures with a number of smaller, agile tech companies and innovative start-ups. This gives consulting engineers access to ‘up and coming’ technologies and new tools that can be customized to COWI’s business areas.
  • All digital projects are run on a fail-fast model where the solution is only scaled once the pilot project’s viability is proven. Here, a success rate of 1 in10 is more than acceptable. This keeps costs down while the management team is able to accept that the majority of projects will make it no further than the project stage.