Implementing a Common Data Environment


Digital Engineering Management MSc,
University College London.
Organising for Digitalisation - academic paper.

A Common Data Environment (CDE) was procured and implemented by the Estates department at a large research university. This was driven by market uncertainties exacerbated by the collapse of Carillion as well as a poor internal project delivery record. To address these issues, change was inevitable within the organisation, posing new conditions to the existing work practices.

This paper examines the approach taken by the Estates department at the University to address these challenges strategically as well as the blockers to successful adoption of new ideas within the hierarchical organisation.

The case

Following the compulsory liquidation of Carilion, coupled with budget and time delay issues on several capital projects, an investigation was carried out by the Audit Committee at The University in 2018, evaluating the methods and procedures used to manage the delivery of its capital projects. Key risks were identified, and preventative measures had to be put into place.

Among the identified risks it was found that there was no consistent approach to managing project information within the Estates department with specific risks identified around the ability:

  1. to retain access to project related documentation during the delivery stages;
  2. to ensure the appropriate level of organizational approvals and project governance procedures;

As a consequence, a Project Management Office (PMO) was formed and tasked to address the audit findings. Within the proposed actions, the PMO elected the inclusion of a client controlled CDE to store and manage project related documentation and to document organisational project approvals.

Following procurement of the CDE, a team was formed to manage the configuration process during the first phase of the implementation. The team was led by Ellie who was the Information Manager with the capital projects team at the time and supported by several Estates stakeholders representing key departmental teams. A series of workshops followed during the summer of 2019.

The system went live soon afterwards, requiring extensive user training. Both the framework and resource for this training was not considered at the start. Eventually, a guided video training course was developed and offered to all Estates members and external project stakeholders.

The new system was documented through formal Information Management Requirements and a CDE Project Management Handbook to support users. These resources were promoted within the department through various communication channels including newsletters, workshops and project team meetings.

Despite the effort made to provide training and resources, Ellie noticed that proactive engagement with the new technology remained low within the department. Individuals seemed conflicted about the changes to project governance processes, reverting to the old-fashioned ways of working. There seemed to be a prevailing trend to disregard the provided resources and offers for support. To explore this trend, Ellie performed a theoretical evaluation of the change implementation a year after the initial implantation phase began.

Theoretical Evaluation

Two theoretical angles were used to evaluate the response to change by the University, addressing both the exogenous and endogenous pressures in this case. First, institutional theory investigates the response by the public institution to external pressures followed by change management theory which evaluates the internal transformation process. In between, organisational theory and leadership are also reflected on, in relation to their influence on the main theoretical angles but not fully evaluated within this study.

Institutional Theory

DiMaggio and Powell (1983) explored the isomorphism of organisations within a field, identifying three isomorphic processes – coercive, mimetic and normative. The coercive process is driven by external pressures, necessitating the adoption of new organizational practices to assist self-improvement. This is followed by the mimetic process which results in the adoption of widely spread successful practices by similar organisations to mitigate uncertainties, thus resulting in similarity between organisations. And finally, the normative process describes the method of gaining professional autonomy by defining a common viewpoint within the institution.

The coercion to change, stemming from external economic pressures, had formed a need to adapt to market uncertainties. As institutional theory predicts, the University engages in a series of bureaucratic activities, legitimating the need to mitigate market pressures by establishing and streamlining a new set of work conditions.

In practical terms, an investigation was carried out, evaluating key project delivery failures and threats, resulting in the need for a remedial self-improvement. This was followed by the formation of a senior PMO (Project Management Office) group, setting out the parameters of the new methods and conditions.

Following the BIM level 2 government mandate in 2011, many organisations within the AEC sector had adopted the use of a CDE to manage the information exchange process on projects. The 2018 National BIM Report does indeed demonstrate this through a survey including 808 respondents identifying that “nearly three quarters use a CDE for at least some of their projects, 21% for all projects, 23% for most and 29% for some.”

As prescribed by Institutional theory, the widely spread approach was mirrored by the actions proposed by the PMO group during the mimetic stage, setting out to implement a CDE.

This was followed by a series of administrative processes, aiming to legitimise the proposed innovation solution within the department during the normative stage. As envisaged by Institutional theory, during the normative stage, several administrative issues could be observed. There was ambiguity in the roles and responsibilities of Estates members with regards to the new technology. Ellie reflected on comments made by team members such as “the CDE is just a responsibility of the BIM team and we have other priorities” and “I am sorry, I haven’t had much time for your CDE”. She had also noticed that there was technical uncertainty among users and many lacked basic IT skills needed to support their development.

In line with hypotheses on the impact of resource centralisation and dependency as well as goal ambiguity described by DiMaggio and Powell (1983), an institution which had undergone change seeks organisational control during the normative stage. This can be achieved by defining a new set of objectives for members of the organisation and assessing their performance. That would in turn require an effective application of the human resources within the department to successfully integrate the application of the new technology with the existing culture. In practical terms, specific Estates wide activities to assess goal setting have not yet taken place, resulting in a level of disengagement and ambiguity as well as a lack of means to measure performance at organisational level thus, preventing organisational learning.

Whilst applying institutional theory to the change history, it became apparent that organisational culture has an influence on the predicted outcomes. During the normative stage in particular, the tenets of organisational theory have an influence on centralising control to embed the new technology within the organisational culture successfully. Organisational theory suggests that the application of change should be integral to the common values set by the organisation in order to become business as usual. According to Ritti and Silver (1986) when history is created, it becomes something that is taken for granted with the prevailing organizational culture. Schein (2004) adds to this by saying that when assumptions are taken for granted, they become instilled into the group identity.

In addition to the impact of organisational culture, the University is a functional organisation comprising a complex hierarchy of cascading tiers of seniority which can be observed even within the Estates department structure alone. Thus, the successful adoption of the new technology is influenced by the structured organisational culture which is in turn influenced by the leadership quality at all tiers. However, it appeared that changes resulting from adopting the new technology were at odds with the organisational culture as there was a lack of leadership to clearly promote the changes and common vision in context.

Ellie reflected that these issues combined were culminating into a widely spread resistance to the application of the new technology as members continued to work in the old-fashioned way. Furthermore, the views by senior management about what constitutes leadership seemed to be aligned to the traditional management view. Indeed, during a recent Estates wide presentation, senior management reiterated their view that leadership is equivalent to management. It is true that in many cases, senior managers are also in a suitable leadership position, however, as Zaleznik (2004) describes in an issue of the Harvard Business Review, there are distinct differences between the two, forming a gap in leadership qualities. Poor or ineffective leadership has been a well known issue within the construction sector as identified in a survey by the CIOB (2008).

When Keppell et al (2010), explored the effect of distributive leadership for distance education, they suggested that to successfully embed change into the organisational culture, a “distributive” leadership is required in which change is a collective venture between stakeholders at all tiers, unlike the traditional top-down management approach. The same principles would benefit leadership for digital transformation as Dearlove (2007) reiterates that although a top-down management approach can be successful when the output is clearly defined, it is not always possible to predict the application of the output.

Change Management Theory

In addition to institutional theory, change management theory was also applied to conclude the evaluation.
In his model for managing change, Kotter (1996) defined 8 incremental steps. The University undergoes a similar transformation pattern described below, however gaps are identified against several steps in Kotter’s model.

  1. A sense of urgency was established driven by internal and external factors.
  2. In response, a guiding coalition was created in the form of a PMO group to address the pressing urgency.
  3. The PMO group formulated an overarching strategy to manage the change process involving the procurement and implementation of a CDE.
  4. An inconsistency in Kotter’s model can be observed during step 4. Namely, unclear communication of the change vision to Estates members.
  5. Another inconsistency can be observed in step 5. An implementation team of a select few was formed, rather than a broad coalition engaging the wider department.
  6. Short-term wins followed, satisfying the internal audit team that appropriate measures were in place.
  7. Within a year, all new projects were managed on the CDE, thus consolidating gains, leading to the formation of a second CDE implementation phase to utilise additional technology benefits.
  8. During the final step, the new conditions should be integral with the organisational culture. As observed within this evaluation already, there was a lack of action to embed the new technology within the culture, leading to uncertainty, disengagement and lack of organisational learning.


On completing her theoretical analysis, Ellie gathered and compared all the findings, resulting in a series of recommendations to better prepare the organisation for future change.

  1. A training framework is essential for the successful integration of new technologies within the organisational culture. In this case it was unplanned and improperly resourced. Plan in advance and make sure a provision is made for the required resources.
  2. Communicate the change vision to staff more clearly. Include a summary of all current issues and impact on the organisation. This will assist a greater buy-in from staff members.
  3. Introduce innovation as a core Estates wide organisational value, rather than the responsibility of a select few to help embrace cultural change.
  4. Measure staff performance against set goals applicable to the new processes and technology to benefit organisational learning.
  5. Engage with users by developing evaluation outputs to benefit individual development. A reward scheme may be introduced.
  6. Keep the wider Estates team informed about key decisions made when implementing new technologies, giving them the opportunity to provide feedback and engage with the process, rather than limiting to a select few and instructing change subsequently.
  7. Address issues typical of a functional organisation that lead to gaps in leadership at all tiers. A distributive leadership should be considered as senior managers may lack the understanding of digital processes and technologies.
  8. Reengineer the administrative support available within the department to assist with embedding the ongoing application of new technologies.