Q&A with Richard Threlfall, partner and global head of infrastructure, KPMG

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Richard Threlfall has over 25 years’ experience in infrastructure policy, governance, strategy and financing, advising both public and private sector clients in the UK and overseas. Following his session at APM’s Power of Projects virtual event, Richard talks to APM about the current opportunities and challenges within the construction industry, including the post COVID-19 economic recovery, achieving Net Zero, Brexit and skills development.

What are the main challenges and opportunities facing the construction sector right now and what role will project managers play in tackling and capitalising on these?

We need to start rebuilding the country from the economic devastation caused by the lockdown, and construction is going to be at the fore for the foreseeable future. That is clearly the opportunity. The risk is that we fail to deliver as effectively as we should do. By ‘effectively’, I mean the way in which we manage projects; to deliver reliably, on time and to budget.

Project management is central to this, and the ability of the industry to start to adopt the capabilities that are now available to it – particularly around the use of data and connectivity – in order to provide much better, more effective management of projects and better reporting to reduce uncertainty. This is what the project management industry should be quite excited.

Are we now at a stage that it’s essential for construction and infrastructure projects to set Net Zero as a benchmark, rather than just aiming to reduce their carbon footprint?

Yes absolutely. In fact, one could go even further and say that Net Zero might not be enough. Microsoft is just one example of a company already committed to Net Negative. I have been involved in several discussions where there has been quite a strong view that Net Zero doesn’t drive us hard and fast enough as a country. I’d say Net Zero is now ‘entry level’.

In your Power of Projects Takeover session, you mentioned many positives within the infrastructure and construction sectors. Does uncertainty over Brexit risk disrupting this positive trajectory?

Uncertainty for business is always bad. Businesses thrive best when there’s clarity on what the future looks like. The past few months have obviously been incredibly difficult. There is still huge uncertainty over future of the high street, cities and use of office space. If you overlay that with uncertainties related to the nature of our trading relationship with major markets in Europe it’s clearly unhelpful. In the same way as government would endeavour to help us all by providing as much clarity as it can on the process of getting out of lockdown, the more clarity the Government can provide around the future nature of the UK’s relationship with the EU, the better.

Do you feel there are any project management skills that will be most important to support infrastructure and construction, and does the private sector have a role in developing those skills in the talent pipeline?

The core skillset of the project profession remains as valid as ever; the core skill of being able to marshal people and resources as effectively as possible in order to be able to deliver. That’s not going away, but what we are seeing is the need to be able to utilise mass connectivity as effectively as possible as a tool for doing that. That covers everything from the use of predictive analytics to the ability to aggregate vast amounts of data to support decision-making. It goes to questions of governance of projects within organisations and across stakeholder groups; how effectively do we marshal communication data in order to have a shared version of the truth of what’s going on in a project; and to be able to sort the bigger questions that perhaps need to go to the board from the questions that can be dealt with on a site.

This is where the future capability of the project profession lies. Therefore, drawing individuals into the profession and investing in the skills that allow them to become more effective at using digital tools will be the critical need for the future.

Posted on 29th Jun 2020
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