Building Better With AI - Episode 5

Episode 43 | 

May 30, 2024

The Concrete Journey Through AI and Change 

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In This Episode

In the fifth episode of the "Building Better with AI" mini-series, host Sarah McGuire explores “The Concrete Journey Through AI and Change” with featured guest Erica Flukinger, Digital Director, Heidelberg Materials. 

Drawing from her extensive background, Erica shares valuable insights into her past experiences driving change in the industry. The conversation explores the current landscape of AI, challenging the notion of AI's potential to replace human roles.  

Throughout the discussion, Sarah and Erica tackle pressing questions surrounding the evolution of job roles, the impact of emerging AI technologies, and effective strategies for change management. From identifying gaps in the job market to addressing concerns about technology adoption, they navigate through the complexities of change within the concrete industry.  

Don't miss out on this enlightening episode uncovering the dynamics of AI and change in the concrete industry. Tune in now for actionable insights that could transform your approach! 

Host Image

Host

Sarah McGuire, MBA

AVP, Business Development, Giatec Scientific Inc.

Guest Image

Guest

Erica Flukinger

Digital Director, Heidelberg Materials

Podcast Transcript

 

Sarah McGuire

Hello, concrete revolutionaries and welcome to the fifth episode of Building Better with AI. I’m your host, Sarah Maguire, and today we’re going to be discussing the changing workforce as AI approaches our industry. Joining us today is Erica Flukinger, Digital Director at Heidelberg Materials in North America. Erica holds two bachelor’s degrees in psychology and mathematics from TCU with nearly seven years of experience at Heidelberg Materials in 15 years total in digital and change transformation. Erica, welcome to the podcast.

Erica Flukinger

Sarah, thanks for having me.

Sarah McGuire

Erica, before we jump into the topic at hand, I would love it if you could introduce yourself to our listeners, a little bit about yourself and your background at Heidelberg.

Erica Flukinger

Yes, I’m Erica, the digital director here in North America. Heidelberg Materials is a large construction [inaudible 00:01:02] materials supplier here in North America. We’re a global company as well. I’m on the digital team and we’re focused on our customer-facing technology. So whether that be our bulk materials businesses of cement aggregates or downstream for our ready mix companies, asphalt, and then our downstream customers. So we’re focused really on that customer journey and how it’s that we make those construction sites be safer, easier, and more effective for those customers.

Sarah McGuire

Which driving change in this industry. Everyone knows that change is slow, but there’s good reason for it a lot of the time because there is a lot of building blocks that need to come together in order for something to be sustainable and scalable. So I think the perspective you’re going to bring on how AI is shaping the industry as a whole, but more importantly the workforce because we are hearing a lot about that as we’re bringing new technology in, people are afraid of dumbing down the industry. We’re hearing that they’re afraid of AI taking their jobs. They’re afraid that what happens if we become too reliant on something and then it doesn’t become available tomorrow, how are we going to cope for that?

And I think somebody like yourself who’s really driving that change, but also a big part of what you do is making sure that you are having a plan A to plan Z no matter what’s happening. But we started working together originally because you were working with Giatec. Once Heidelberg decided that we were partnering together on a global scale to bring our sensor technology to the industry, we started working really closely together on what that project would look like in North America. And I’d love to hear from your perspective kind of the highs and lows of that and some of the big lessons that we learned on the importance of doing this in the right way when we’re driving change.

Erica Flukinger

Yeah, that is what brought us together. And I would say that what made it exciting is anytime I think you start on a technology project, the emotion of that comes into play. So the emotion where some people get very excited when they hear technology, some people get very nervous when they hear technology, but there’s an emotional reaction even to the word in and of itself. And so the moment you first even bring up that we’re going to be doing something with our internal business, with their customers that they feel a very sense of attachment to, you have to know that people are going to just have an emotional response to what that means. And that change is going to be innate with what we’re talking about because when we’re talking about technology, we’re talking about how technology is going to come alongside you in your job somehow. It’s going to start to do tasks maybe you used to do or it’s going to make those tasks easier, but there’s going to be a transition time so change is inherent.

And one big thing I talk about is we try to even rarely use the word change. People say all the time, well, people don’t like change. And I think it’s more that people don’t like change imposed on them. They want to get better, they want a life that’s easier. So people want change when they have agency in it. And so it’s really learning to how to introduce and invite people to go along in this journey, but they have free will. They are part of it.

Sarah McGuire

I love that you say people are open to change, but they don’t want it imposed on them because everyone does kind of go at their own speed. And I can’t remember who the author is, but he wrote this book about how the hardest things that you’re ever going to deal with in anything that you work with is people, because everybody is going to react differently to the subset of experiences that they had before them. If you come and you bring some technological advancement into somebody’s hands and they had an amazing experience with the last one, they’re probably going to be a lot more receptive, whereas the vice versa can happen. But you could be talking to two people, same age range, same gender, same job experience, everything, but they just had those different experiences and you kind of have to dig into, well, how can we make this work for you and how can we apply this in a way that’s going to be beneficial to you?

But I think also on the flip side, you learn a lot through that. If you’re willing to go through that change management with them and actually learn what makes them tick, you might actually have a better experience with a bigger mass of a market. And that takes patience for people to do, which you’ve probably had to have a lot of.

Erica Flukinger

Yeah, but I love how you mentioned the word experience because that’s what to draw out of people. You’re talking about a crew of people who work on a construction site every day. You have no idea who’s at home right now with their own video production on the side where they’re using AI technology to do what really AI can do right now for us today in the creative space where it’s alive, it’s experimental, there’s amazing things happening more on that kind of generative AI, and you don’t know if that guy on that crew could actually bring that type of thinking to his peers and get people excited and less fearful. But you have to be listening way more than you’re talking and really drawing out people’s experiences and fears and addressing those ongoing to really help build the adoption, the acceptance.

Sarah McGuire

Yeah. You’ve said a really important term there that we haven’t really used much on the podcast so far, generative AI. Can you explain to the listeners what that is?

Erica Flukinger

In my terms, really it’s just the power of AI, which you can see as this entire field of study AI being synonymous with something like physics. This immense field of study, this immense platform, and people are using the term AI, but to describe this big field of study, generative AI being a subset of that and how it is that AI, that artificial intelligence is able to generate content, natural language, imagery, video are kind of the ones you’re seeing more in existence today. But it’s how that intelligence can actually generate something from quote nothing, but it’s actually generating on top of large data model.

Sarah McGuire

And to kind of relate that back to what we’re doing at Giatec with this optimization, that’s not really generative AI today because what we’re doing is we’re putting a subset of data that technically speaking a human could process, but there’s no way that they could process it to that speed. Generative AI is where you’re trying to train a model to do something that you wouldn’t have been able to think of before. So that’s where we see those deep fake pictures of put our president in this weird mosh pit or put a goat that’s sitting on a hill, but it’s got to have rainbows coming out of whatever. That’s generative because it’s something that doesn’t exist, but you’re training it with things that do to create something new. And people are really scared about where that can go, where generative AI can be taken.

But so far we’re still seeing a heck of a lot of problems with it. We’re not seeing a lot of real stuff that’s coming out even when I try to use it for my own marketing photos. If I want to try and find a QC tech in a concrete plant, trying to look at all of these papers and show what it would look like if they didn’t have a system where they can put everything together, it might show this, but their face might be covered by something that I didn’t ask to be there.

Erica Flukinger

Yes, it’s still I think a technology that even though in its kind of pure definition has existed for quite some time. It’s gone through a year, I think, of juvenile adolescence with all these experiments and people trying things and companies getting on board and spinning up projects and whole business lines in this space. But it’s now going to start going a direction of entering teenage hood, adulthood and going off in the world and doing big, important things.

Sarah McGuire

So speaking of change, and speaking of the younger generation, are there already things that have occurred in your role, whether it’s your personal life or your professional life where you’ve thought, wow, I’m not ahead of the curve? I need somebody to explain this to me. Do you have an experience of that? Because I think you and I get pegged as the, oh, you younger generation, you’re trying to come in, but yet I already feel that I’m out of the loop in some cases. I don’t know if you feel the same.

Erica Flukinger

The same, yes. Especially you really want to humble yourself, get an intern and you’ll be just reminded how old you really are. And it’s not just even the cliche around that, but it’s just that obviously there’s just more of an exposure to these things earlier and more quickly. So one example is an intern that we had worked with us this year still on our team who’s been wonderful for us, has a background in arts and marketing and consultative sales so this great diverse background and has just gotten work done that we in our mind are like, well, this is going to take her two weeks. This is going to take her three weeks. And then two hours later she’s like, “Oh, I’ve produced this video.” I mean, just the speed at which she can execute on things using technology that again, we’re not giving her access to. She’s going on her personal computer, finding a way to get this done using the tools and resources that are existing out there in the world and relying on those to help her.

But it’s just amazing and how much I think there’s this, technology has always helped supplement us, but how AI is going to complement us is what I think is the most exciting. If you work in any office job today, whether that’s in the construction industry or anything adjacent to it, you have to get really excited, really comfortable, and start to dip your toe in how these technologies are already sitting underneath the software you use and you really should click on them. You really should hit that little eye button and learn that feature that it’s trying to turn on for you. It’s trying to get you to use it.

I mean, Outlook today is trying to complete your sentences for you like a soulmate and let it, let it do it, because right now you’re probably delaying and procrastinating on replying to those 10 emails and it knows it. It knows it as well as you do. So let AI give a response. Even it’s not the best response, not what you want to say. You want to overthink that email. You want to spend two hours writing a new one. No, let the AI give the person who sent you that email a response. So I think open up your eyes and pay attention to how it’s just going to start to lace into our lives. But like all technology, it’s there to help make it better, but you have to be open to that.

Sarah McGuire

Yeah. So you give a really good example about let the auto complete, let it happen. I have gone to the extent of somebody has really grinded my gears that day and I’ve got a email I’d really love to send to you so I do it. I write the email exactly how I wish that I could send it to that person. Then I take it and I put it into ChatGPT and I write, make this sound less rude, more professional yet still direct to the point and bam, I’ve had my therapeutic release and now I’ve gotten something done productively. Whereas what I really would would’ve done in the past is I would’ve just waited a day. I would’ve gone back, I would’ve changed it, but then I would’ve lost a day and I would’ve lost a day of productivity because emotions get there and that is very normal.

I think as women we’re told, oh, you shouldn’t get too emotional. But the reality is that we get passionate because we’re excited about what we’re doing so when something doesn’t go right, and that can be a really great tool and outlet to help you still have that moment and then get done what you need to do and move on and be productive and get to the goal.

So I think if you know how to use it can be really, really, really helpful. But I think the issue, and that is what I really want to dive into today with is teaching people how to use it, especially if they already feel like they’ve been lost and they’ve been left behind. Because those I think are the people that are truly concerned about this is going to take my job because they don’t understand it and I think they’ve maybe been bulldozed past.

I think we have a lot of experiences like that where companies like yours have people like you that are positioned there to guide people through that, but not all do. And that can actually impact the entire industry when we’re not kind of working together in that change management process. So I’d love to hear a little bit of some of the experiences that you’ve had in your professional life. It could be at Heidelberg, it could be anywhere where you’ve had to really help drive that change with a group of people that maybe were already feeling left behind and were already at that point of resistance because it hadn’t been approached the right way the first time.

Erica Flukinger

My main background in life has always been connected to HR in some way, and luckily the type of HR I’ve gotten to do has always been in large industrial settings where there’s a great diversity of the workforce. There’s many skills that we’re employing to make something. And so often I have found myself on job sites in manufacturing facilities and helping to navigate what that means in terms of the baggage that goes along with job loss and especially in the United States how job loss has occurred at different phases of industrial advancement. And so knowing that, again, that’s someone’s experience, that’s the iceberg that’s underneath someone’s world if they’ve been in a skills trade. But also just noticing, again, looking around in that setting and noticing, well, what is around you in that setting to help you want to advance in this technology?

And so I think about how one thing we have here at Heidelberg is a mobile app that we give to our customers. It allows them to track their trucks, their orders, their deliveries. And while the customers love it, I recently was on a job site where I was literally cussed up and down, but in a good way for how much they love this thing. It has now created this transparency on the other end to our own employees where they have felt maybe a loss of control or a loss of connection or a loss of autonomy with how it is the fact that our trucks are visible no different than an Uber or a Domino’s pizza, but knowing that again, they’re not resistant to the technology, they’re resistant to some feeling in them that is changing, that the technology has now elicited.

And so as I mentioned in the beginning, it is about connecting to that and understanding that and how that’s different for individuals. I can’t just paint all dispatchers or all customer service people or all people of a certain age. No way. Change is very individual and noticing in that group of people and really getting to understand what they’re afraid to lose that is more motivating than what you could promise that they gain.

And so I do like to stay whenever we’ve done change, I’ve learned this the hard way because I’ve tried to motivate people with the positive and the good, but really what makes people hold on is that risk of loss. What are they giving up? What could they stand to lose? And it’s getting really more in touch with that side of what we’re going to change in them that actually when you understand that, then they’re able to better let it go than just trying to hype them up for the good stuff.

Sarah McGuire

Yeah, you’re showing them, yes, you’re going to have to let this go, but you’re going to get 10 x in return. But in an industry especially where I feel like people really need to see things to believe them, and frankly speaking, I’m like that too. I have always been a bit of a resistor when it comes to not change. I am pretty adaptable in those environments, but technology has just never come naturally to me the way it comes to other people, which I feel has been a bit of an advantage in being able to understand the resistance that other people have and being able to get through that.

But I do feel often, I was in a room a few years ago with a company that was so sold on our sensors. They were so excited about them. Everybody in the room was excited about them. But one of the guys who was the most excited about the benefits that they were going to get from the technology, when it came to showing them how to set it up, he actually didn’t even have his Apple ID created. So he needed to download an app in order to use our technology that he was 100% sold on and excited to use. But then when we came across that issue, his team laughed at him.

And I understand. It seems crazy. It does seem laughable to us, but that’s not how we motivate somebody to get, he was already there, he was sold on it, and for the rest of the meeting, he just sat there with his arms crossed. It wouldn’t have mattered what I said. And I see that happening. I see that divide happening as we go through so much change so quickly. Anybody who can’t keep up kind of gets laughed at and that’s not the right way to approach it. And that’s a hard thing. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that yourself. I mean, I’ve been laughed at as well, but I can laugh at myself.

Erica Flukinger

No, absolutely. I mean, digital is its own form of literacy. And so how someone once felt at one point in our society when there were people who maybe could read or have the type of literacy that we’re all privileged to have today, but digital is its own literacy.

And so the magic thing though is I would say the question you asked me earlier about how does it feel to feel like I’m left behind? I feel that too. So I feel like we have to all acknowledge the vast majority of us are illiterate when it comes to what AI and what technology will grow in advance to be, and only the smartest and most closest people to the technology are the ones able to speculate because they are closest to where it’s going.

So that’s why we all have to acknowledge that the pushback that’s all coming is real because that’s us pushing back because of our fear. Yeah, there’s a chance for it to do cool stuff, but we’re more about fear of job loss, fear of what does this mean for me in my future. And so that’s what’s happening to all of us. So that should give us even more empathy, and I think that’s the greatest lesson you can have when doing this work. And the greatest strength you have is having empathy like you had for that gentleman on just how we’re all illiterate when it comes to what this is going to mean.

Sarah McGuire

Yeah. I mean, of course at the end of the day, business is business. We’re here to do a job and the more emotional times can be saved for at home with your family, with your close ones, but empathy should be had anywhere. I mean, we can have empathy for people in every realm of our lives. It doesn’t just need to be on our personal lives. It can be professional as well. And when you start having empathy for others, well then you’ll also just be able to collaborate a lot better and that will enable you to get better solutions. So if you’re coming in with a new advancement that just isn’t fitting because you haven’t taken the time to understand what that person is dealing with every day, well, you’re both just going to fail because one’s not going to adopt and the other one’s not going to get what they need done.

So I want to jump forward because we’re talking about a lot of fear and the ones that are really impacting job loss, and I think that concern is very valid in certain industries, but then we’re also seeing ways that people are funneling resources into educating in different spheres that are going to become more important in the future. But let’s talk about where our industry is right now in terms of the job market. Heidelberg Materials isn’t just a ready mix producer yourself, but you’re also supplying to the greater industry. You’re supplying to other ready mix producers, you’re supplying to contractors, you’re kind of the heart of a big ecosystem that’s happening. So from your company’s own experience of what you’re dealing with internally to what you’re seeing everywhere else, what are some of the biggest gaps that you’re seeing in the industry right now where we do not have resources where we need them desperately?

Erica Flukinger

I mean, when I think about gaps, I of course can jump to exact skills trades and people having visibility to enter into those trades, that persistent problem that has been going on, how we look at ready mix driver retention. Shout out to the NRMCA and their persistent study of the 75,000 concrete delivery professionals out there in North America. And so always taking an eye on that and how that relates to heavy equipment operators, things like that.

But I think a gap that I see when I looked across different companies was this generational gap from 2008, and when you look around your organization, do you really see that we almost lost a bench. We lost a class that should have been there because of that time when as an industry we shrunk the way we did. We had slower caution coming out of it rightfully so. We’re not really tripping over 35 and 40 year-olds everywhere we look and those 35 and 40 year-olds should be in middle management right now. They should be our area GMs, they should be our sales managers, but they’re not there. And so this middle of the organization, which I think is the most important part of a company, there’s nothing more important than middle management. Yes, there’s nothing more painful to some people, but at the same time, you just need that to connect how a business, where it’s going to go and how it actually gets it done.

That gap I find most concerning and that we’re going to have to take chances on people with less experience and we’re going to have to be open to the fact that the career path that someone had or maybe what industry adjacent to our industry they came from, and being open to accepting people from adjacent industries, from agriculture, from manufacturing. We have to be open to actually people with different experiences because that whole class isn’t there.

Sarah McGuire

I really love when I ask a question that of course is open-ended, but when somebody responds with something that I would not have anticipated, but I agree with you wholeheartedly, it’s just not where I would’ve expected your first train of thought to go. When we’re looking at this younger generation that’s not being drawn in, why do you think we were able to bring that younger generation in 30 years ago that we’re not seeming to attract now? What has changed?

Erica Flukinger

I wonder if this was true 30 years ago or if it’s just still true today, but I think we have a visibility issue in this industry. I think this industry is not visible enough to some. I think it’s looked over and the main reason people choose a profession is that they know someone in the profession. Doctors raise other doctors, engineers become engineers because they knew it was a profession.

And so I just really, my call to action to people who work in this industry or adjacent to it, how much are you talking up this industry and not only just your own children or your nieces and nephews, but someone who’s in career transition, someone who’s considering retirement, someone who is deeply dissatisfied right now in their cubicle job working in finance. How much are you being a recruiter to work in this industry? Because once people join this industry, they’re hooked. That’s something we all quietly wink about, but is true, but we need to be hooking more people and we’re invisible because I get why that happened. I understand that you don’t maybe notice that quarry in town or that cement plant or that construction site, but I think we should be way more prideful, way more boastful, and be pulling more people into their awareness of how good the industry is. And I just don’t think enough of us are acting as that recruiter.

Sarah McGuire

Way back when I joined this industry myself, it was because I was coming from a background expecting to go into corporate finance because I grew up in a small place with parents that didn’t go to post-secondary, that if I wasn’t going to be a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher or take over whatever business is being run by your family, I didn’t know what there was. I definitely knew, unlike most people in this industry, I haven’t worked a lot in the field. My husband gets mad at me when I say that I work in the trades. He’s like, “You do not work in the trades.” I said, I have my own steel toe boots, okay? But no, no, I understand that’s not true because he does, so he doesn’t want me to say that. But there wasn’t a lot of education around what more there could be to actually spearhead other industries.

And I have said many times that if I knew what engineering was, I probably would’ve ended up in that field. I was very much pushed by my parents to go to post-secondary and be that kid. They really wanted me to be a doctor. And then when I really did not like biology of any kind, but I was really strong with numbers, said, oh, okay, well finance makes sense. That is literally how I made the decisions that I made. I ended up going in and interviewing at Deutsche Bank, at Morgan Stanley when I was over in Asia and I looked around the offices and people looked crippled with anxiety and just remorse that they had chosen this field. I’m not knocking anybody who wants to do that, amazing for you. But I kind of looked around and I thought, I’m going to wilt away in this environment.

And I joined Giatec and they took me to World of Concrete three weeks later and I went, oh my goodness, this is incredible. Look at everything that goes into this industry. I had no idea how much happened there and still to this day, so many people are so surprised that I’m still there, but I’m telling you, especially if you’re working in kind of fields that we are, you just get to be on the forefront of this digital change, which is very cool.

And when you see that this industry is lagging, it also just shows how exciting it is going to be that it is going to propel forward. It’s inevitable. So knowing that you get to be a part of that is really neat. But I think as a general whole, you also get to just drive by buildings wherever you’re going and say, look at what I did. Everybody gets to do that. They get to have a sense of accomplishment for actually being a part of something that stands today, stands for a long time. I think that is really neat.

I agree with your fact on the education, but I also, I think technology adoption is a huge issue as well. We’re talking about how important it is to educate all of these younger students on what they can actually be doing long-term, that there are other fields, but what happens when they get into the industry, they’ve been coached to get in there, they’re excited about coming in, and then they start working on all of these systems that were built 40, 50 years ago that are not intuitive to them because that’s not the type of software technology they work with in their personal lives, and then they just get demotivated by what they’re having to work with.

We saw this happen in our healthcare industry here in Canada quite a lot with nurses. They were really struggling with using these outdated systems that had not been improved because they couldn’t seem to get things working. They were working crazy overtime hours and not getting paid for it and we saw a huge turn rate of nursing students that came into the industry. Within two years, they were gone. They started working in tech sales. And I wonder if that could happen if we’re not keeping up and making it more applicable to them to actually come into the industry and make it intuitive to some degree.

Erica Flukinger

I think that’s a really fair point and the frustration just recently I was checking into a hotel and I always like to notice what technology people are using. Just I’m curious. I have people flip their screens sometimes and just show me and I just could not believe this black screen blinking cursor in this international hotel chain that these people were having to use, even though their mobile app doesn’t have that, their mobile apps a great experience, but then this is what the employees had to experience, and so that gap.

And then of course you mentioned the gap of people’s own lives now what they get to do on their personal devices versus at work, I do see that gap continuing to widen. I do see that being a real thing. Where my mind goes with this is just how technology in business is still a tool. It’s still a equipment, it’s still a means to an end, and so I think on some level there is some tolerance for it being outdated or maybe not the greatest user interface or not as intuitive, but yes, there is a frustration there.

But because it is a tool and it is equipment, if it can be supplemented with other tools and equipment as in the quality of your coworker, the quality of your supervisor, the quality of lifestyle you get doing that job, that can sometimes help guard against maybe the frustration someone feels about not having the right tools and equipment to do their job. Maybe that young person joining a construction crew or joining the construction industry that they might realize, oh my God, what a pain that I got to go and enter in all these tickets, or I got to be writing down this clipboard and I got to be doing time. And yeah, I’m sure they’re kind of just looking at going, wow, why do I have to do this?

But because there are these other things kind of propping up the lifestyle of the job, which is really why people stay in jobs, quit jobs. When I say lifestyle again, I mean how you’re treated, how you’re managed, how you’re supervised, how you’re paid, all of those things make up the lifestyle of the job. I think we’re getting away with some of those things, being what they are and just becoming, again, people just kind of go native and they work for that small business and so many contractors are the 50, the 100, the 250 size business. It is so fractured. And so they just go, well, this is a great small business to work for and I feel safe and I feel valued, and so if I got to write on a clipboard, okay.

Sarah McGuire

Yeah. And I’ve heard this comparison before, if you’re a humanist and you’re thinking opportunistically about where AI can come into play, it’s not that it’s going to replace us, it’s not that it’s going to replace our jobs. Like you said, it’s a tool that still needs to be used by someone, but we do hear a lot, instead of thinking about dumbing down the workforce, think about how it’s going to level up the amount of expertise you actually need in order to do a job that is going to create a lot of impact.

One example of bridging that gap that I’ve heard before is regarding Uber coming into the industry and kind of disrupting taxis. We saw labor laws, we saw licensing requirements being a big, big topic, but another thing that was happening behind the scenes is all of a sudden we were now bridging the gap of expertise needed to drive around in streets that a London, England taxi driver 20 years ago would’ve been an expert on the streets, would’ve known exactly what streets to go down, what’s a one-way, what’s going to have the biggest traffic jam? Where are my traffic flows happening at what times and what streets to avoid? Now we have GPS, now we have all these analytics that are telling us what to do.

Unfortunately, the person whose expertise was so built on needing to know those things, the value of that has gone down a bit. But at the same time, we’ve now bridged the gap for a bigger labor class to come in and be able to do that without needing as much training and without needing as much expertise, which also in turn ends up being more lucrative or more possible for people like us to be able to afford to just Uber everywhere. A taxi in London, England 20, 30 years ago would’ve been so much more expensive than it is now because now it’s within reach. It’s just kind of how those things end up dissipating throughout the industry, I guess.

I’m curious to know from your perspective, because starting to see this, you’re at the forefront of digital change and you guys are leading the charge in a lot of ways. I guess we’re biased because you chose us to be a part of that movement, but I’m curious to know what you believe are going to be the most impactful technology changes that will happen throughout the next five to 10 years.

Erica Flukinger

I guess where my mind wanders on this is follow the data. So anywhere right now, there is today large sets of data where we can now start to look at that data. And now someone who never in your business got around to analyzing the past, you can now put AI on top of and can give you insights that again on a Sunday night, if you had time to go through all of your own data and were trying to splice and dice these more strategic questions, I think it’s pretty cool to think about if an AI is sitting on top of that data, and again, you’ve done all the work to cleanse that data or make it something that’s usable, how cool that you can actually be gleaning insights about history, performance, decisions you made, how you could have optimized things in reverse. So I just think almost, rather than looking to the future, how AI helps you better look at the past to help you then therefore make good decisions in the present in the future.

So I get excited just thinking about just how it’s going to be able to just scan things that we never had the time to scan and give us insights that we can choose to take or not. Like you mentioned before, these are just insights that are just being freely given to us for us again to use our human wisdom alongside that artificial intelligence. And so I get excited about that.

The idea of on-demand help, I mean imagine one day there’s nothing harder than onboarding employees. Think about how it will be for them to be able to seek help on what do I do next? Where do I go to find this? Who can help me do this? If AI gets to a place within your company where it has taken a hold of your processes, your policies, where information is stored and just makes it so navigable and just even on the day-to-day job site, I mean I just think communication is the biggest gap that we still struggle with as human beings. The more technology we get, we get better communication.

I mean, the example you gave earlier actually showed I think beautifully how you use technology to actually amplify human connection. Think about how we’re applying these principles correctly to again, our business processes and how it is that we will and forever will have people work for us. Because as society, we don’t want 40% of our jobs to go away. So I do think that business leaders, government leaders, community leaders will work to supplement people’s jobs.

And I hope as someone who believes so much in the power of training, we are working to just train as much as we can with the help of technology. In our dispatch offices, we record our customer service people, and what if all those call recordings, which we keep as a way to kind of have CYA and legal protection, but what if you actually have the AI listen to all of those and tell you, you know what, these are the top 10 situations a customer service rep will experience and this is how to best diffuse them. And then you train people to that standard. So rather than people fumble through how to do that job for the first six months, nine months, they reach productivity all the more quickly because you’ve used again, the past and AI’s gathering of that past to give you the answer more quickly and efficiently for you then to create productivity from it.

So I just get excited about how you’re going to add this to the mix with smart people who have context and passion and experience and history and combine it with new people that want to figure this stuff out, people like me who don’t have the context maybe in the industry and solve problems.

Sarah McGuire

I think what these examples that you’re giving are so perfect to alleviate that fear or at least get people thinking a bit differently because you are saying examples that have all been to enhance what somebody is already doing. You are not saying we’re going to use AI to replace the customer service personnel because I don’t know how some people do it, but I get onto the phone with some of these automated bots and I just say whatever I need to say until they get too confused and they route me to a real person. I am not speaking to something that’s automated and having to articulate it perfectly because I’m just not going to get what I want.

And at this point, I’ve had so many bad experiences that you could tell me it’s the perfect system ever. Don’t care, not giving it another go. And I am in that target demographic that you would think, oh, well, they’re more apt or they’re more willing to listen to this. No, I want to speak to a person, I want to treat them kindly because I know that when I’m nice to them, they’re going to be nicer to me and they’re going to do what I’ve asked them to do because I’ve said it nicely.

But you can actually train them to do better. You can train them so that they know based on the profile, they know exactly what to say to make somebody like me respond in a positive way. And by the way, I don’t know if it’s being used in customer service applications, but there is software now that is listening to phone calls and it’s giving signals on this person said this and this is a pain point that they want help with. So if you’re interested in any of that, we can share some of our resources because you’re right, it is these things that we’re using to enable.

I think I’ve seen a few companies, I hope that we can help them, but some of the companies that we’re working with, you can see that they are struggling so, so much with labor and finding quantity, quality, however you want to phrase it. They’re struggling so much that they’re hoping that technology can replace some of what humans would do. And I think it’s with good intention. I think the way that they’re trying to do it, I don’t think it’s going to work in the way that they want it to.

I think that anytime we just try to replace something, it’s almost like using an outside provider to just solve a problem for you. You always have to have somebody in-house liaising with them always. So that you might be able to get a heck of a lot more out of that one person that you have in your company by having them leverage your resources of everyone outside, but you’re not going to be able to completely replace the need for, I see these call centers that you can hire, not that we would ever do this, but you can hire call centers to call, call, call into places, book leads for you and your sales team. Well, they’re not going to replace our sales team, but they might be able to enhance them. I don’t really know of any companies that do that very well, to be honest, but these are the ones that I’m seeing at least on my forefront.

But this is ways that technology can be used to enable a person, but at the end of the day, we still need those people and anyone that’s going at the mindset that we’re going to replace people altogether, they’re probably going to get bulldozed over.

Erica Flukinger

And isn’t that, it’s so fascinating because as you were talking, I was thinking about how isn’t that solutioning applying the same mental model to the fact, and what I mean by that is that, okay, we have an existing business process. We don’t have a person to do it, so let’s replace them with the quote equivalent of a person. And this is where most technology projects fail is they just try to digitize an existing process. Well, that sounds expensive, not going to be the same as the original. And that’s exciting about this time is don’t you see that maybe people are going to actually solve the problem by not replacing it and actually just re-imagining how this work gets done differently.

Sarah McGuire

I think that’s a perfect example, and it brings up a topic that has been brought up already a couple times on this series is drivers. We all know that we have been really short on drivers, and I’ve heard few too many people say, well, self-driving vehicles are coming into the market soon. First of all, it’s going to take a very long time to get people to use those for personal use. Once again, I can promise you I have never bought a new vehicle before. That’s the only reason I haven’t even looked at an electric vehicle because I don’t know what a used market for electric vehicles is going to look like in the next few years to come, but kind of dependent on a battery, which becomes very expensive to replace. So that’s an interesting one that we haven’t made a jump to any electric vehicles yet for that one purpose. I don’t buy new vehicles.

So then when the new vehicles come in and all of a sudden we start getting into the self-driving way because I think it is inevitable to a degree, just to what degree is yet to be seen. But then we think that all of a sudden we’re going to have trucks that are carrying loads of concrete that could kill people in an instant upon impact, and that’s going to replace by self-driving vehicles. Certainly not in the next couple of decades. I don’t see that happening at all. I would be amazed if that happened by the time I retired. I think it would be interesting. I think we could see it in certain markets, but we’re not going to see it on a widespread, so we’re always going to have this driver issue.

When people are talking about using technology to solve that issue, they’re not talking about it in a way, or at least what I’ve heard. The productive way of speaking about it isn’t replace those people, but it’s take away some of the very complicated aspects that make their job really, really difficult. Instead of making them a driver of a concrete truck, just make them a driver. Just make it easy for them to drive the truck to and from, not be responsible for everything that goes into every load, every customer interaction, or make it a lot easier for them to get through that day-to-day instead of them being the ones that we’re relying on to decide is there enough water in that truck today?

That’s the type of variability that we might be able to get over and it might make their jobs easier. It might make it easier to recruit people and train them and on board them and put them into that profession. But there’s a lot of people that also don’t see that that’s possible. And because then there’s a theory that I guess driver engagement might go down. It’s an interesting one, but I don’t know if that’s something that Heidelberg is working on or if you’ve seen with some of your customers, are they doing a good job at kind of supplementing what the drivers are having to do with technology that makes it easier for them to do their job effectively?

Erica Flukinger

They’re the most central role to what we do. They’re the last and the first stop of customer contact. They’re the most prevalent job we have on the payroll, and I know when other producers listen, they’ll feel the same way. And so it’s so central to think about the quality of life that they have being that driver. And I think, again, this goes back to really understanding their lifestyle. And I know there was a concern in the beginning when we were rolling out this mobile app about what it would mean for dispatch customer service, but then we thought about the driver. We thought about, wow, if we can manage expectations on the front end and that customer is getting true visibility to the truck and the first truck arrives, what are the odds that that driver gets cussed out? Very low.

Sarah McGuire

Yeah. It’s going to be incredible to see how that can progress. This has been really, really interesting. Hopefully people have learned from this, but Erica, as an expert in leading change through digital, through people management, whatever that might be in different organizations, what would be your main advice for an individual or a company that’s listening to this thinking, I am really behind the curve right now and I don’t know where to start?

Erica Flukinger

I definitely think to educate yourself with the abundance of information out there and to get experimental with this. So if you haven’t tried any AI technologies, look around and notice that they’re already in the software that you use every day. So if you are on a Microsoft product, if you use Google on your phone, start to notice and pay attention to where these assistants or things that could again give you a bit of a shortcut or help you out is an example of AI, is an example of how it’s already going on around you and every advertisement you’ve seen for the last 20 years is as well. It’s already going on. It’s happening to us, but now it can be more of a tool in our lives.

So I would say there’s just power in going out there and there’s great coursework in the space. I think Google publishes a lot of great coursework. I think even going out on YouTube and just educating yourself just with thought leaders and people out there that are really kind of on the forefront of where the creative work is going with AI, it’s just, again, it allows you to just kind of open up and see where it’s going. But of course, I think staying very well-connected to thought leaders on LinkedIn, I would encourage, I like to subscribe to something called Morning Brew, which I learned about from someone in our industry whose parents were in the industry, and that’s how he keeps a pulse on business and where technology is going. So it’s a great little resource there that just kind of gives always me kind of a pulse for the day of what’s happening in the world.

I think this can be just where you’re just starting to pull at that technology and then talk to, I would say, the young people in your life and understand what they’re learning about it in school, what technology they’re being encouraged to try in school, what they’re pulling down naturally, and they’re learning about through their own connected platforms. It’s only going to have more and more examples as this technology grows up and as I said, reaches adulthood and starts to become more and more part of our lives.

But just think about every other time technology transformed. I mean, I think about sometimes how someone went to work one morning and they were told, hey, you’re going to start using this thing called email. There’s been a resilience in the workforce for people that are in the workforce today that they’ve had to adopt to other kind of turnings in technology. This is just another one. It’s just one that yes, is big and has a lot of hype and could mean a lot of things, but we can only take it one day at a time and understand that customers, and by customers, I mean companies are slow to adapt. So it’s not coming for your job just yet. You got a while.

Sarah McGuire

Yeah. Erica, I have one more question for you. We just gave some really good advice for people that are looking to adopt change. What about the young interns and the young leaders that are coming into the workforce? What would you advise those that are getting rushed straight in with the lack of change?

Erica Flukinger

I would say to realize you have an immense opportunity to be a huge problem solver for the place you’re in and that you work at a company regardless of the size. And this is where I think our industry serves a great advantage, is how small some of these businesses are, which means you’re close to the owner, you’re close to the GM or the president, and that if you can solve a problem on one project with one crew, I mean every single project is an opportunity to try something. And you don’t have to do it across the whole company. It doesn’t have to be wildly adopted. You can just have and make success with one place at one time.

And so you have an immense opportunity that if you learn about technology, something going on in the industry, something you’ve heard it from another contractor, why not influence to try something? Why not be the one to say, you know what? I’ll make this happen, or I’ll talk to my peers, or I’ll get the guys excited about this, whatever that is. And you can actually be a problem solver and you can start to plug and pull technology into the business because it is an empty and open field to do so. And I think that that should get someone excited to realize that it’s an opportunity to show leadership and people should take it.

Sarah McGuire

What a wonderful way to wrap up, Erica. Thank you so much for being on the podcast and sharing all of your insights. I will be subscribing to Morning Brew now because of that note. I think that is a great tip, and it’s just those little things that we can do every day to just kind of stay on top of the charge. So thank you so much Erica for joining, and I look forward to when I see you next.

Erica Flukinger

Yeah, thank you. Good luck everyone.

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