When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, construction company McConnell Dowell was 24 months into an IT transformation. The crisis allowed the business’s technology team to test the system it had put in place and forced the firm to accelerate scheduled implementations. 

The company says it also discovered new use cases it didn’t envisage or plan for. 

With operations in Australia, New Zealand, and throughout South East Asia and the Pacific Islands, McConnell Dowell specialises in construction projects for mostly highly technical and/or complex solutions in disciplines including civil, marine, tunnelling, rail, pipelines and building.

Heinrich Kukkuk, Group General Manager of IT McConnell Dowell, spoke with Which-50 about how the company responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.

All McConnell Dowell employees across the globe were working from home within a day or two when they needed to, with almost no configuration required thanks to solutions that aligned with a work ‘anywhere, anytime’ IT philosophy introduced prior to the pandemic.

“We were monitoring systems rather than trying to set them up for working from home interventions,” Kukkuk said.

With various restrictions and social distancing practices placed on the operational sites, only those workers who are essential to the project delivery are permitted to enter the site. Stakeholders who would normally visit sites to conduct inspections or reviews for safety or environmental management are now visiting much less.

Kukkuk explained the company overcame these limitations by developing a method to conduct virtual site visits using Microsoft Teams, a mobile phone gimbal, and a pair of wireless headphones. The team members who are allowed onsite can now do a site walk while multiple stakeholders virtually participate from remote locations.

“They could also record the site visit so that people who weren’t able to attend in real-time could then view it afterward,” Kukkuk said. 

A Transformation Plan

Much of the technology the construction company relied upon for its business continuity plans was put in place over the last 24 months.

McConnell Dowell is in the midst of a three-phase IT strategy that began with implementing an underlying core technology platform that was efficient, scaled well and was cost-effective to run. That involved migrating on-premise workloads to hybrid private and public cloud platforms, rearchitecting the entire network, and implementing software-defined networking, amongst other initiatives. 

On the security front, the business implemented active and passive solutions including VPNs and next-generation firewalls at its three core data centre locations in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.

The second phase focused on introducing collaboration and communication tools on top of the strong fundamental architecture.

“For us what that meant included fully deploying numerous Office 365 products. We are a cloud- and Microsoft-first, but not only, company,” Kukkuk said. 

“A key driver was to get the highest possible return on our Microsoft investment as possible, so we deployed pretty much everything. We already had Office 365 and Skype for Business so we extended use to SharePoint, Yammer, Teams and later, Dynamics 365.”

The company uses Sharepoint for document management which allows it to collaborate with partners who aren’t employees but still need access to information.

“There was a lot of change management required around those solutions and, within the context of our philosophy that anyone must be able to work anywhere, anytime. ‘Anyone’ for us is really important in that we have a lot of joint venture and alliance partners.

“So we needed to architect our solutions to be able to allow them to access our systems, but only to those resources they should have access to,” Kukkuk said.

The company was at the end of the second phase of the strategy when COVID-19 hit.

“It’s been a really big test for us of both from a scalability and resilience perspective,” Kukkuk said.

The system held up so well that while McConnell Dowell was enacting its business continuity plans the company continued with its scheduled disaster recovery tests.

“We had to have a lot of confidence in the resilience and capabilities of our systems and teams to be able to do that.”

Cybersecurity & Future Priorities

As the crisis hit, the company threw additional resources into cybersecurity awareness. It accelerated a planned deployment of multi-factor authentication within the first week and ran a series of security awareness videos for its staff.

McConnell Dowell also conducted more thorough scans of the network and called in additional support and services from external parties.

“We put a lot of emphasis on security because the last thing we want while trying to cope with COVID-19 and the new ways of working [is a breach], especially not having almost any control of each individual’s personal working environments for example what wi-fi they are using. Let’s put as much effort into cybersecurity as we can everywhere else we have control.”

The third and final phase of McConnell Dowell’s IT transformation involves the modernisation and transformation of its core transactional systems. 

Kukkuk said outside the initial response the crisis hasn’t materially changed any of his projects. However, it has realigned short term priorities behind “what is important.”

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