Finnish construction company YIT opens a virtual IT test lab

Finnish construction company YIT has opened a lab to allow its staff test out their digital ideas

Finnish construction company YIT has created a virtual test laboratory to support its digital developments.

While the lab is driven by its IT organisation, it is open for use by any of the company’s 6,000 employees.

“We discussed for some time how we could speed up our development processes and bring more experimentation into it,” YIT CIO Vesa Pirinen, told ComputerWeekly. “[We realised] we needed a model where people are free to not only experiment with different things, but also to fail – and they can use work hours and spend money to do so.” 

The aim of the test lab, “YIT Garage” as the company calls it, is to quickly try out ideas which could later be turned into digital products and services to improve customer experience or internal processes.

The test lab projects are kept short – one to two weeks – and while YIT’s employees are given free rein over their experimentations, the process is not entirely without bureaucracy. One requirement for working on an idea in the virtual test lab is to find a partner from YIT’s business departments. Once a trial is finished, the process is documented and the final product is presented to a small advisory group.

“They look at the outcomes and estimate which ones are worth taking further,” said Pirinen. “Some of these ‘godmothers and fathers’ are from IT and some from the business. Together we estimate whether it is something that drives the company forward and offers something new to our customers.”

Two projects have been assessed under the model since it was introduced in December 2015, and another is ongoing. The first one – adding augmented reality (AR) to YIT’s marketing materials – is to be developed further.

“I did a quick mock campaign for YIT [where I used AR technology] and presented it both to our IT and the business department,” said Benjamin Söderblom, systems specialist at YIT. “It proved to be popular, and now we are thinking about how to get it into wider production.”

The challenge of encouraging staff attitude change

Key to YIT’s virtual test lab is removing technological restrictions. If the company does not have the necessary technology, it is implemented for the experiment using, for instance, free trial periods offered by service providers. 

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“The lab isn’t tied into any specific technology and people can freely use anything outside our current system architecture,” said Pirinen. “The idea is not to make small improvements to our existing systems, but to do completely new experiments.”

But it is not technology which has proven to be the challenge. While similar models at IBM and Microsoft were the inspiration for the test lab, the working culture in a construction company can be very different.

The lab isn’t tied into any specific technology and people can freely use anything outside our current system architecture. The idea is not to make small improvements to our existing systems, but to do completely new experiments
Vesa Pirinen, YIT

“People are used to us doing business projects where there is no room for failure. The biggest challenge [for employees] is to find the courage to experiment,” said Pirinen. “YIT has a strong culture of project management and pre-planning – this creates a mental obstacle.”

Currently the main goal for the test lab is to encourage people to take on the opportunity, but later in the year YIT will also start measuring how many of the ideas lead to new products or services.

“Not everybody needs to use Garage and not everybody will. It stems from a person’s own enthusiasm and having an idea they want to drive forward,” said Pirinen.

The important thing for YIT is to enable an IT environment where trial and error is embraced. ................ ................... ....................... ...................................

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