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Change is the ‘norm’

Posted: 26th June 2013

It doesn’t seem so long ago that I started working life in a small architectural and surveying consultancy in Thorpe Bay in Essex. I spent happy years stretching over a double-elephant drawing board (what’s one of them?) – my back has never been the same since! I subsequently enjoyed a good many years in practice as an Architectural Technologist with a good few projects under my belt. I then moved into further education and spent a number of years as a Senior College Lecturer helping to educate new entrants into the industry. All the while I served my professional body – even co-authoring a book ‘Architectural Technology – The Constructive Link’ – even then I was looking to find a way of bringing design and construction together. I’ve spent the last 21 years working at the Building Centre – first working with, and then leading, the Construction Industry Standing Conference; and finally, since 1999, working as Director of Skills & Lifelong Learning at CIC (47 years of change in a few sentences!).

However, working in the construction and built environment sector hasn’t been a ‘sentence’ (in every sense of the word!). Certainly there have been daunting problems aplenty, but on the other hand, it has given me the opportunity to operate alongside some of the most dedicated people that one could wish to work with – serving their organisations, their disciplines, their industry and its people, and society at large. It’s also always astounding to see the sector overcoming all manner of barriers to produce buildings and infrastructure of the highest order.

What a great industry – and what a sometimes frustrating and challenging one it is too. Which brings me back to the subject of change:

• When I started as a junior technician, my first task was to help introduce my Practice to the new metric system (they figured someone straight out of the education system would be best placed to initiate those schooled in imperial measurement – 3 metres of 4” x 2” anybody!?).

• When I moved into lecturing, one of my tasks was to introduce students to the newly emerging concept of Computer-Aided-Design (they figured someone straight out of industry would be best placed to initiate those fresh out of school into new technology.)

• As I leave the industry, one of my final tasks has been to help to set the pattern for educating the sector into Building Information Modelling (BIM) (they figured someone who had a little experience in practice, education and working with the professions – and National Occupational Standards (NOS), might be usefully placed to help facilitate an industry that often struggles to come to terms with change).

My experience over the last 21 years with CISC and CIC has certainly enabled me to view the industry from a semi-independent perspective. I see a sector that, despite confronting, and in many cases overcoming, the many technological, procurement, contractual, legislative, procedural, economic and social changes, is still wedded to operating in occupational/ discipline silos (some of which still have their origins in the middle ages!).

There is an old adage which says that:
• in manufacturing, the people and resources go into the factory, the product is made and then distributed and sold; the factory, people and resources then repeat the process.

• with construction, the people and resources go into the factory (site), the one-off product is made and stays where it is; the factory, people and resources move on to form a completely new hybrid arrangement for the next one-off product. Given this degree of change, is it any wonder that there is plentiful opportunity for things to be inefficient and for problems to occur.

If the construction sector has changed, then the world of vocational education has changed in equally dramatic fashion. The problem here is that every Government has its own ideas about what is needed in education. So again, change is the norm –

• there are constant changes of policy, quangos and funding approaches come and go

• systems, qualification frameworks and databases (often designed without any thought for how information is to be used) are introduced, require a plethora of bureaucratic and costly ‘support’ arrangements, and are then overtaken by the next ‘new’ idea.

No wonder those in industry are turned off and confused by the whole process and cry out for some consistency. Yet education, training and competence – the areas that I have been most concerned with, are vital to support an industry that itself needs to recognise the worth of ‘lifelong learning’ if it to cope with change. As a former colleague of mine often said to the sceptics – if you think training is costly, try ignorance!

What I have advocated for the last 21 years is an industry tool that will provide the consistency: *1 National Occupational Standards (NOS). Despite a huge amount of investment of funding from Government over the years, matched by an equally huge amount of time input from industry practitioners, NOS remain the constant reference point for the sector’s people in a sea of change in industry and education. Those who know me well, will probably smile knowingly at this point! I make no apologies for saying that I still believe more than ever, that these Standards remain potentially one of the most valuable tools available (free!) to all in the sector – from new entrant trainees, to the most experienced employer, and to those who set the industry’s strategy.

Despite the rant, I do see continuing signs of progress in the worlds of industry, education and skills supporting continual improvement. Before CISC and CIC existed, the extensive number of professional and representative organisations in the industry barely talked to each other – at least they do that now. However, regardless of Latham and Egan and many other initiatives, a fully collaborative industry still seems someway off.

My twin hopes rest with collaborative BIM in industry and NOS in education – adopt both and we will yet have a world-beating industry. I’ve tried over the last 20 or so years in a very small way, to try and help to bring this often fragmented industry together. My sincere thanks to the many hundreds of people I have worked with over the years and my present colleagues, for your help, support, co-operation and friendship My parting plea is to continue in that vein and make this the world-beating sector it deserves to be, filled with competent people who work together across discipline boundaries for the good of all.

I intend to make good use of my new retirement opportunities – change is again the norm – lots of ‘projects’ and targets planned, but first taking an extended 3 month holiday this autumn with my wife Glynis, to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and America.

*1 The Functional Map and National Occupational Standards that CISC and now CIC, have maintained over the last 20 years , provide the highest common denominator benchmark for the competence and learning of professional, managerial and technical roles across the built environment. Ignore them and their multiple uses at your peril!

Contributor: David Cracknell; former Director of Skills & Lifelong Learning for CIC.