The North Face and Leo Burnett Tailor Made join the Wikipedia hall of shame

Cape point South AfricaNews today (see The Guardian, The Drum, for example) that marketing agency Leo Burnett Tailor Made (part of the multinational Publicis marketing and public relations agency group) has manipulated Wikipedia on behalf of its client, outdoor apparel manufacturer The North Face, has spectacularly backfired.  The North Face has been forced to apologise for its campaign, while Leo Burnett Tailor Made has also achieved new notoriety and, in Wikipedia terms, possibly unwanted ‘notability’.

The campaign

wikipedia-logoA gloating video on AdAge highlights how Leo Burnett Tailor Made tried to exploit Google’s search engine rankings for a range of outdoor locations popular with walkers, climbers and other outdoors types. As images used on Wikipedia frequently top the search pages, they set out to replace the existing images with new images featuring athletes wearing the brand at each of the chosen locations. These included Brazil’s Guarita State Park and Farol do Mampimptuba, Cuillin in Scotland and Peru’s Huayna Picchu. The new images were then uploaded to the Wikimedia Commons (“a collection of 54,094,341 freely usable media files to which anyone can contribute“) in early April and used to replace the existing images in the articles. Photos that once showed magnificent scenery now had The North Face people and/or products cluttering up the natural splendor.

Cropped The North Face imageUser Gmortaia, for example, uploaded six images to the Commons and then added them to various pages during mid and late-April. These images have since either been replaced by the previous images, or in some case have been cropped so that logos or products no longer appear in the image. My friend and fellow Wikipedian, PigsOnTheWing, was one of those who edited one of Gmortaia’s images (right – without logo) – as Wikipedia cheerfully warns, “any contributions can and will be mercilessly edited”. (Gmortaia and 12 other user accounts have also been indefinitely blocked from editing, with ‘Global Blocks’ across all Wiki projects under consideration).

The AdAge article says agency felt the biggest obstacle of the campaign was updating the photos without attracting attention of Wikipedia ‘moderators’ to sustain the brand’s presence for as long as possible, as site editors could change them at any time. The campaign had some shortlived success, but its impact may be more damaging in the long run.

The Wikipedia hall of shame

Both companies now feature on a Wikipedia page about Conflict-of-interest editing on Wikipedia. Articles about The North Face and Leo Burnett Tailor Made* also now include details of the controversial campaign.

Leo Burnett Tailor Made therefore joins a group of notorious marketing agencies and PR consultancies – including UK-based Bell Pottinger (now defunct) and Portman Communications – that have sought to manipulate Wikipedia on behalf of their clients, and ended up with their COI activities recorded in Wikipedia articles about them (with Wikipedia’s SEO power ensuring that the articles feature prominently should prospective clients ever want to learn more about the agencies concerned).

My professional body, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, has condemned the agency’s actions. Citing the CIPR’s best practice guidance to PR professionals (which I helped draft; see previous post), CIPR President Emma Leech said:

CIPR logoIt is wholly unethical for PR or creative professionals to make changes to Wikipedia entries on behalf of a client. The rules are clear and ignorance is not an excuse. You wouldn’t expect to be given access to the back end of a news site to make changes and the same applies to Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s commitment to neutrality must be respected and its rules upheld at all times.”

(It is probably time for the CIPR guidelines to be updated. Some of these recent examples of unethical practice might usefully be included to show what needs to be avoided, with the longer-term implications spelt out.)

* Disclosure/update (2.45pm BST, 31 May 2019) – At the time of writing, Wikipedia editors were discussing merging the Leo Burnett Tailor Made article, to which I had contributed, with that about its parent Leo Burnett Worldwide.

Construction and social mobility

“There’s a business case for tackling the issue of social mobility” says Making The Leap’s Carmen Antiqueira, who wants more construction businesses to showcase their achievements in the Social Mobility Awards 2019.

Social Mobility Awards logoOn 19 March, I attended a business seminar about social mobility, organised by Making the Leap, a London-based charity that improves social mobility by raising the aspirations of, and increasing opportunities for, young people between the ages of 11 and 25. The event, held at the Law Society, also launched the third edition of the UK Social Mobility Awards, which recognise and celebrate the efforts of the people and organisations leading the way in this endeavour.

Having been involved in various construction skills and diversity initiatives, and also helped organise CIPR construction and property group (CAPSIG) events on women in construction PR and on social value, I can see how social mobility can be encouraged by construction businesses. The event highlighted the benefits to businesses of widening their net:

Social mobility enables less ‘group think’ and greater innovation,” said Professor Anthony Heath, of Oxford’s Centre for Social Investigation at Nuffield College, adding: “Social mobility is about social justice – and should be a fundamental value in society, avoiding us wasting talent.”

Panellists at the event spoke from personal experience about how their lives had been transformed by being given life chances by enlightened organisations who didn’t focus solely on formal qualifications but looked at the attitudes, behaviours and non-academic talents of the individual. Banker Steven Cooper, for example, said: “Social mobility is good for business because it really enhanced our brand, far more than advertising our products(read more about the seminar here).

Social Mobility Awards 2019

Since that event, I have spoken to Making The Leap’s Carmen Antiqueira about encouraging construction businesses who invest in social mobility to highlight their achievements by entering the 2019 Awards. She explained:

photo of Carmen Antiqueira“Construction companies are not only choosing to devote attention to one of our society’s biggest problems, but they are also recognising there’s a business case for tackling the issue of social mobility. Momentum is building behind the cause, and it has attracted universal support across sectors and the political spectrum.

“The construction industry has a key role to play and organisations with an active interest in this all-important arena can now celebrate what they are doing by entering the UK Social Mobility Awards. Established to recognise the forward-thinking organisations who are doing something to promote social mobility, the awards recognise best practice and innovation, and encourage cross-sector collaboration.

“The awards have drawn in an impressive array of entries from across regions and sectors, and the list of past winners includes Wates, the Civil Service and Greene King. The initiative also counts the government, the Social Mobility Commission, DWP and the Institute for Apprenticeships amongst its supporters.”

If your organisation is proud of what it is doing to advance social mobility, then enter these awards now.  For any enquiries about entering, please contact Carmen (carmen.antiqueira@mtl.org.uk) to find out more. Entries close on 28th June 2019.

One in three construction practitioners do not have easy access to the knowledge they need

A survey carried out by the UK’s Construction Knowledge Task Group has found that a third of construction practitioners do not have easy access to the knowledge they need.

easy access to knowledgeFeedback from 299 practitioners from every part of the industry, found almost two fifths (38.5%) said they did not have easy access to all the knowledge they need to do their job.  Practitioners also admitted they use less-trusted knowledge sources more frequently than more-trusted knowledge sources, with web searches and free online resources accounting for almost half of all the knowledge accessed.

Other key findings include:

  • Cost and sign-up forms are significant barriers to accessing knowledge, particularly for SMEs.
  • Practitioners are unaware of much of the knowledge that is available, they are overwhelmed by how much knowledge there is and frustrated by how fragmented it is.
  • There is a ‘them and us’ culture separating those in the knowledge loop from those stuck on the outside.
  • There is a need for quick and straightforward access to knowledge on demand.

knowledge sources trust graphThe survey (full results here) also revealed that designers access industry knowledge up to four times more frequently than decision makers such as clients and project managers, and that the most frequently-accessed knowledge is practical, specific guidance that supports day-to-day activities. Less specific, traditional ‘learning’ material is not as popular.

The survey, which ran at the end of 2018, was intended to help the Construction Knowledge Task Group steer its work, improving the way industry knowledge is prepared, accessed and applied. It was distributed to the membership and other networks of the organisations that form the Task Group.

Ann Bentley, Global Board Director at Rider Levett Bucknall, and Member of the Construction Leadership Council said:

“… Practitioners have embraced the internet and are seeking out easy-to-access, easy-to-apply knowledge. The industry needs to make sure they find what they are looking for. This means bringing knowledge into 21st century and taking a more collaborative and systematic approach to how it is prepared and shared. BIM has shown how this can be done for data and information, but knowledge is still stuck in the past.”

Convenor of the Task Group, architect Dr Gregor Harvie (and developer of the Designing Buildings website – post) said:

“Construction is a knowledge-based industry. Knowledge helps spread best practice, promote innovation and prevent mistakes. But this important survey reveals that all too often practitioners are unaware of what is available, or they do not have easy access to it. As a result, knowledge has less impact on the ground than it should.”

The survey suggests the future should be one in which knowledge is better integrated, less siloed, more easy-to-access and available through flexible subscriptions and intelligent search tools. The Task Group will be meeting this month (January 2019) to discuss how to move forward.

The Construction Knowledge Task Group (CKTG) was established in 2018 to make it as easy as possible for practitioners and other industry stakeholders to find, access and apply the right knowledge at the right time. Its members include representatives from; the Construction Leadership Council, CIOB, ICE, RIBA, RICS, i3P, BSRIA, CIAT, CIBSE, UKGBC, BRE, Arup, Rider Levett Bucknall, University of Dundee, Polypipe, The Get It Right Initiative, Cundall, Designing Buildings Wiki, AEC3 UK, Invennt and Stroma.

Earlier, in September 2017, Designing Buildings analysis suggested the knowledge framework underpinning the construction industry is no longer fit for purpose.

Update (14 January 2019) – Journalist George Dimetri has been appointed editor of Designing Buildings.

UK launches first ‘data trust’ pilots

New approaches to building trust in AI and in open data have been announced. I will be awaiting ‘data trust’ developments in my local borough with interest.

InfluenceIn September I participated in a round table discussion for the CIPR‘s Influence magazine about artificial intelligence, AI (the outputs from that conversation will be published in the Q4 issue of the magazine shortly) – part of an ongoing discussion within the CIPR about the potential impacts of AI on ethical professional PR practice and on wider media and society at large (read more about the CIPR’s #AIinPR panel).

Part of that Influence discussion focused on use of UK-published ‘open data’ by journalists to generate news stories, and – as I had previously written a CIPR best practice guide to open data and delivered a CIPR webinar – I repeated my view that PR professionals increasingly need to be data-literate to operate in the 21st century and to work with ‘data journalists’ such as those at the Press Association’s RADAR service (news item).

I have been thinking about Open data and AI again today after reading that the Open Data Institute will be working within central and local government (including my local council in the Royal Borough of Greenwich) on a series of ‘data trust’ pilots. The ODI be leading a data trust project with the Mayor of London in Greenwich using real-time data.

The new pilot projects will establish if this new approach – where a legal structure provides independent third-party stewardship of data – is useful in managing and safeguarding data, for instance, data about cities, the environment, biodiversity, and transport.

The Government’s Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright said:

“We are a world-leader in artificial intelligence and our modern Industrial Strategy puts pioneering technologies at the heart of our plans to build a Britain which is fit for the future. But it is crucial that the public have confidence it is being used to improve people’s lives and we have the right expertise and framework in place to maximise its potential.

“I am pleased we have secured global leaders from academia and industry to work alongside us as we develop the world’s first Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation and explore the potential of data trusts.”

Chief Executive of the Open Data Institute (ODI), Jeni Tennison, announced that it will also be working on a further pilot project to prototype a data trust with the Mayor of London and the Royal Borough of Greenwich. City Hall is working with the ODI on data trusts as part of its Smarter London Together Roadmap to support AI and protect ‘privacy by design’ for Londoners.

This Greenwich project will focus on real time data from IoT and sensors, and will investigate how this data could be shared with innovators in the technology sector to create solutions to city challenges.

Future data trusts could take advantage of the Urban Sharing Platform that the Mayor of London and the Royal Borough of Greenwich are developing together in their Sharing Cities programme. The platform enables the collection and sharing of live data from the city, for example: energy use, parking space occupancy and weather, while maintaining the privacy and security of Londoners.

The pilots are the first of their kind in the UK. The Open Data Institute will work in the open and with other organisations and experts from around the world to explore the model. Following the pilot projects, the Open Data Institute will make proposals for the use of data trusts in future.

The ODI defines a data trust as ‘a legal structure that provides independent third-party stewardship of data’. This structure and stewardship provides benefits to a group of organisations or people. Those benefits might include enabling them to create new businesses, helping research a medical disease, or empowering a community of workers, consumers or citizens.

Jeni Tennison, CEO at the Open Data Institute said:

“In 2018 we have become much more aware of who has access to data – data about ourselves, our family, our friends and our work. While we see many benefits from the use of data, such as being able to find local exercise classes using data from leisure centres thanks to OpenActive, or plan a train journey quickly and easily with an app using route and timetable data, there has also been misuse and harm, as we saw in the case of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Data trusts are a potential new way to help realise the benefits while preventing the harm. We’re keen to explore them to find out where they might be useful. ”

Suspended by Twitter

A frustrating 15 hours without Twitter following a seemingly random suspension.

As I am on most working weekdays, I was up and at my desk bright and early yesterday morning, filing a few daily photos to my Blipfoto photographic blog, before dealing with some emails and heading out to an event at the Institution of Civil Engineers. In my inbox was an ominous email from Twitter – “Your Twitter account has been suspended“:

Twitter suspension

SuspendedAs I had never even been suspended, being suspended for apparently trying to evade permanent suspension seemed more than a bit excessive – in fact, it was sheer nonsense. Twitter’s email was sent at 07:18am, one minute after Blipfoto had shared my photo of a bakery shop in Blackheath – hardly something warranting suspension, but suddenly I had no Twitter voice. When I logged on to Twitter, my home page confirmed I had been suspended – I shared a photo via Instagram (not a platform I use that often, but in the absence of Twitter, it helped get word out to a few friends) and it appeared on my personal Facebook page.

In the meantime, I had to go through the process of lodging an appeal, but it meant I spent a frustrating day without Twitter (a tool I use often when attending events – yesterday morning, for example, I was at a Construction Industry Council economics and policy briefing, which had lots of tweetable soundbites from the Construction Products Association’s Noble Francis, Sarah McMonagle of the Federation of Master Builders and Jonathan Spruce from Transport for the North).

Last night just after 10pm, I checked Twitter again and – after a 15-hour suspension – my account was finally working again. I tweeted a tentative “test”. It worked! Although it initially looked as though my followers and accounts followed had been decimated, by this morning, a full 24 hours later, my account was seemingly back to its former health (though it appears I lost around 20 followers).

But, so far, I have heard nothing from Twitter about why my account was suspended. Perhaps an overactive bot took offence at being shown a Blackheath baker…. Anyone else ever had a similar experience?

Platinum guides PRs on Wikipedia

Last week saw the launch of ‘Platinum’, a book celebrating 70 years of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).

The book includes 45 essays providing an insight into contemporary PR practice, alongside the history of the formation and development of the CIPR. Written by a diverse group of practitioners, working in a broad range of organisations, the book is divided into five sections:

  • Performance: The impact of practicing public relations as a management discipline on modern organisations
  • Perspective: Reflections on the CIPR’s history and its communities
  • Potential: Exploring the future of the profession such as automation, artificial intelligence, and tools
  • Practice: A discussion of modern areas of public relations
  • Provocation: Exploring issues related to the future of the profession

wikipedia-logoI have provided a chapter of the book in the Practice section, having pitched the idea for a chapter on Wikipedia to editor Stephen Waddington a year ago. I have covered some of the issues relating to PRs’ conflicts of interest in editing Wikipedia articles about their employers or clients in previous blog posts (here, for example; I briefly repeat the same cautions and point to the same CIPR advice), but I also try to explain other ways in which PR people can constructively engage with Wiki projects and the Wiki community in general:

 

  • “For the individual practitioner, it can help hone the rapid production of clear, accurate and concise prose, backed by verifiable sources (useful in debunking ‘fake news’); and it can improve knowledge of people, places, organisations and other notable subjects (and of what constitutes notability) relating to other parts of industry or society.
  • “For campaigns, Wikipedia ‘editathons’ and a ‘Wikipedian in Residence’ can be used to expand the breadth and depth of coverage regarding an institution and its activities – the BBC, for example, has run events to increase the number of articles about notable women, countering a historical bias towards white males, while the Wellcome Trust employed a Wikipedian to improve content relating to the history of medicine.
  • “Moreover, the wider Wiki projects movement is also helping to democratise ‘open knowledge’ – Wikimedia Commons provides a library of over 47 million media files that are free to use, for example. Organisations can contribute to the Commons by releasing images and other content for free reuse; for example, the UK Parliament distributes images under a Creative Commons licence allowing their reuse including publication on Wikipedia. Such approaches allow organisations to influence how pages about them or their people look without directly editing them. …”

You can order the book on Kindle or paperback.

Other authors have been, or will be, blogging about their participation. Search #CIPR70 on social media to find out more, or visit the CIPR newsroom.

PR: proud, practical, not propagandists

CIPR CAPSIG research regarding women in construction PR and marketing showed considerable pride in working in the sector, and recommended some changes to help develop a better, more diverse industry. Colleges and others are also taking practical steps – not turning into propagandists with another ‘lipstick on a pig’ campaign.

CAPSIGlogo-2014The image of construction has been on my mind again lately. On Tuesday 11 September 2018, it was my last task as chair* of the Chartered Institute of Public RelationsConstruction and Property Special Interest Group to invite my committee colleague Jo Field to introduce CAPSIG’s report on research into the experiences and attitudes of women who work in construction and property PR and marketing.

Survey fieldwork began in February 2018 and JFG communications gathered 163 responses from women working in communication and marketing roles across the construction and property sectors. The questionnaire responses were then augmented by a series of in-depth interviews with a subset of the research sample.

You’ve got to accentuate the positive …

The survey report – launched at Bentley Systems’ offices in the City of London – found women overwhelmingly reported felt proud to work in the construction sector. Almost 90% of those who took part agreed the construction sector offers a wide range of interesting projects to work on. However, the industry needs to ‘shout’ more about the great things it is doing and the exciting projects it offers, according to those questioned. Field said:

Jo Field“This is the first time research has been carried out with the niche group of women who work in construction PR.

“The level of pride women feel at working in the sector despite is fantastic. The women who took part were especially proud to be involved in an industry that shapes the world around us. The more women thought there are a wide range of interesting projects to work on, the more proud they felt working in the sector.

Those who took part also felt the industry is changing for the better and said they were proud to be part of making a positive change.”

Eliminate the negative …

CIPR women in construction PR infographicHowever, women’s perceptions of construction industry culture were slightly more negative, with over three-quarters (76%) believing the sector is ‘macho’. Less than two in five (38%) believe the sector is an attractive place for women to work and only 14% of those questioned believe women and men are treated equally.

When asked about gender issues in construction, a large proportion of women (61%) reported experiencing unconscious bias. ‘Conscious’ bias was also reported, where women were subjected to jokes about ‘making the coffee’ or ‘making the sandwiches’.

According to those questioned, the construction sector has been slow to adapt to flexible working, even though over four-fifths (88%) of those who took part thought more flexible working would attract women into the industry.

The survey findings also revealed a lack of mentors and sponsors for women in construction PR. Four-fifths of those questioned did not have a mentor or a sponsor but over half (54%) would like one. The CAPSIG report recommended five areas where support could be improved:

  1. Promote and encourage flexible working
  2. Support the sector to promote and provide women’s staff network groups
  3. Support the sector to promote a positive image
  4. Launch a mentoring scheme
  5. Provide a service to help members address challenges

Discussion at the research launch event included numerous anecdotes from female PR and marketing practitioners about their experiences of working in a male-dominated industry – from being called “the PR girl” to being expected to make the tea. Other examples included the January 2018 Presidents Club furore, the low representation of women in industry award shortlists, unfortunate award event ‘entertainment’, use of scantily clad women at construction trade shows (eg: UK Construction Week in October 2017 – Dezeen news report), and a recent Jark construction recruitment campaign featuring a bikini-clad woman asking “Want to see my white bits? … Oops sorry, I meant white collar candidates” (EDP news report).

I mentioned campaigns to reduce skills shortages and improve the diversity of construction, including Alison Watson’s Design-Engineer-Construct programme. Many construction colleges are also trying to encourage young women to consider careers in the sector – I got news of one last month.

Latch on to the affirmative …

In southeast England, MidKent College has seen the number of females opting to learn about the industry rise from 141 in 2014/15 to 216 in 2018/19. However, to raise the numbers still further, the college believes it has to challenge gender stereotypes.

Kim Howes, programme director for building services design engineering, said:

“The construction industry is still very male dominated…. All the trade magazines and publications have a big focus on men in the industry whereas women are either hidden or shown in supportive roles, like HR. Not all construction paths are grimy and dirty – the design and management fields can be office-based.

“The breadth of career options is just not realised or communicated. Construction is a fulfilling career that could take people around the world. Women are very creative and the construction industry has a need for those with a creative and design talent. We need to pique young women’s interest when they’re at primary school and encourage them to get hands-on, and messy.”

Able students can certainly thrive. One of the college’s students, Lindsey Todd, currently a contract manager for Orbit Homes, recently won a CIOB award for outstanding achievement. She said:

Lindsey Todd“I would definitely recommend other women take up a course in construction – there are just not enough of us on site. There’s a few more in the employer’s agent type roles, but in hands-on subcontractor roles there’s very few. I think I’ve seen one painter and decorator, and one tiler. It’s a very male-dominated arena.”

You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum …

Bing Crosby sang about the need to “accentuate the positive” and “eliminate the negative,” and I’ve had it on my mind over the past week. Yet another campaign (and another one using ‘Love Construction’) has been launched to, as Bing might croon, “spread joy up to the maximum“.

I have talked repeatedly (herehereherehere and here, for example) about how permanently improving ‘The Image of Construction’ cannot be achieved simply by running a campaign. Construction News, the CITB, and Build UK (among others) have all encouraged us to promote the industry’s achievements and highlight how much we love working in the industry, but such campaigns just gloss over some of the underlying systemic issues that give construction a poor reputation (I rehashed my arguments yet again in January 2018 after the collapse of Carillion reinforced how precarious many construction businesses are). Briefly, to change the reputation of the industry currently known as UK construction, you have to change the attitudes, behaviours and outdated realities of UK construction – and this will require sustained pan-industry action to address the many deep-rooted challenges.

CCS loves constructionThe latest organisation seeking to change people’s view of the construction sector is the Considerate Constructors Scheme. It is running a well-intended Promoting Construction campaign calling for everyone involved in the industry to promote a positive image of construction on social media using the hashtag #loveconstruction (almost exactly five years after Construction News asked much the same). It enthuses:

“Inspirational images, such as amazing buildings, technology, craftsmanship and innovation, a fabulous diverse workforce and an industry which looks after the environment and its workforce are all ways in which we can promote construction.”

… bring gloom down to the minimum ….

I heard considerable scepticism about some of these messages when talking to industry friends last week, and it is clear I am not the only one with a somewhat jaundiced view. For example, coverage of the CCS campaign in industry online publication The Construction Index said the CCS had “expanded its remit from good neighbourliness to industry cheerleader and propagandist in chief” and finished by wryly noting:

“The realities of industry life – such as blacklisting, combustible cladding, structural failures, productivity problems, price fixing and shafting suppliers – are not to intrude.”

The writer clearly felt – as I do – that we need resolve some substantial underlying issues inside the industry if we are to change how it is regarded outside the industry. CIPR CAPSIG has identified some small steps organisations can take in respect of its female PR practitioners – but there’s clearly a huge lot more to be done.

[* I stepped down as chair of CAPSIG at an EGM held just prior to the research report’s launch. However, I remain involved – I am now the group’s secretary.]

Epson targets freelancers’ print costs

Epson’s central London pop-up shop gives visitors a space to co-work and to test their new EcoTank printers – which offers the UK’s growing population of freelances and SMEs a cost-effective alternative to ink cartridge machines.

Three times (so far) in 2018 I have had to dash out to a nearby supermarket and buy expensive printer cartridges to top up my (Epson) inkjet printer. This printer isn’t just used by me in my freelance PR and technology consultancy business – it is also the workhorse for the rest of my family, printing out coursework assignments for two students (one at university, the other in 6th form), and various things for my other half, and I would also like to use it to print out some of the photographs I take. But – as my budding economist son constantly reminds me – drop for drop, cartridged printer ink is more expensive than vintage champagne or blood….

Maybe I will find salvation in Epson’s new range of EcoTank printers …. but more about them later

EcoTankPopUpEarlier this week, I attended Epson’s UK launch of its EcoTank range (at a pop-up shop at 21 Long Acre in London’s Covent Garden – which will be open until the end of October 2018). The event was targeting bloggers interested in home working, freelancing, and start-ups. Having successfully agitated within the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) to get an independent PR practitioners’ network established (the launch event is on 26 September by the way), I thought I would find out what was being offered.

The EcoTank Pop-up is a combination of retail experience and co-working space. Visitors to the pop-up, which will remain open throughout September and October, will be able to try (and buy) printers from Epson’s ground-breaking EcoTank range (Epson normally sells its products through other retailers, rarely dealing direct with the public). As a co-working space for freelancers, bloggers and other remote workers, visitors can expect a collaborative and creative working space with free secure Wi-Fi, access to a kitchen for refreshments and, naturally, unlimited printing.

Vicki PsariasEpson is also be running a series of daily, expert-led workshops at the pop-up, specifically for freelancers, bloggers, self-employed people, small and medium sized businesses, students and families. These will cover a wide range of useful subjects, from invoicing and branding to GDPR (for a full list of the pop-up’s workshops and to book your place, click here). On Tuesday, invited guests were treated to a lunchtime talk by Vicki Psarias, aka @HonestMum blogger, talking about her freelancing experience and about Epson’s research into independent working.

One can be the loneliest number

The solo self-employed contributed around £271 billion to the UK government’s coffers in 2017, of which around £125–140 billion came from freelancers, and there are predictions that by 2020, half of the workforce will be freelancing.

Epson’s research (Meeting the challenges of freelance life), which surveyed 1000 UK freelancers, found that most (91%) worked from home at least some of the time. When asked why they had chosen to freelance or work remotely, respondents said that a better work/life balance (53%) and greater flexibility (62%) were among their reasons; some said they wanted to avoid working in an office, which they found stressful (47%).

There are, however, disadvantages to solo working. While 54% of respondents to Epson’s study declared freelance life ‘liberating’, a striking 48% admitted to finding it ‘lonely’ and 46% said it was ‘isolating’. The absence of an office social life is felt keenly by some; 32% of respondents said they missed office banter and 29% missed being part of a team.

More worryingly, a quarter (25%) of respondents had experienced frequent periods of depression, and around a fifth (21%) claimed that the loneliness of remote working had caused them to have suicidal thoughts. According to the national mental health charity, Mind, at least one in six workers is experiencing common mental health problems, including anxiety and depression – but there are small, simple steps you can take to look after yourself, including:

  • meeting people – former colleagues, friends, business contacts or fellow freelancers (Epson established its EcoTank Pop-up to help this process – for PR practitioners, of course, the CIPR’s new network might help).
  • joining local networking groups – many towns and regions have business networking groups (some CIPR regional groups also have freelance communities – I’ve mentioned Wessex’s PR and a Pint before).
  • getting mobile – with the right technologies and apps, you can work more or less anywhere, including areas where people congregate such as cafés and libraries – or Pop-up co-working spaces!

EcoTank: ink subscription service

Cartridge-freeFor anyone running a small home-based business – or even a small office-based business – the EcoTank message sounds pretty compelling. These printers have an ultra-high-capacity ink tank system, which completely removes the need for cartridges and provides hassle-free, low cost printing. EcoTank printers can hold the equivalent of 94 cartridges worth of ink, saving users up to 90% on their ink costs (figures based on an average print volume of 140 pages per month).

Basically, you can buy a printer and then pay a subscription of £9.99 a month for unlimited ink. Looking back over the past couple of years, I have been buying new ink cartridges (a pack of four is usually around £40) about once a quarter, so am spending around £160 a year. If I’d got an EcoTank printer, I would cut my consumables expenses by over £40 per annum.

If you’re quick, visitors to the London pop-up  can be in with a chance of winning an EcoTank. Until 5.00pm on Sunday 9th September, Epson will be giving away one EcoTank printer every hour to visitors to the EcoTank Pop-Up. To be in with a chance of winning, visitors need to share a photo that they’ve taken in the Epson EcoTank Pop-up to Instagram, Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #EcoTankPopup, tagging @EpsonUK. One winner will be selected at random every hour.

Epson printer boxedUpdate (12 September 2018– Delighted to say that, after publishing the above post and tweeting about the launch event, etc, I received an email from Epson UK telling me I’d won a printer – and it was delivered this afternoon! After carefully unpackaging it, loading it with ink and then doing the software set-up, etc, I now have a fully functioning ET-2650 sitting on my desk. Not only does it print stuff sent from my laptop (and scan and copy), but I can also print documents and photographs direct from my smartphone – my wife was delighted with a photograph taken at a wedding last Saturday – and I’m in the process of setting it up to print remotely. And the silver lining for my university student daughter is that she can have my other Epson printer for use in her shared student house.

Don’t just digitise. Rethink construction

Modernising construction is not something that will be achieved just by the adoption of new technologies. “The current business model of the construction sector is not sustainable.”

Specifi logoI spoke at two Specifi events in July 2018, the first in Manchester on 4 July, and the second two weeks later in London on 17 July. In both cases, my theme was digital transformation, illustrated in part by my own construction career journey.

In July 1987, I joined a firm of consulting civil engineers and architects and began to learn about the industry’s reliance on paper-based processes. Watching the transition from manual drawing production on drawing boards, I saw the early days of the CAD revolution, and I played my own part in that firm’s adoption of word processing and email.

In my view, these first steps barely count as digital transformation. The firm, its counterparts in other businesses and its customers had simply accelerated the production and distribution of paper-based deliverables. In many cases, electronically generated documents and drawings were simply printed out and people continued to work off hard copies as they previously did. Even into the early years of the 21st century, handover documentation provided to the client upon project completion remained largely paper-based, perhaps augmented by a few CDs of archived electronic information.

However, the last 15 years have seen the pace of digitisation gradually increase. As the relative costs of ICT hardware and software has dropped, sophisticated tools have become more affordable to the businesses in a cost-conscious industry which previously had under-invested in ICT. Cloud-based software reduced reliance on in-house data centres and internal ICT expertise. Consumer-grade mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets have gradually became more ubiquitous, while the explosion in social media adoption has changed our perceptions about the creation and consumption of user-generated content.

In the built environment sector, the government’s push of building information modelling (BIM) has also been a significant factor in promoting digital transformation since 2009. But it would be wrong to think the industry simply needs to invest in new technologies. (As the diagram – from McKinsey – below suggests, technology is just one of seven areas where construction needs to catch up.)

McKinsey - seven areas for change

It’s modernise or die

Modernise or DieIn my talks I emphasise that the government and other forward-looking client businesses are demanding wider changes to how the industry works. As I’ve previously written, the January 2018 collapse of Carillion is just one sign of a deeper malaise within the UK construction sector – and a succession of government and industry-driven reports (McKinsey’s 2017 Productivity report is just one) are highlighting that the sector must, to reuse the title of Mark Farmer’s October 2016 report, “Modernise or Die”.

Short-term adversarial business models are being rejected in favour of longer-term business relationships founded on collaborative processes and behaviours; government is shifting from lowest price tendering to demanding best whole life value; and, rather than seeking bespoke project solutions, industry clients are looking at greater standardisation and increased use of offsite manufacturing techniques.

My presentations include extracts from successive government construction industry strategies (2011, 2016), and from “Construction 2025” which set stretch targets to lower project costs, shorten programmes, improve carbon performance, and improve the competitiveness of the UK industry currently known as construction. And recent budget statements have committed to supporting these strategies.

In Manchester, I was asked which document should be required reading. I said the potentially most important document had yet to be published: the Construction Sector Deal.

‘The current construction business model is not sustainable’

Within 24 hours, on 5 July, this had been published by the government (and I happily updated my presentation for the 17 July event to reflect its key themes). It bluntly warns “the current business model of the construction sector is not sustainable,” and stresses three strategic areas for change:

  1. Digital techniques to deliver better, more certain results during the construction and operation of buildings, including optimal performance during the life of the building.
  2. Offsite manufacturing to minimise wastage, inefficiencies and delays, speeding up construction and reducing disruption.
  3. Whole life asset performance to shift focus from the costs of construction to the costs of a building across its life cycle, particularly its use of energy.

Offsite manufacture for constructionAnd within days, two further notable documents appeared. First, the House of Lords science and technology select committee published a report recommending wider adoption of offsite manufacture for construction. Second, the Construction Leadership Council published its “Procuring for Value” report, advocating procurement based on delivery of best whole-life value and performance, with a strong focus on measuring and rewarding good asset and supplier performance.

It will take time for these and related initiatives (eg: Digital Built Britain, Project 13) to bear fruit, and there undoubtedly will be some inertia and resistance to change. But some of the UK construction industry’s largest customers are increasingly looking for suppliers who can work digitally.

I quote Internet founder Tim Berners-Lee’s remark “if the past was document sharing, the future is data sharing”. As an industry we have to move beyond document and file-based thinking and make data the new normal. It will not just be about digital thinking but about rethinking construction as a whole.

(This is a longer version of a post – It’s Modernise or Die – first published on the Specifi blog.)

New Homes Ombudsman could help restore consumer confidence in housebuilders

A cross-party Parliamentary group has set out proposals for a New Homes Ombudsman to help provide better redress for dissatisfied home buyers. Poor experiences with housebuilders are common factor in many people’s perception of the construction industry; promoting better behaviours in the housebuilding sector would therefore contribute to improving the image of construction.

New Homes Ombudsman

Better redress for homebuyersIn its report, published today, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment calls on the government to make it mandatory for all housebuilders to belong to an independent ombudsman scheme.

The report, Better redress for homebuyers, says that a New Homes Ombudsman should be independent, free to consumers and provide a quick resolution to disputes.  The report also recommends that government, warranty providers, housebuilders and consumer group’s work together to draw up a code of practice which would be used by the New Homes Ombudsman to adjudicate on disputes.

The report is the result of the Group’s latest Inquiry which investigated how an ombudsman scheme could operate following its earlier report in July 2016 on the quality and workmanship of new housing in England. That report More homes, fewer complaints, called for a New Homes Ombudsman after the Inquiry revealed a high level of frustration and disappointment from buyers of new homes, both in terms of the number of defects that new homes often had on handover, and also the problems they encountered in getting them fixed.

A Housing Ombudsman already exists, covering the rental sector, while The Property Ombudsman covers consumer disputes with estate/property agents. To reduce consumer confusion and help ensure consumer complaints are dealt with efficiently, the report is recommending that there is a single portal – or entry point – for ombudsman services spanning the entire residential sector, which would cover the conduct of estate agents through to social housing. Within this overarching service, there would be either a number of specialist ombudsmen or specialist divisions – one of which would cover new homes.

“The image of construction”

As I have previously written several times (in April 2016, for example, and in January 2018 in relation to Carillion’s collapse), the “image of construction” is a symptom of a more deep-rooted reputation issue. Bluntly, the industry’s reputation is not just the result of what it says and what others say about it, but – importantly – the result of what it does and how it behaves.

The housebuilding sector penetrates just about every community, and yet parts of it personify many of the dysfunctional characteristics of the wider construction industry:

  • overly-complex, fragmented and price-fixated in its procurement approaches
  • adversarial in its supply chain relations
  • poor in its payment practices
  • wasteful in its project execution (often late and over-budget)
  • poor in the quality of its finished products (and then there’s the Grenfell disaster, of course….)
  • dangerous (construction killed 30 people in 2016-17, and reported 64,000 non-fatal injuries – only the agriculture, forestry and fisheries performs worse)
  • conservative in its adoption of new technologies (in Europe, construction ranks bottom in terms of digitisation, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, and my perception is that housebuilders lag behind other construction businesses in their use of tools to streamline information sharing and improve productivity)
  • short-termist and reactive in its approach to human skills development and R&D, and
  • lacking diversity (and too often, ‘macho’ workplace cultures breed sexism, racism and homophobia)

On housebuilding in particular, the sub-sector has been criticised (sometimes, it says, unfairly) for:

  • not building enough homes
  • not building enough affordable homes
  • not building the homes well enough (the APPG has previously noted that 93% of buyers had problems with their builders – 14 % of buyers in 2015 expressed customer dissatisfaction with housebuilders; in December 2017, one of Britain’s biggest housebuilders, Bovis Homes, faced a potential class-action lawsuit from buyers who accused it of selling houses riddled with defects)
  • land-banking, and
  • financial trickery such as spiralling ground rent schemes

Personal experiences of such issues will obviously colour people’s perceptions of the industry. My friend (and vice-chair of the CIPR’s Construction and Property Group) Daniel Gerrella recently attended a Constructing Excellence Generation for Change (G4C) event which debated the image of construction, and highlighted several areas the industry needed to address to improve its reputation (read his post).

However, the sector has generally been resistant to change unless forced by economic circumstances (and even then, once the good times return, many companies revert to type) or by legislation. Strengthening the regulatory framework post-Grenfell may help deliver better, safer buildings, but strengthening and extending the Ombudsman system so that it provides consumers with tools to highlight under-performing or unethical housebuilders could also help deliver sector-wide improvements.

Update (2 October 2018) – The UK Government minister for housing James Brokenshire has announced that a New Homes Ombudsman is to be appointed (news).

Load more