Oct 03 2016

Porting a telephone number – the story (so far) of a Virgin Media failure

Virgin: how can we help (how about having a chat service that works?)Having experienced some poor TalkTalk service in respect of my telephone landline, and had some generally positive customer experience over several years with Virgin Media (notwithstanding the Great SE London Broadband Outage last December), it seemed logical to finally sever my connection with TalkTalk and transfer my existing telephone number so that it runs over Virgin Media’s network. How wrong I was….

The initial call experience was OK. While a parallel upgrade of my broadband got slightly delayed when equipment wasn’t delivered as expected, this was quickly resolved, but the transfer of the telephone number has become a tortuous month-long tale of missed deadlines, apologies and excuses – complete with one glaring example of poor customer service training.

I called Virgin Media in mid August, and when I received a “sad to see you go” email from TalkTalk on the 19th, it was clear Virgin Media had started the ball rolling; TalkTalk said they would be transferring my service on 27 August 2016. All well and good.

That date came and went, but the transfer hadn’t taken place. In fact, it wasn’t until 8 September that I got a Virgin Media text saying “we’re transferring your old number on 19/09/16” (OK, maybe it takes a month to effect a transfer, I thought).

“Your phone line’s not working….”

That date came … and went … and now the phone just stopped ringing. After a couple of days of silence, I tested the line. I could call out, but the line would not receive incoming calls. I called Virgin Media on the 24th and again on the 26th, and was told that there had been a problem with porting the number. Two more dates for the transfer were set, but still the phone didn’t ring.

(What makes this particularly painful is that not only do I use this telephone when working from home, but it has prevented relatives calling us – my wife’s family is going through a particularly distressing time over in Belfast, but she can’t even be contacted via our landline. And without a properly functioning service, I haven’t been able – or willing – to agree a call package to get the most economic deal, so her outgoing calls have been costing us a small fortune!)

Phishy fail

I called again on Friday 30 September, and the unfailingly sympathetic and apologetic customer service representatives I spoke to told me the number port would now take place on 5 October; I was also told that my complaint would be registered and someone would be in touch about recompense. Shortly after, I got a call on my mobile from someone saying they were from Virgin Media’s number porting team – I only had his word for this, but he then asked for my account password, and – when I refused to give this over the phone – asked which bank I used to pay my Virgin account and my date of birth. Given the publicity given to ‘phishing’ attacks, I said I wasn’t going to give out such information in an unsolicited call.

Ending the call, I once again rang Virgin. The next customer service agent I spoke to said the number couldn’t be ported because it had been disconnected (“Only because you instigated the number transfer on my behalf!” I raged; the agent also said the previous caller should have just asked for two characters from my password – clearly a training issue there); they tried to put me through to the relevant department, but the first attempt failed, as did the second. I then gave up for the day – work was too pressing to waste time on interminable service menus, ‘hold’ music, and telling the story over and over again.


I am now keeping my fingers crossed that the number transfer is finally completed on Wednesday. In the meantime, if you have been trying to get hold of me on 020 8858 1104 – call my mobile instead: 07788 445920.

And after a patient Twitter silence on the issue, I have started to vent online….

This is my second poor experience with Virgin Media. Other people would be less patient. Should I move, or should I adopt a “three strikes and you’re out” approach….?

Update (5 October, 4.45pm): Got a Twitter response after a few minutes – then nothing for 2.5 hours until someone spotted this post…. And then the chat service was too busy, providing the visual message equivalent of an engaged tone…. (5.45pm) Eventually got a chat response and ‘Mark’ confirmed that our service should be reinstated on 5 October. More conversations to happen once if and when that happens…..

Update (6 October): Well, 5 October arrived … and went – we still can’t receive incoming calls on our preferred number. In the meantime, I got an email from Mark; when I replied, it was bounced back with an email saying:

“Unfortunately we’re unable to deal with your request via this email address. Here are a few useful places to visit that are perfect for finding answers….”

Needless, to say, I was less than impressed, but I was later told, via Twitter, “You can ignore the auto-response, it will have been received and Mark will pick this up when he is back in the office” (tomorrow).

Sep 19 2016

Atmotube: Mobile air pollution monitoring

atmotube-logoAtmotube puts air pollution monitoring in your hands, and enables users to share readings in real-time and via social media.

Earlier this year, I participated in a COMIT community day workshop which asked us to think about ways in which air quality might be monitored for construction workers in tunnels. As a cyclist and someone employed at various civil engineering consultancies (Halcrow and then Tarmac Professional Services subsidiary Stanger Science and Environment), I have long held an interest in air quality issues, and that has been heightened in recent years by living close to the Blackwall Tunnel southern approach – notorious for creating occasional pockets of poor air quality in south-east London (my children attended a primary school less than 50m from the northbound carriageway, prone to long queues of stationary traffic in the morning rush-hour).

In 2012, I participated in a Kickstarter campaign and took delivery of an Air Quality Egg set – but this proved difficult to set up, left wires dangling between devices, and while it could share air quality readings to the web it needed a permanent IP connection, and when a firmware update required me to ship the kit back to the USA, I gave up on it.

However, earlier this year, I saw another crowd-funded campaign, this time on IndieGoGo, to support Atmotube, a wireless personal air pollution monitoring device that connects to a mobile phone. After a few months of updates from the Atmotube team my device was delivered just over a month ago (with my investor discount, it cost me $69 plus shipping), and within a couple of hours I was capturing and sharing air quality scores from my office and other locations.

Atmotube website clipAtmotube MapOnce charged up via a USB connection, the device can take readings every second, monitoring carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants, while also measuring humidy and temperature. To access these measurements, a free app is available (iOS and Android), and my Samsung smartphone was soon giving me a steady flow of readings. These readings can also be shared with other users of the app via a simple map interface, and – even better for a social media addict – the readings can also be shared via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Swarm (though the latter is a bit clunky – mainly because the main sharing is via FourSquare, not Swarm). The readings can also be exported to Excel, but I have mainly been using the app’s dashboard and reporting tools (I can, for example, view results for the past hour, past day, or past week).

Atmotube app screenshotThe device is about the size of a cigarette lighter, with the casing made of titanium – making it hard-wearing and good to look at (I’ve gone for the standard metal finish, but coloured options are also available!) – and it can be easily attached to a bag or keyring. I have used it to check air quality close to busy roads, in trains (both overground and on the London underground), as a car and bus passenger, and in various offices and meeting places, and, so far, I don’t appear to have been exposed to any particularly poor air quality. As the summary (right) shows, most of my air quality scores have been in the 80s and 90s – though my son managed to get it to read in the 50s and 60s by the simple tactic of exhaling hard into the mesh at the top of the tube!

I talked about Atmotube at the September 2016 COMIT community day and suggested such devices could be invaluable as a simple, user-friendly way for workers to monitor air quality around them both on-site and inside buildings. Typically, we take around 20,000 breaths a day, so Atmotube potentially provides greater awareness of what we are breathing in. In society at large, it could be helpful to asthmatics and those suffering from other lung conditions, as well as helping parents of young children and the elderly.

In the built environment, it might also help alert us to malfunctioning air conditioning or heating, or to leaks of gases, etc. I am not sure if the current devices can be networked together (at least not yet), but such personal climate monitoring tools might potentially help provide facilities or HR managers with constant updates from employee users about their working conditions.


Sep 03 2016

Please, to call Masters Chemist Ltd of 176 Shooters Hill Rd, London SE3, the correct number is 020 8856 1104

Not exacty nuisance calls, but frequent, disruptive calls of a wrong number are challenging my patience – and NHS patients!

I work mainly from a home office in southeast London and use a telephone number that we have had for over 20 years. Over the past couple of years, I have started to receive a growing number of calls from customers of a local pharmacy, Masters Chemist, whose telephone number (starting 020 8856) is one digit different from ours (starting 020 8858). Initially, it was maybe just one call a month asking about drug prescriptions, and – once I worked out who they were trying to contact – I wrote the correct number on a Post-It note that I stuck to the shelf above my phone.

I also popped into Masters’ pharmacy last year and told them about the problem, and the manager I spoke to was apologetic and said they would check all their literature and notifications to customers. However, the frequency has not diminished. In fact, it’s got worse, and I am now getting an average of 2-3 calls a week (and twice recently Masters’ customers have left messages on our ansaphone – one, from an elderly lady, sounded particularly distressed). Each time I am interrupted, I politely tell the caller they have a wrong number and make sure they have the correct one.

Today, I walked up to Masters’ again, and, a bit more forcefully, told them that their customers were still calling the wrong number. The man I spoke to initially insisted it was just people misdialling. This would be believable if the digits were adjacent to each other on a typical push-button layout, but, surely, if you miss the “6” you’d be hitting a 3, or a 5 or a 9? I pointed out that it was always people enquiring about prescriptions, but the staff showed me labels that gave their correct number. “Why don’t you change your number?” I was asked. “No way,” I said, “We have had this number since 1994 and it’s also one that I use extensively for my business.” Impasse.

It’s not an easy situation to resolve, but the attitude of the store manager this time was to deny any responsibility for the inconvenience that this problem was causing to a) his customers, and b), me, my business and family. Not great PR on his part.

So, please, if you are trying to call Masters Chemist of 176 Shooters Hill Rd, London SE3 8RP, the correct number is:

020 8856 1104

Apr 22 2016

To change the “image of construction,” first change construction

We need to tackle some of the fundamental issues in the UK construction industry before we can effectively change “the image of construction”.

“The image of construction” has featured heavily this week for me. On Tuesday, I attended a CIMCIG-led roundtable discussion in London with Mark Farmer, the consultant helping the Government’s Construction Leadership Council to address issues relating to construction skills and the future needs of the industry (see gov.uk news release).

Yesterday I joined a panel discussion at the Women in Construction and Engineering Awards day, part of which focused on how current images of construction and engineering make them unattractive to potential entrants, parents, teachers and even careers advisors.

CN headlineAnd today, I have been reading in Construction News (YouGov poll finds two-thirds of public would not consider career in construction) about a survey showing:

  • more than half of the public view construction work as ‘strenuous’ or ‘dirty’, with just 11 per cent saying it was ‘exciting’
  • 23 per cent viewed construction work as creating ‘mess, traffic and inconvenience’
  • people do not see the industry as academically driven, with 41 per cent saying it was one the least likely sectors to require a further or higher education qualification

Such survey findings are nothing new. They simply confirm that the “image” problem persists year after year despite numerous campaigns to change popular perceptions. Industry insiders maintain that we need to “present how fantastic it is to work in construction and change some of those perceptions… all of us who work in construction love it; we just haven’t been very good collectively at expressing that message” (to quote Suzannah Nicol of Build UK).

To change the image, first change construction

At the CIMCIG meeting, I repeated my view that 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 reality, evidenced in report after report (read my Ethos blog post: Building a better built environment industry), is that the UK construction industry has for decades been recognised as:

  • 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
  • conservative in its adoption of new technologies, and
  • short-termist and reactive in its approach to human skills development and R&D.

Add to this the ‘macho’ culture on many sites, anecdotes about racist, sexist, homophobic and just plain foul language (When your people are not your greatest asset), and the painfully slow progress in addressing diversity issues, is it any wonder that the industry currently known as construction has an image problem?

At a Constructing Excellence conference in 2014, I said the industry needed to stop thinking of itself as a monolithic entity and start to identify changes it could make across its many disciplines, and then get them communicating, running long-term, integrated, pan-sector campaigns, and working collaboratively with partners, trade bodies and (most importantly, perhaps) its customers and end-users. Currently though, we seem to be more focused on trying to fix the image, rather than fixing the reasons behind that image.

It’s not just about campaigns

CITB’s Jane Gleave was at Tuesday’s CIMCIG meeting and talked about the GoConstruct campaign (read my pwcom post); last month I noted the launch at Ecobuild of Build UK’s new video; and this week’s story in Construction News (which launched its own #LoveConstruction campaign in July 2013 – post) is based on a poll undertaken for yet another campaign, Construction United, launched in February 2016 and building towards a week of events in October.

constructionunitedAnd while we’re talking about “image”, to me it is unfortunate that the campaign’s home page perpetuates a view of construction as site-based. Efforts are being made by the Chartered Institute of Building, among others, to get government agencies to accept wider definitions of construction that take account of the inputs of product manufacturers and of professions such as architects, engineers and quantity surveyors, according to a Construction Index report today. We also tend to underplay the key roles played in many construction businesses by accountants, lawyers, marketing, PR, HR and IT people, plus a myriad of administrators.

Nonetheless, Construction United does recognise that there is already an industrial strategy looking to address some of the underlying problems:

Construction 2025 identified a number of areas that needed addressing, so Construction United aims to bring everyone with a vested interest in construction together to raise awareness of the key issues facing the sector, including image, skills gaps and the wellbeing of employees at all levels.”

It’s not just about raising awareness of the key issues, but actually doing something about them. Construction 2025 and the Government Construction Strategy 2016-2020 (see another Ethos post: Tackling skills gaps – can we learn from BIM?) prescribe a suite of changes aimed at making construction and the built environment more cost effective and sustainable. The BIM programme has shown that the industry can collaborate to tackle the underlying fragmented structures, silo-based attitudes, anti-collaborative behaviours and out-dated technologies – and BIM shows we can be sophisticated users of technology and data, not just stereotyped wielders of bricks, concrete and steel.

If government can inspire such changes in project delivery, surely it can work on sustained campaigns with industry to effect change on other key areas – such as collaborative models of procurement, prompt payment, outdated attitudes and behaviours. If we can successfully tackle the root causes of the industry’s poor reputation, resolving the image issue will be so much easier.

[* This is an edited version of a blog post I wrote for Ethos‘s SkillsPlanner project blog; I am an Ethos partner and PR manager for the SkillsPlanner project.]

Feb 26 2016

Coordinated CIMCIG, CAPSIG and IBP

CAPSIGlogo-2014CIM logoFor a long time there has been some overlap, and a productive relationship, between two UK construction communication groups: CIMCIG, the construction interest group of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, and CAPSIG, the construction and property special interest group (which I chair) of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.

Members of one are often eligible for free or discounted places at the other’s events; events have sometimes been jointly produced; and we often cross-promote our events. Communication occasionally breaks down, though, and we’ve found that we are promoting two events on the same day, 3 March, in the same part of central London.

Fortunately, they are not on at the same time, so ….

If you want to boost your knowledge of digital construction marketing and PR, you can register to attend CIMCIG’s afternoon event at the Building Centre in Store Street from 1.30 to 5pm.

Afterwards, perhaps after a quick coffee (or something stronger), it’s a short work to the CIPR headquarters in Russell Square, where from 6.30 (6pm if you want a bit of networking first!), you can learn How to win a built environment PR award? This event is being run by CAPSIG in conjunction with International Building Press (another regular CAPSIG collaborator) and chaired by Rebecca Evans, editor of Construction News. Better still, this event is free to attend, being sponsored by Gorkana (and there may be beer and wine).

IBP logoThe IBP Communication and PR Awards 2016 also include a category specifically related to integrated campaigns, recognising the key part that digital, online and social media played in delivering positive and tangible results – and neatly linking the day’s two events. Hope to see you at both!

Feb 19 2016

Passing a Wikipedia milestone

Sometime earlier this month, I passed a Wikipedia milestone of sorts: I submitted my 20,000th edit.

I started editing the English Wikipedia 12 years, four months and 16 days ago (there is a handy counter on my user page that tells me this). As I noted on my 10th anniversary, my first edit was a correction to the article on Greenwich, followed soon after by starting a new article on Greenwich Park.

Some of my edits this week have been focused on construction industry trade bodies, sometimes stimulated by spotting a notable new development or fact that I think needs to be included. Today’s was seeing some industry news about the Strategic Forum for Construction, for example; yesterday, I updated an article about Ryan Seager, a young Southampton player injured while playing for Crewe on Tuesday night.

Wikipedia - Crewe Alex articleWhile Wikpedia has ebbed and flowed in my affections (my first 10,000 edits took around five and a half years, the second nearly seven years), it has never gone away. I still enjoy the process of writing and editing articles – I’ve started around 470 articles over the years – though I’ve never particularly wanted to become an administrator or anything more. I am quite happy to watch out for interesting new articles that link to ones I watch, to monitor updates to the 800 or so that are on my watchlist (I’ve edited the Crewe Alexandra F.C. article nearly 200 times apparently), and, occasionally, to contribute to a Wikiproject or two or add a photo to Wikimedia Commons (only yesterday I learned how I could do a search on a mobile device and see what articles about nearby places need a photo!).

The discipline of contributing to Wikipedia is also rewarding. Not only am I adding and sharing information (verified by reliable references, of course) for the greater good, but I am also learning, keeping my knowledge updated, and nurturing skills in writing content as neutrally as I can – always useful for a technology writer and PR practitioner. And hopefully, by helping with Editathons and training people in “Wikiquette”, I’ve also helped other people learn about Wikipedia and become part of its community too.

If I maintain my recent rate of editing, I suspect my third 10,000 may be my quickest yet – I might pass 30,000 edits sometime in 2020 or 2021.

Feb 16 2016

Back on the CIPR IPs trail

I took a month-long sabbatical from blogging recently – partly due to pressure of other work, but also to recharge my personal blogging batteries. This PR blog may take on a new lease of life now, as I’ve also taken on some new responsibilities at the CIPR: in December I was elected to the CIPR’s board, and last month, I chaired the first meeting of the CIPR’s policy and campaigns committee (in addition to my continued work with the CIPR’s construction and property group, CAPSIG).

Almost half my new policy and campaigns committee colleagues are independent PR practitioners, and I continue to receive a steady stream of emails and occasional phone calls from other independent practitioners (IPs) seeking help or advice. I spent a fair bit of last year working within the CIPR on building a network of IPs – activities summarised in this July 2015 post – and I plan to continue the effort this year (if time and my other responsibilities allow!).

CIPR Excellence Awards

CIPREx awards 2016Thankfully, the CIPR recognises the challenges faced by IPs, and the annual CIPR Excellence Awards reward the achievements of an Outstanding Independent Practitioner every year. Last year’s award was won by Northern Ireland-based Samantha Livingstone. Did it help her business? Well, she says: “This award has helped open new doors and added credibility to the service I offer clients.”

The entry deadline for the 2016 CIPR Excellence Awards is fast approaching. Entries need to be submitted by 6pm GMT on Tuesday 23 February 2016 (or, if you want to take advantage of the late entry deadline, by 6pm GMT on Tuesday 1 March 2016 – late fee applies). More information here.

Dec 20 2015

A minor rant about VirginMedia

I wish VirginMedia would provide more extensive, detailed and realistic information via its customer services.

I am now almost two weeks into a long-running conversation with my broadband and TV service provider VirginMedia, some of it conducted via Twitter, some of it via online chat and via telephone and email. The problem started on the morning of Tuesday 8 December when I understand an external contractor working in Lewisham cut through some VirginMedia cables cutting connections for 1000s of users in southeast London areas including Greenwich and Blackheath. But this explanation of the fault was only picked up via Twitter, not from VirginMedia (though my online chat with ‘Laura May’ later confirmed it)

It was six days before some semblance of normal service was re-established (late on Sunday 13 December). The following day, I spoke again to customer services and got a refund for the days without service (which included my son’s 15th birthday; he was off school with flu: hell hath no fury like a sick Xbox fanboy deprived of his online gaming!). But no refund for the data bundles I had purchased from my mobile phone provider to keep my 4G dongle working.

Then, having emailed a complaint to VirginMedia head office (thanks, Twitter, for the email address), I also got a telephone call, a personal apology and a reduction on future bills. We also discussed the lack of information provided to customers about the apparent reasons behind the outage, and the dispiriting succession of missed target dates/times set for resumption of normal service (as a PR practitioner, I thought VirginMedia could have been more open and informative about the reasons behind the prolonged outage and that it could have set more realistic expectations of a resumption of full services).

It now appears that resumption is distant. An adequate broadband service started to fail again four days later. Short interruptions quickly grew into prolonged outages. On Friday (18 December), I spent half an hour on the phone to a VirginMedia technician who confirmed I had no upload service at all, and then said that repairs to finally resolve issues created by the cut cables were likely to mean intermittent service until 29 December (three weeks after the initial incident). My son missed out on a gaming tournament with his friends yesterday, my wife was unable to book some tickets online, and I am only able to get online via my dongle.

Crisis of customer confidence

After water, electricity and gas, telecommunications is the fourth utility in our household – as it is for many millions of other UK citizens. When its services are working, I understand VirginMedia provides a higher bandwidth connection to my home than any other available provider, using the fibre-optic cables also supplying our television services, so I am reluctant to switch to a competitor.

It may not exactly be a crisis, but I am suffering a crisis of confidence. I just wish VirginMedia would provide more extensive, detailed and realistic information via its customer services. Here are three suggestions:

  • If the problems are due to an external issue, tell us (it would also mean some customer anger might be redirected at those really at fault).
  • If the issue is likely to persist, give us a realistic expectation, not a succession of optimistic – but missed – targets.
  • If the issue is prolonged, set up a dedicated site giving information on the progress of repairs, etc. Refer people to this resource rather than offering empty platitudes and mock expressions of concern.

Nov 20 2015

The (sexist) “image of construction”

HammersXRumblings of Twitter discontent quickly surfaced last night from the 10th Construction Computing Awards (hashtag: #Hammers2015) in London. I was at a different event (the IBP Journalism awards), but I had half an eye on what was happening across the city, and early signs of negativity were quickly apparent.

Su Butcher has detailed the events. Briefly, it appears that a so-called “comedian” (Josh Daniels) decided to poke fun, first, at a table of women and then an Irish male guest (Tony Ryan of SaaS software vendor Asite, who I know well) who complained about Daniels’ sexism. Two members of the audience walked out in protest, and the story has been well discussed on Twitter today, with the organisers hurriedly apologising to two of the attendees this morning (see this Storify) – but not, so far as I know, more publicly to others (less vocal) who were also offended.

Awards and PR – an awkward marriage

Viewpoint Hammers 2015 winners - at an event overshadowed by online protests about sexist comments from the event's 'comedian'.

Viewpoint Hammers 2015 winners – at an event overshadowed by online protests about sexist comments from the event’s ‘comedian’.

I have long held an ambivalent view of the “Hammers” (I had a protracted online exchange with one of the previous organisers of the event in 2007, and, after years of muttering about its decision-making processes, in July this year I again suggested it might make its awards process more transparent and impartial). Of course, awards events can provide strong content for PR practitioners and their employers/clients (today, for example, I’ve seen several tweets and a couple of blog posts from companies, including Asite, Viewpoint and Conject, that won “Hammers”); ignoring them can be difficult if it leaves the door open to competitors to shout about winning industry accolades, however prestigious. And they are a hugely lucrative earner for awards promoters with award sponsorships and entertainment packages to sell.

However, as this latest episode shows, they can also backfire unexpectedly. As Su outlined, the “Hammers” has not been the only construction industry awards event hit by accusations of sexism this autumn (she mentions the CIOB CMYA Awards, and the Bentley Be Inspired Awards – both of which I attended). Such storms underline how deep-rooted some industry attitudes remain; while an industry awards event may seek to show the sector at its best, misguided attempts at “humour” or “championing women” can end up exposing the misogyny (conscious and unconscious) that still lurks beneath many parts of the sector. And sometimes the protests aren’t greater because:

  • guests don’t want to upset their hosts
  • PR and marketing people don’t want to upset their clients or employers
  • award hopefuls don’t want to upset organisers and risk being excluded from future awards (kind of underlining my point about the need for transparency and separation between the commercial and judging elements of such events), and
  • ultimately, sometimes we’re just too damned polite!

I responded to Su’s post, citing my very different impression of the IBP event:

There was no sexism apparent at last night’s IBP awards. This is hardly surprising given that in construction and property journalism, PR and marketing, we have – compared to other parts of the construction industry – a much higher representation of women among our professions (though the same might also be true in other construction areas such as HR, law, accounting, administration and clerical support).

Awards nights should be about celebrating what is best about our industry, not about perpetuating sexist, stereotypical views that perpetuate the industry’s current poor reputation. I applaud those people that took a stand against the so-called “comedy” act. This is the 21st century, and such “entertainment” has no place in a modern industry event.

Update (23 November 2015)BIMCrunch reports an apology from Construction Computing Awards organiser Josh Boulton:

“We are a small team, and we are absolutely devastated about this. Some of the routine on the night was not what we had seen before and we sincerely apologise to anyone who was offended by the comedian. Two people did walk out, and we apologised to them swiftly on Twitter. Those people have kindly accepted our apologies on social media and we will work hard to ensure that an instance like this does not happen again.”

Oct 06 2015

Time for TICKAC to change

The industry currently known as construction needs to do more than incremental tinkering with technology or scoping out skills. Big, joined-up thinking is required.

Watching recent developments regarding UK construction skills shortages and “the image of construction“, I fear the sector’s typically conservative and incremental approaches will do little to bring about much-needed major change.

According to HM Treasury’s National Infrastructure Plan for Skills, 250,000 of the existing workforce will have to re-train in new skills and a further 100,000 new recruits must be found (read TCI story). Yet industry initiatives tend to focus on delivering more of today’s constructors, not tomorrow’s built environment collaborators.

Take the recent launch by the CITB of its Go Construct campaign, for example…. The CITB says:

Responding to feedback from employers, CITB is supporting the campaign with £5million of levy funding over three years. CITB has brought all of the industry to speak with one voice. More than 400 organisations including employers, careers advisors, teachers, lecturers and construction ambassadors have been involved in the design of the campaign that has been tested with 700 real users.

The campaign aims to challenge some of the outdated stereotypes about what working in construction is really like, and demonstrate the hundreds of career options and entry routes available. It is launching against growing skill needs and opportunities in construction.

Construction businesses need more than constructors

Go Construct’s online portal includes “a careers explorer that matches users’ interests and skills to a wide range of roles”. I tried out the portal from the perspective of someone (for example, my 17-year-old daughter – currently considering her university options) wanting a career in construction law, in finance, in product design or manufacture, in marketing or PR, or in IT, HR or other areas of administrative support, and was repeatedly told: “We’re sorry, based on your selection we have been unable to find a suitable match.”

Scrolling through the 144 job titles currently listed on the portal (perhaps one day there will be “hundreds”), there were almost no roles in any of these key support areas; the vast majority were conventional construction trade, technician and professional roles (plus a couple of lecturer roles, and “Partner or managing director”). Go Construct, it appears, is focused on training people to work almost purely in project delivery, ignoring the opportunities that the industry can offer to a wide range, and huge number, of other workers in support roles and in supplier organisations without which most construction businesses and projects would grind to a halt.

[Update (20 October 2015) – The CITB has come under fire for the £1.2m cost of its Go Construct website – see Construction Enquirer.]

The CITB may think it has “brought all of the industry to speak with one voice”, but I seriously doubt it (just a month ago, I noted Build UK claims that it was “ideally positioned to promote collaboration and provide industry-wide solutions for the benefit of everyone”). The sector is hugely diverse and fragmented, and the CITB is seemingly just marketing its traditional strengths and trying to pick off some low-hanging fruit.

As I’ve said before, the current immense challenges facing the sector – chief construction adviser Peter Hansford today listed them as skills, productivity, innovation, collaboration and image – will not be solved by pretending we work in a monolithic entity and tinkering in a few areas to achieve incremental change. We have to identify deep-rooted changes we could make across many disciplines, and then get them communicating, running long-term, integrated, pan-sector campaigns, and working collaboratively with partners, trade bodies and  customers and end-users.

“Make no little plans”

We have to tackle the existing siloed structures, attitudes, cultures and resulting behaviours within the sector. These helped create the industry’s poor reputation (arguably, if we could tackle the skills, productivity, innovation and collaboration challenges, the image issue would be resolved too), and this reputation makes construction less attractive to potential home-grown employees at a time when there are deep skills shortages and the existing workforce is ageing.

Make no little plans. Jason McLennan talking at LivingFutureLondon event.

The future direction and shape of the industry currently known as construction (TICKAC?) will be affected by political, economic, social, legal and environmental factors. Globalisation, carbon, population growth and resource shortages will have an increasingly important and direct bearing on what industry clients identify as desirable business outcomes, making them more alert to whole-life performance and to wider business, social, economic and sustainability outcomes (yesterday, I attended a Living Future conference organised by Arup Associates – review Storify here – where biology, psychology and sociology were mentioned just as much as architecture and engineering, and where ILFI CEO Jason McLennan urged us all to think big).

Supply chain organisations in TICKAC will be rationalised and more integrated, transformed into providers of leaner, safer, lower-carbon and data-supported “asset services”, rewarded across the life-cycle for the economic and social value delivered by the built assets they create, and having the reputations and market valuations more commonly found among sophisticated manufacturers.

And workers will be rewarded for their value-adding contributions; many will be recruited and trained to apply their skills in off-site manufacturing facilities; there will be a more strategic and long-term view of employment supply and demand (managed through pan-sector open platforms such as Ethos’s SkillsPlanner project – soft-launched yesterday, and to which CITB is contributing data; see Construction Manager story),* and new professions will emerge as we start to “build for living” (see Arup/RAEng report) and exploit the rich data opportunities of Future Cities.

This is not achieved solely by tinkering with technology or scoping out new silo-based skills. It is achieved by thinking big, by radically overhauling existing structures, processes and cultures, driving out waste, creating just and collaborative business relationships (both corporate and interpersonal) that nurture innovation, and having supply chains focus on what delivers best whole life economic and social value.

[* This post draws on a blog post I wrote for Ethos – of which I am a partner – in July. I am part of the SkillsPlanner team.]

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