Large parts of the UK architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector have proved resistant to ideas of partnering, knowledge-sharing and integrated collaborative working (despite the efforts of Latham and Egan, while only time will tell if Wolstenholme‘s Never Waste a Good Crisis fares any better). The IT departments of many AEC organisations similarly adopt a closed approach when it comes to some collaborative technologies. I learned this when marketing web-based project collaboration software at BIW, and I’ve heard the same view expressed about social media tools. Fellow blogger Julian Dobson quotes responses from people working for an environmental quango and a major civil engineering firm:
‘I’m afraid my government laptop is so locked down that I’m unable to install any software at all.’
‘I have to let you know that I can’t/won’t download the dropbox application onto [our] heavily firewalled and controlled network.’
But I have found it can also be an attitude of mind held by the AEC professionals within firms. Call it inertia, arrogance, a “not invented here” syndrome, or maybe ‘silo’ mentality, but resistance to consulting outside the organisation is certainly prevalent in some businesses. I spoke to an architect from a leading design firm at the RIBA recently, and he was adamant that a large multi-disciplinary consultancy had no need to interact with co-professionals from other firms through social networks – “our in-house resources are more than adequate,” he insisted.
This may be a common view within that firm. Soong M Kang, a university researcher at UCL, told me about a frustrating recent meeting with someone from the same company:
He brought two more guys to the meeting: one who deals with their web strategy and another who deals with their “community” efforts. In essence, it seemed to me that they have their own internal system and are not willing to think outside of it. Especially the guy from web strategy was extremely hostile to my project, which is understandable if one sees his vested interests.
So in some AEC organisations there is almost an insular, anti-collaborative culture that pervades both the IT department and fee-earning professionals.
Social approaches to innovation
In other engineering design sectors, though, there appears to be more willingness to consider social computing solutions. I first wrote about social product development in this blog in July, and have just been reading an article by Tom Kevan in Desktop Engineering along similar lines. He argues that new economic realities (globalisation, increased competition, ‘mechatronic’ design approaches, and changing demographics) are forcing a rethink of how designers can achieve innovation.
No longer is it the product of one engineer’s genius or the skill of a company’s engineering team. Increasingly, the ideas of customers, suppliers, and outside experts are being tapped to create broader development networks. To enable the communication and collaboration needed by these networks, companies and technology providers are adapting social networking paradigms to the product design arena.
“It is the diversity of the community that looks at these problems that matters most in ensuring that they get solved,” says InnoCentive’s Ritter, explaining that it is the social aspect of product development that makes it possible to find the one person in the world uniquely qualified to answer the specific question.
Having a closed mentality to problem-solving may satisfy the egos of old-school AEC design professionals (and will probably be supported by their IT departments), but I wonder if it could mean their firms inadvertently fail clients by not extending their search for innovation beyond the organisation’s firewalls?
Web 2.0 and construction collaboration
Incidentally, if anyone is interested in helping Soong with his research, please have a look at his outline (reproduced here) and get in touch with him. He is particularly looking for companies who want to test out the use of Web 2.0-type tools to improve their collaborative design efforts.