Not invented here

WolstenholmeRepCoverLarge 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.

InnocentiveKevan goes on to describe three pioneering technologies, including the crowd-sourced problem-solving (similar to ideabounty.compost). Here:

“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.


    • Sean Kaye on 1 December 2009 at 2:36 am
    • Reply

    I think you have you look at this sort of thing with some level of empathy for the IT staff. Things like cloud computing, SaaS and even social networking are massively disruptive technologies for these people. Not so long ago, the average IT Manager was responsible for having a mail system, maintaining some file shares and maybe some bespoke systems like financials or general database applications. These people learned a core set of technical skills and they learned the hard way that these systems are critical. This focus has made internal IT professionals somewhat sensitive to risk they cannot control.

    Add to this the glut of BAD IT projects that were often thrust onto the IT folks by “business people” with good ideas. The number of failed CRM and ERP implementations exceed the successful ones and these were almost always driven by the business. That being the case, almost always IT was landed with the failure. Again, this has made internal IT professionals gun shy.

    Now what these new technologies are proposing is earth shifting in many ways. First of all, the uptime and performance of the applications are completely outside of the control of the internal IT people. Secondly, whereas MOST businesses had policies about “computer use” that prohibited IM and other “toys” the industry is telling business to open itself up to Facebook and Twitter.

    Adoption of acceptance of this new way of delivering and consuming technology requires a complete change in “role” for the internal IT professional. They no longer are the “box hugging” guys who fix the “flux capacitors” when the “ramscoops” get overloaded with “negatively charged ions”. These people need to become experts in understanding how their colleagues do their jobs and find ways to implement these new tools to improve things. And its hard to do both. You can’t be having a discussion with your internal IT person about adopting the latest collaborative design management tool hosted in the cloud and then ask them how to reset your iPhone.

    These new technologies are making change, it just sometimes requires a bit of patience to bring the old gatekeepers along on the journey.

    1. Thanks, Sean. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of sympathy with construction company IT staff, who are often caught between a rock and a hard place. They have senior managers who want a highly secure, reliable IT system, but are often paranoid about collaboration and sharing information. They also have users who want to share information but are prevented by the diktats of their senior managers. With conflicting approaches, it is a lose-lose situation.

      But if the company leaders had a more enlightened attitude to collaboration then this could become part of the strategic direction for the IT team, enabling them to develop or integrate appropriately secure technologies into the services provided. At the same time, the leaders should also be looking to produce guidelines on the appropriate use of tools like LinkedIn, Twitter, etc so that the IT department’s efforts are not compromised by irresponsible user actions. By creating some common ground and aligning technology, people and processes, this might then become a win-win situation.

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