Actually, it would be more accurate to say that it is ready for revolution. Construction alone, seemingly, as opposed to nearly any other industry that one could think of it the industrialized and digitized West, has been able to operate in a manner much less than conducive for contemporary business. It is remarkable to consider how unlike other industries construction really is in its current operations.
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Whether one considers any major industry today, they will all be unlike the construction industry in a very important way. For example, consider general or specified retail, the development and manufacturing of computer hardware or software, the service industries of law or medicine, or any other major industry, and one readily sees that they all frequently engage in innovation as it is proper to the irrespective industries and they certainly employ the important business tactic known benchmarking. However, with regard to construction, the voices are unanimous in their consent that for some reason or another this particular industry has been slow to innovate and aggressively improve itself in a world where every other company or industry seems to do this very thing.
It would seem that it is widely acknowledged these days that innovation in construction is long overdue. For a number of years Purdue University has maintained a website concerned with presenting concepts of Emerging Construction Technologies. The Division of Construction Engineering and Management of Purdue University, specifically, has been the collaborative to spearhead this project. Additionally, there is a Centre for Innovative and Collaborative Engineering at Loughborough University, which maintains a website for discussing issues pertinent to the construction industry in the U.K. specifically and also just generally. The University recently launched a project to extend from April, 2004 to March, 2007, which would explore the reasons why there is not a strong culture of Research, Innovation and Development (RID) within the constructions industry. There is also a Construction Innovation Forum (CIF), which annually tries to award various individuals for excellent long-range achievements in innovation in construction. It remains to be explored in the remainder of this essay just which are the most important ways in which the industry of construction, and the related industries of surveying and property, have not yet innovated, though perhaps they should have. It is now appropriate to explore some concepts with which we will be working throughout the essay, and these are the concepts of innovation and benchmarking.
In2003 Kristian Widén wrote an important article addressing the general issue of innovation within the construction industry and explored why the industry had done so poorly in enacting innovation. It was necessary for Widén, as it is here, to begin by discussing the nature of innovation. Widén offers several definitions from a number of sources and notes at the end of the section on defining innovation that the one thing all the various definitions have in common is that in innovation something new is created, a product or a process, and put to use. There is also an attending reason why any company anywhere would ever attempt to be innovative – it would be for the good of the company. This perceived good by the company will either be for an increase in competitiveness with rival companies or for, what Widén calls a survival strategy. Accordingly, if there is no perceived reason why a given construction company should attempt to be innovative, it is likely that no attempt at innovation will take place, given the fact that innovation always costs – and usually costs in terms of time and money. Widén notes that historically, with respect to other industries, it has been the clients themselves who imposed the necessity of proper motivation for industries to innovate. If the client did not require it, in short, it would often be the case that no innovation would take place. Again, there is a sense of necessity here. If the companies within the industry (e.g., in construction) are feeling no need to innovate from the client (i.e., there is no pressure exerted on the companies to innovate), then the status quo will be maintained indefinitely. This is not because there is no innovation taking place within the acts of the construction industry themselves. Certainly, the very nature of construction is such that it requires with each new project some manner of innovation. There are invariably unaccounted-for problems and obstacles that arise with each new project, thereby requiring of the industry to be to some extent innovative in dealing with new and unexpected obstacles to production. Also, Widén says, there is a constant tendency within the industry toward inappropriate forms of co-operation on presumably all levels, not the least of which are the various time and spatial conflicts that arise with sub-contractors and the re-scheduling involved in the given project (again, when the unforeseen things occur). A further note that Widén makes is that whatever innovations do occur on an individual project, they are often not carried over into subsequent projects. The innovations of construction are, perhaps peculiarly, reversible, and not irreversible as in some other industries.
One aspect of this reversibility of innovations is somewhat connected to the concept of benchmarking in business. At this point, it is necessary to consider just what benchmarking is, as it relates to industries and capitalism. Benchmarking as a concept might be best thought of as that vehicle that moves companies in the same industries forward and in roughly the same technological directions. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language benchmarking as a transitive verb is defined in this way, to measure (a rival’s product) according to specified standards in order to compare it with and improve one’s own product. This definition places the concept of benchmarking squarely within the realm of capitalism as one company adapts to the advancements/improvements that rival companies in the same industry are making while still more or less observing the norms of the industry in which the company finds itself. That is, the extant standards within the industry in question are used to measure a rival’s product and to compare it with one’s own current product and to make the recommended adjustments to one’s own products or service in order to increase competitiveness. Although the definition does not explicitly state this, it would seem to be implied by the norms of capitalistic economies as they are found today that benchmarking occurs in the provision of products or services. There are practical effects that occur in capitalist economies when benchmarking occurs, especially in the realm of goods which are offered to the public. Let us consider a brief example as regards cellular telephones. Originally, a cellular phone was much like a cordless phone from the home with the exception of being able to have a much broader range of signal. A particular feature of both types of telephones at the time of the advent of the cellular phone was the Caller ID feature. It was possible in the late 1990’sto add this feature for an extra charge to one’s service enabling an individual to see from what number the call was coming. The first few large-scale cellular providers began to make it an industry standard for cellular phone to have this feature and then the rest of the cellular providers followed suit, such that today it would be practically unheard of to begin a new cellular service with any U.S. company and not expect the Caller ID feature to be standard with the service. This was an example of benchmarking within a specific industry. An example in construction could be that universally nowadays in commercial construction framing crews use nail guns with which to frame as opposed to the common method of only twenty years ago (which was the simple hammering in of loose nails). Today it would be practically unheard of for a commercial construction framing crew to not use the nail guns in their framing. Benchmarking begins, then, as an attempt to be competitive in recognizing a smart innovation by one’s rival companies, but it ends by being a type of standardization of technology where every company adopts certain innovations as part and parcel to the industry in question. So, the levied charge against construction here is not that sustained innovation does not take place in the industry. It is simply that it is too infrequent and too slow to happen.
Recent efforts to address the problems seemingly inherent in today’s construction industry have focused on a number of lines. First, there are attempts that take into account the fact that there is a lack of specificity and/or good communication involved in client/contractor projects. Second, there have been recent attempts at reworking the construction at a fundamental level. One such of these attempts has been the recent Design-Build phenomenon (which also falls into the first category mentioned here too). Another has been a consideration of Public/Private projects and there merits. Author Kristian Widén indicated that two solutions to the current crisis in the industry would centre on more of a specificity and delineating of all expectations from the client/owner toward the contractor(s). Additionally, Widén indicated that long-lasting communication lines need to be established. Rather than the head of a contractor (or crew) simply popping in, as it were, to the jobsites on rare occasion there should be much more of a long-term rapport established among all major individuals involved in a given project. As Edward Fisk and Wayne Reynolds concur, they write that the partnering concept needs to be revamped today as a means of creating a general environs where in all parties would work together toward the common goal of efficient and good completion of the project. Partnering is not a contract, but a recognition that every contract includes an implied covenant of good faith. While the contract establishes the legal relationships, the Partnering process is designed to establish working relationships among the parties through a mutually developed, formal strategy of commitment and communication. So, in this concept there is embedded several important ideas addressing current concerns raised by Widén et al. First, there is a recognition of this good faith relationship and it is only as strong as each party’s commitment to it. It is mutually developed, the authors say. It is interesting to note that though Fisk and Reynolds are very quick to point out that it is not a contract nor meant to replace the all-importance of the contract, nevertheless this partnering has a strategy which is formal. And again, it necessarily involves commitment and communication of all German parties. This suggestion would seem to be a much improved model today which is very casual among all parties involved (which could include client, general contractor, various sub-contractors, various crew leaders, and assistants to all of these individuals). There seem to be far too many parties involved in an already complicated process to have it be any other way than the model suggested by Fisk and Reynolds. Construction, surveying and property are overrun with a sense of the casual in the various professional relations among the parties. The fact that many aspects of the overall process like change orders or work to be done and the merely oral contracts existing between sub-contractors and their crews are enough to establish the casual nature of much of the overall construction process. The Design-Build phenomenon of recent years has been an attempt at solving some of the systemic problems in the construction process and has simultaneously offered itself as a means of achieving innovation in the industry. The solution to some of the communication problems associated with contemporary construction is attempted to be solved by the Design-Build approach by eliminating, not middle men, but lines of separation between many of the key players. For example, a typical Design-Build firm can have altogether under one roof and working for the same company the contractor, engineer, and architect effectively providing an owner with a one-stop point of contact to design and build a proposed construction project. This one-stop place necessarily increases efficiency and the speed at which a project may be completed, especially when all of these individuals are truly under one roof (i.e., they are all employees or closely connected with the construction firm, rather than merely being distant consultants). However, a weakness of the Design-Build approach has been seen in its difficulty, at times, in dealing with governmental clients. Jeffrey Beard et al. note just such a case having to do with legalities burdening the process of pay to Design-Build firms. For at least this reason, the establishment of attempts by the U.S. government, to use an example, have been offered as private/public efforts at spearheading the way into the future of home and commercial building. One such program, which was instrumental in the publication of the two pieces of research by the U.S. Department of Housing listed in the bibliography for this report, is known by the acronym PATH (Partnership for Advanced Technology in Housing). It is noted explicitly in the report Commercialization of Innovations: Lessons Learned that public and private must together share the burden of the risk of innovation if the building sectors of industry are to avoid the dampening effects of litigation.
In whatever ways private industry is unable, on its own (despite the recent noble attempts of Design-Build, etc.) to follow the Commercialization of Innovations report’s objectives, it is to be hoped that a union of private/public building schemes will be able to, as the report states, expedite the commercialization of innovation. It does seem clear that major attempts at bringing to the construction industry (and all closely related industries) long-lasting innovation is long overdue. In fact, as it was alluded-to earlier in this paper, what is needed is an entire culture that supports the advocacy and actual implementation of innovation. With any fortune and hard-work (both of which entailing implementation) of all or some of the recent initiatives and advisements indicated in this report, it seems that the construction industry might at long last engage in genuine aspects of competitive business, including long-term benchmarking and an overall culture of innovation.
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