Transitions in construction

Transitions in construction

Whatever you thought, think again.


Industry research and the hole in the wall

ResearchPosted by Dan Engström Thu, November 24, 2011 00:22:17

Industry research. It’s not the same as your regular research. You have a wall to overcome here.

You see, today I attended a meeting where we discussed the basic set-up of a project in support of industrial development for the manufacturing and engineering industry. Construction is fringe to say the least, but that’s actually the point. With our project-based logic, we have much to learn from taking a seat among the companies that make the products we use. The manufacturer of sinks and windows are very different from the contractor that puts them in. They’ve already made the transition into product-based logic, long ago. In terms of development of production, they have challenges in increasing efficiency and productivity, finding ways to prioritise both production and the development of production, and so on. Not us. We need to learn more on how to work with products, they need to learn how to improve their production. But we’re in the same project, dedicated to meeting the financer’s overall goal of increasing the rate of innovation in Swedish production.

Let me put this another way. We’re in a project that is financed with tax money because it supports a general aim relating to the industry as a whole, with manufacturing money because it will increase efficiency and with construction money because it will help us develop our product logic. It is run by researchers who need funding for learning the mechanisms of innovation so they can help other companies better. Yes, I am bantering. Trying to make a point here, OK? Bear with me. I’m saying that the different drivers in the project are not really compatible. So, are we doomed to fail at the wall?

I think not. Much like Douglas Adam’s knack to flying (learning how to fall to the ground and miss) there is a knack to designing these projects. They’re industry research projects. I’ll wager that that’s not what most researchers are used to.

They’re not our projects. Read that again. Feel free to say it out loud as many times as it takes. They’re not ours. They. Are Not. Ours. We are not the point. In industrial research projects, the industry is the key. Researchers run it, but it is what the industry does that counts. Might as well face it guys, we researchers are Santa’s Little Helper here. Yeah yeah, we do our usual research bit: we observe, document, analyse, understand and describe the mechanisms of what went on. That's fine and dandy. But it’s only part of our job. Just as important is our job to design the project so that the industry is motivated to use it. Help them get inspired by the project and use project resources to do that little development that they’ve been talking about for a while. If they do, you have concrete actions thanks to the project and don’t even have to make up the demonstrators that financers are so keen to require nowadays. All you have to do then is document and lay the jigsaw puzzle the industry has handed you.

So what’s the knack? You’ve got that big grant from a government agency. They want you to save the jobs in your country, or something like it, something very generic. In order to get the grant, you promised you would achieve the impossible. You collected a handful of lose commitments of in-kind support from companies that are busy making money. They’re not interested in saving the national industry, they’re in it for the concrete, hands-on improvement of their business. So. You’re in charge, what do you do now?

You let them do their thing, that’s what you do. You ignore for now the task the financers gave you (the save the jobs bit) and support in any way you can the industry in your project. Be concrete. You know a trick or two on how their business can be improved. Talk to your industry partners, get to know their issues and suggest something very limited you believe would support them. They will change your suggestion. Great. That’s why you put it to them. Don’t ask, you won’t get any useful answers. Suggest and let them revise. Just make sure the task is limited so that they have a chance of pulling the improvement off.

There is a brick wall separating your current position from innovation, sustainability or whatever generic improvement the government want you to achieve. Instead of trying to tear down the wall – and fail – drill a hole in it. That’s easy. Drill a small hole so you can show there is a way through to the other side. If your project is into innovation, work with every company on a given innovation of theirs. Do not call this hole in the wall the generic term – “increased rate of innovation” will not get you the commitment and inspiration from the industry partners – call it something more concrete. Call it what they are working with: identifying manufacturing bottle-necks, active design, merging purchasing and logistics in their supply-chain. They can all be innovations, we’ll just not speak about innovations that much. It is not the concept of innovation that makes money. Let’s call a spade a spade here.

In order to not get fifteen individual projects, find clusters of companies in your project with similar challenges and design the project and the meetings so that they support each other. Offer them support in thematic areas where they can drill their holes together: business models, energy efficiency, partnering in public procurement, manufacturing, purchasing. Anything goes that the companies want to work with. Accept that they will ignore the other clusters you have in the project. The European Commission loves to designate these thematic clusters as work packages. But you won’t. You’ll talk about them in terms of what each hole in the wall is going to achieve. You will not talk about the work but of the goal, the reason why the company in question is drilling that hole.

While the industry partners do their development and money-making, you do your research thing. Case studies, action research, fly on the wall. Whatever. If you’ve guided the clusters with one eye on the project goals in the contract with the public financer you’re in the perfect position. You take a good look from above on all the developments that have taken place and you describe what you see. You will not only see a pattern of development that you can publish as research results that also addres the overall aim of the project (see, we ended up there after all), you will also see things that actually happened in real life. It’s likely that the government or commission is less interested in the new knowledge we’ve gained than they are in the developments that actually took place. These small steps are their metrics for the improvements across the whole industry; for a common European construction market, for production to stay in Europe and so on. Your project will have not only have produced new papers and theses, it will have been the catalyst for these changes.

And guess what? It’s you that made it happen.

Images, Flickr Creative Commons: Brick wall by theArtGuy (top), Power Drill by vvvracer (middle), Hole in the wall by Gravityx9 (bottom).

Credit: the Hole in the wall concept was originally conceived by Magnus Widfeldt, Swerea IVF.