Transitions in construction

Transitions in construction

Whatever you thought, think again.

Organising industrial R&D

IndustryPosted by Dan Engström Thu, December 08, 2011 23:55:25

I’ve been thinking. Why is it that research is not used more often in construction? And how could we organise research so that we got more out of it, from a business perspective?

Local business, global knowledge ...
In construction, business is normally done locally. Even larger corporations give freedom to local managers to do business the way that works best in their town. This is our blessing and our curse. We are well adapted to local situations but we have a problem with lateral knowledge management. This fits well with the world view that each building is unique. We have not seen the need to implement incentives for dissemination of key findings to other colleagues within the company. Most transitions that are not driven by local business are disseminated through top-down directives.

But each building is not unique. Construction consists of a number of activities that we’ve done a thousand times before. Our organisation is not good enough when we need to pool our creativity, like we need to in order to meet the fast-paced development of the challenges of the market. We currently need to lower construction costs, radically increase energy efficiency in buildings, create business out of sustainability demands, recruit the best professionals, increase transparency and quality, and make workplaces safe – among many other things. In order to do that, we identify and adopt new technology and processes. We develop and market building products. When we do that, the well-entrenched, local, business-driven organisation we’re stuck with is simply not up to the job. We will not be able to make these things happen ad hoc in the context of a construction project, especially not if we expect that client to pay for an investment we made for the good of our whole company.

Research and development is a good an example of a lateral activity that suffers by this. Dear friends, we might as well face it, researchers are frowned upon in construction. We represent almost the antithesis of the adventure that construction has been made into. Researchers like it when events are predictable, repeatable, when we understand the mechanisms behind them. Yes, we can be used as experts in tricky situations, and indeed often are. But our research skills are of little use in the local project. They need to be put to use laterally, in the learning from project to project.

Good researchers work laterally
You will no doubt know this, but it is worth repeating. You don’t hire researchers because they are so skilled in the narrow field they wrote their theses on. You hire them because they are good at pulling out a solvable problem from a complex problem field in real life. You hire them because they are good at suggesting a feasible approach to solve that problem, going through with the project, analysing the results and working laterally so that others may learn. That is what they were trained to do.

Sedimentation researchers in the Morro Bay, CA Estuary mudflats. There is business in understanding mechanisms.

You use those skills to make sure your company has the knowledge necessary to meet changing market needs. And you pool them. By all means let your researchers be organised locally, but make sure they have guidance for what the company priorities are. If you don’t, you’ll have them running in every direction because they’ll all read the business strategy differently.

In order to provide that guidance, you organise an R&D unit. You likely put it in a satellite of its own, maybe reporting to the MD or his process manager. This unit ensures the long-term accumulation of knowledge, both in terms of results and of people. It will be an important element of your company’s attractiveness to the specialist skills that can further contribute to if you reach the market in the best possible way.

The R&D unit pools knowledge and activities within the company to identify knowledge gaps that prevent you from meeting the market the best possible way in say three years’ time. It identifies and initiates R&D projects in these areas. It also addresses the balance between the need for short-term development and long-term research. It is funded so that it in turn can fund both in-house projects and the acquisition of externally financed projects. If there is no product development unit, the R&D unit is also responsible for the creation and development of the products the company markets. There. You’re done. You are in control of a lateral knowledge flow to support business.

Well, yes and no. Before you have established R&D activities you likely have isolated islands of activity, which have good contact with the business and the construction site. That was the very reason I argued why a company of your size needs an R&D unit, remember? You need it to pool the islands of activity. So you do establish a centrally controlled operation. But then you’re in for a paradox: you lose the very close collaboration contact with the business, because critical mass invites R&D to be a full-time employment for the people involved.

I'll try it in the next project, if I have the time
It is reasonable that everyone makes the construction project a priority. But this focus will likely be taken to the point where you may find it difficult to link the R&D activities in earnest to the real business benefits. Your R&D type colleagues have good ideas but they have a difficult time of it convincing local managers and business managers to devote time to test new methods. Your research people are staff persons and have no say in local business decisions. They can only give advice, which frankly is taken lightly if there is a risk involved for costs or problems that cause delays.

One way to solve this is to assign each geographical or market area their own strategic development area (energy efficiency, virtual construction, industrialization, sustainability and so on). You give them the task of being the company's role model in that area, and you followed up like you would any metrics. You link regional management bonuses to the success of those metrics and to their adoption of the ideas of others, as well as to their business results. Do that – and hang in there – and enjoy seeing your company overtake the competition, or even find new business.

Given half a chance, at least that’s what I would do.

Images, Flickr CC: Sedimentation researchers in the Morro Bay, CA Estuary mudflats, Doing research, painter's doll by Viewoftheworld, US Army Corps of Engineers site visit by USACEpublicaffairs