Transitions in construction

Transitions in construction

Whatever you thought, think again.


Let’s change the world forever

Step-changePosted by Dan Engström Fri, December 23, 2011 14:57:21
Let’s change the world forever. At least the way we develop and implement new knowledge in construction. It can be done. We even have a plan to back that up.

Here’s the thing. We’re doing it all wrong. Have done for decades. Small wonder that our colleagues in construction are looking at us researchers like we were from Mars. Our plan is to scrap the report.The issue

Here’s the thing. My job is industrial research. That means I do research and development in order to help my colleagues improve their business. I’m not primarily trying to make good business for my own unit of engineers but for the units that actually build stuff. You know; houses, bridges, that sort of thing. My main job is to do research that help us understand how we develop and package building products, wherein I mainly work with how we cut costs while still improving the product quality.

Much of the empirical knowledge we use in our research comes from a number of short-term development projects. We analyse a problem here and test small developments there. Every year, people like me produce quite a substantial number of reports and articles from such projects. Let’s have a show of hands, those of you that have you read them.

No. I thought as much. That’s my whole idea here. Research is presented in the format of text and images on paper. That’s how we develop, disseminate and deconstruct the logical argumentation. Because the very reason for research is to produce new knowledge. In sharp contrast to this, the reason for industrial research and for those short-term development projects is the improvement of someone’s business. Some researchers create new knowledge because a knowledge gap invites their curiosity to explore it. Some researchers, like me, work to fill that gap because filling it means that their colleagues will make better business.

Even though in our sector they converge over time, there is a big difference between the two. There is a difference in how you design your research, how you measure success, and most of all in how you use the results. The issue, which is my main subject today, is that there seem to be very little difference in how we present the results. We are researchers, so we send pdf documents in the mail and hope to make a powerpoint presentation after which we leave a pile of reports and papers behind. We do the project and then think about how to tell people about the results. That is no good.

Redesign your R&D

We design our projects after what should be included, like the good researchers we are, not after the recipients can be expected to take in. At that crucial meeting where we present our project results, we go through the memo and report that we sent and unfortunately, no one has had the time to read it beforehand. We stand there with our reports and are faced with the task of getting a complicated message across understood quickly, in real time. We have the knowledge and the understanding we need to convey the message quickly, but we are not prepared for presenting it quickly.

I tend to say to my students that they should not write so that they get all information into that email or presentation, but so that everything they write is taken in by their audience. Imagine if we do exactly that with our industrial research projects, and even take it a step further. Imagine if we design these projects to contain only that which can be taken in during three minutes. If we do that, we need to go to demonstrations instead of reports. It is likely we can only use media like images, video clips and models.

Let’s take Lego as an example of a useful tool. A new product or process can easily be mimicked in Lego. Like a real World Cup football match or the concurrent design and assembly of the Harry potter Hogwarts Great hall, brick by brick. Maybe we want to demonstrate a functioning Lego sniper rifle or a Lego domino row building machine. Have a look at one or two of the links above. I think you'll agree that videos make it easy to convey even complicated concepts quickly.

Lego even helped us with the virtual building software tool we need; the Lego Digital Designer and made their own business based on it (an on the creativity of their customers), Lego Design By Me. Our job is to be prepared for using that kind of media. We only need to be creative in choosing the best possible way to convey the new knowledge we gained in under ten minutes. We should aim for no less than everyone dropping their jaws.

Cut to the chase

Even complicated concepts can be conveyed in a very short time, so that it is possible for the recipients to make an assessment of what it would mean to them to adopt it. Except understanding your recipients needs (which is a different blog post), the key is that you decide the medium very early. You work in that medium and with that medium in mind for the workshops and dissemination of the new process. You bring the model or show the clip. You will be surprised by the interest you will get from having used an unexpected medium.

Now you’re working like you were in advertising; you are making your colleagues understand the essence of your message quickly, think about the potential of it and maybe even want more. You’ve turned a difficult meeting situation around to a great opportunity. You have active participants who actually have understood the gist of the project results. Because the gist is all they need at this point. You can now enjoy the opportunity to discuss the reason why you did the project in the first place: the business that should come out of it.

I know that you are bound to have any number of documents in writing on your servers. Don’t throw them away, silly. I mean scrap the report as the main carrier of the information. Those documents on the server are not the ones that you bring to the meeting. Leave them there. They are backup, they contain the knowledge needed AFTER that crucial meeting.

You need the written reports and data when the decision has been made that you should go on with the next stage of developing the new process or product. But you do not need them to introduce your results. You do not need them to make that first impact that is so crucial to the implementation of your hard work.

Scrap the report.


Images, Flickr Creative Commons: Editing a paper by Nic's events, Papers by mortsan, Lego generations by ansik