UK Construction Media

Exclusive Interview: Paul Morrell gives his verdict on the construction industry

News   •   Oct 11, 2016 11:44 BST

UK Construction Online’s Matt Brown talks to Paul Morrell OBE, former Chief Government Construction Advisor, about his views on the how 2011 - 2016 Government Construction Strategy was implemented; the BIM Level 2 mandate; the skills shortage and Digital Construction Week.

A chartered quantity surveyor and formerly a senior partner of Davis Langton until his retirement in 2007, Paul is now an independent consultant on the economics of construction and procurement.

Has the 2011 – 2016 Government Construction Strategy been delivered in the way you originally envisaged?

Well of course I haven’t been there to see it from the inside since the end of 2012, and you can believe me when I say that the view from outside is at best partial, and sometimes just plain wrong. At that time, however, although things were obviously patchy with some Departments acting as genuinely inspiring pathfinders, whilst others remained mired in years of embedded habits or weighed down by departmental baggage, I would say the general trend was encouraging.

The key to the Government Construction Strategy was that it had all three components of something that can legitimately claim to be a strategy: a diagnosis of the problem, the identification of a number of changes that would bring about improvement, and (above all) a practical plan for implementing those changes. Diagnosis and prescription had been done to death by 2012, and I would not claim any originality in the thoughts and ideas that formed the background to the strategy. Indeed, I would claim familiarity as one of its strengths.

The difference was therefore in Government using its buying power to persuade its suppliers that there needed to be a new bargain, based on the Government improving its practice as a client, and the industry then improving the value it could deliver in meeting public needs. And this was, by the way, at a time when Government’s other instruments of bringing about change – through fiscal measures or regulation – were either unavailable or disfavoured. The guiding principle, though, was that you cannot change an industry by exhortation and waving your arms around. Instead, change comes from changing the drivers of the businesses that make up the industry – and, even in an industry as reactive as construction, one of those drivers has to be the preferences and demands of customers.

As I say, I’m not there to see it from the inside anymore, but occasional messages from friends at the front are encouraging (and I am, for example, frankly astonished that all Departments got themselves “BIM ready” by this year’s deadline), and I am also encouraged by seeing that the reissued strategy builds on the previous one, rather than falling into the usual Governmental trap of reinvention and casting around desperately for something new to announce.

Historically, the construction industry has proven slow to embrace innovation. Why do you think this is?

The answer to that question is relevant context for the answer to almost any question about the industry: in short, nobody owns the whole process. Doubtless if anybody did own the whole process, that would bring problems of its own – particularly if they lacked either the right skills, instincts or motivation for the role. But just one consequence of the current fragmentation of roles, and the fragmentation of demand – so that you never know what the next phone call is going to bring, is that there is little incentive to innovate. Who, after all, is going to invest in finding a better solution to a problem that they’ll never be asked to solve again? So the problem is structural.

The other factors are the lack of international competition that has forced improvements in practice and productivity in other industries, and the lack of a feedback loop by which lessons can be learned on one project and applied on the next, so that user experience is properly represented at the inception of a project.

So the glib answer as to why the industry isn’t better at innovation is therefore because it doesn’t have to be (because of the lack of competition) and because it can’t be (because of a lack of integration and, in a world of “big data” because we don’t capture the lessons – let alone learn them).

How successful do you feel the BIM mandate has been so far? In retrospect, do you feel the construction industry has progressed as much as you had initially hoped?

I think the bandwagon effect of BIM is now unstoppable, and as the number of businesses that are exploring its benefits catches up the number of interviews, magazine articles and conferences dedicated to the subject, its impact can only grow. That is fundamentally because of its merits, and without the tangible benefits that it is already bringing to businesses and projects it would have been stillborn, notwithstanding the undeniable (and entirely welcome) hype. I think the service performed by the mandate was therefore to get people’s attention, and to change the question away from “whether” or “when” to explore BIM’s potential to “how”.

As for the amount of progress made, you would need to be very naïve indeed to believe that everything would change overnight. It’s a cliché to say that it isn’t a silver bullet (although clichés become that for a reason), and you can’t buy everything that BIM can be or do in a box. Structural and behavioural change is inevitably slower – but by comparison with other forces for change that I’ve witnessed over a lifetime in and around the industry, the pace of change is, in relative terms, as close to “overnight” as it could be.

It was never the expectation that every client and every company in the industry would immediately see the benefits of BIM to the extent that it would transform their own way of doing business. Instead, the belief was that the gains made by those who did make the greatest use of it would be such that competition would force the rest to follow, so that in time it becomes the normal way of doing business. Measured against that reality, I think the amount of progress made is nothing short of spectacular.

Do you think that people were getting too bogged down with the BIM Level 2 mandate and the deadline?

Not really. As the coverage of BIM has exploded, there were bound to be some who would seek to put themselves on a superior plane by claiming that it isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, or that it’s time to forget Cobie, or Level 2 – or whatever. But there’s always had to be a balance between making sure that the leading edge could carry on innovating and leading, whilst the peloton of the industry had a clear answer to the question “so where do I start?”.

For that, as for any project, there needed to be a definition of what it meant, and a budget and a timetable to get there

Back in 2011, one of the definitions of Level 2 was “stuff we know how to do now” and it therefore presented the industry with something that was known to be deliverable; and the development of standards and protocols around it also encouraged convergence, and avoided the trap of there being so much choice that nobody wanted to choose a direction for their own business.

Indeed, I think one of the challenges of moving BIM on has been finding an equivalent definition of the next level, as BIM expands from 3D modelling to genuine collaboration; from design and construction into operations; from individual buildings to cities and their systems; and onto wherever digitising the built environment (at last!) may take us.

Is BIM as much about changing mind-sets as it is about the technology?

A modified version Lyndon Johnson’s advice about how to move hearts and minds is probably relevant here: first grab them by the profit and loss account.

However, yes – I do think it’s now widely understood that technology is the lesser part of BIM, and that the bigger changes are behavioural. Again, that change isn’t going to be bought about by preaching about better ways of behaving. The move beyond sharing data to genuine collaboration, and then on to integration of delivery will only come about if clients can be persuaded that it delivers projects closer to their own criteria for success, and if all of those involved in the supply chain can see that it enables them to work at their best and to do so profitably. That may require an act of faith by some actors on both the supply and demand sides of the industry, but if the business drivers are right, mindset will soon follow, and those who see collaboration as something blameworthy that you do with the enemy will soon be marginalised.

What’s your take on the skills shortage in the industry?

That it too is a consequence of the structural issue that I’ve already referred to. If anyone owned the whole process, then they would keep looking ahead to the resources they would need to serve the market, rather than never looking beyond the next phone call. But because of fragmentation, and because the industry has become wholly reactive as a consequence, when the phone calls start to come in again, an industry that has previously concentrated on downsizing turns around, wonders where the resources are – and inevitably blames the Government.

As it happens, I think the Government could have done better. It was clear back in 2011 that the industry was becoming dangerously hollowed out and that the consequences of any return of demand would be that a bigger share of future investment would go straight into inflation. Given the dependence of so many public services upon effective economic and social infrastructure, Governments should have a vested interest in maintaining capacity in the interest – but sadly the Treasury looks no further into the future than the industry does – and we live with the consequences today.

Setting that aside, though, I think we’ll know when we have a grown up industry when it regards its own problems as being for it to solve; and there can be few issues more pressing than a strategic look at the people and skills we will need in the future and how to attract and develop them.

What are the major challenges facing further progress with the Government Construction Strategy and the implementation of BIM?

Challenges, like sorrows, don’t come as single spies but in battalions – but I would just point to two.

From the Government point of view, the question is whether it has the will and the wherewithal to stick at it and follow Winston Churchill’s advice to those confronting a challenging task to “keep on buggering on”. One consequence of a smaller civil service is that it needs to become more generalist, so people will move around even more than they do now, specialist knowledge will be lost, and every question will be addressed as if it has never been asked before – compounding the habit of new Governments to want to rebadge everything. This is not helped by the suspicion in the senior civil service of specialists who might make good the lack of sector-specific knowledge. We therefore need civil servants who stay in post long enough to deliver their programmes, reporting to Ministers who understand and are supportive of the longer term objectives.

From the point of view of the industry, I think the major challenge is who wants to be the integrator? The natural candidates should be tier one contractors, but my fear is that they’ve become so used to grinding their margin out of either their customers (in good times) or their supply chain (in bad times) that managing that margin has now become their core business – and that the challenges of putting together an integrated proposition for a client, for which they might be held accountable, lacks appeal. Fortunately (for the customers) there are some major players who take the opposite approach, and who are organising themselves to offer a more integrated approach. Unfortunately (for the nation) these tend not to be British owned – and the risk is therefore that those who don’t “get with the programme” will either be competed out or bought out.

Thinking about Digital Construction Week, have you seen any new technology recently that has got you excited in terms of how it could be applied to the construction industry?

You are talking to probably the least tech-savvy person with whom you’ll ever swap thoughts on BIM, and I’m therefore the wrong person to ask. Also, as above, this isn’t principally about technology – and if we get the general direction of travel right, then I’ll have confidence that the software houses will develop the right products for the right jobs.

The excitement therefore comes from witnessing the human ingenuity shown in finding new possibilities created by a digital world.

Having said that, although I would generally regard upgrades as a curse (given that they usually come along just when I’ve learnt how to use a previous version), I have said before that if anyone comes along with a program that upgrades human behaviour towards a genuine desire to collaborate, then I’ll be its first customer!

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