How I became obsessed with construction knowledge (especially standards)

The construction industry is huge, fragmented and slow to innovate. At the same time, we are seeing increasing pressures on the industry to adopt new and important ideas like digital transformation, modern methods of construction (MMC) and sustainable building practices.

Between 2012 and 2017 I conducted a doctoral study on implementing change into the sector and found that the industry’s ability to learn from itself is the key enabler to making innovation scale. The primary output from the research (which earned me the title “Dr Tom”) was an industrial learning model.

In broad terms the industry can be seen to break down into three tiers of organisation;

  • industry (as a whole or as distinct sectors),
  • organisations (clients and suppliers), and
  • individual people (managers, professionals and workers).

And what the industry does can be broken into:

  • portfolios of assets and activity,
  • projects (and programmes), and
  • individual tasks (e.g. structural design, fitting a boiler).

In a rational system, the doers learn from what they do and in time develop improved competence and expertise.

A single-loop learning model

As a “single-loop” learning model, this works to develop pockets of expertise and cottage industries, but does not support rapid or large-scale diffusion of good practice or lessons learnt from mistakes. In order to combat this, we have developed systems for building an industry level body of knowledge.

This Body of Knowledge comprises academic research, training programmes, certification schemes, case studies, software, databases, consultants, and, of course, standards. There is a whole industry in itself dedicated to managing this knowledge on behalf of construction; professional bodies, universities, trade bodies, media, conferences, consultancies and a plethora of councils, institutes, establishments, hubs and centres. Through this system of codifying our learning, we develop knowledge that can span the fragmentation and scale of the industry.

The single loop learning model has been extended to include a loop of codification and learning through a body of knowledge
The single loop learning model has been extended to include a loop of codification and learning through a body of knowledge
A double-loop industrial learning model

The more effectively we can can develop the body of knowledge by learning from industry’s innovations, successes and failures, the less we rely on repeated, parallel trial and error across the industry and the quicker we can “stand on the shoulders of giants”. Similarly, the more accessible and open we make the body of knowledge, the easier it is for others to reach, reuse and learn from its content.

For me, standards (supported by case studies demonstrating value) are the most valuable part of the body of knowledge. They provide a recipe for doing something that should give the same results each time they’re applied. They mean that people don’t have to interpret science or other people’s narrative stories to apply the knowledge to their own work, it should just be pick-up-and-go-able.

Standards provide that common framework where new teams can assemble and get going much more quickly.

Particularly when we consider that very few projects are delivered through identical organisational structures or supply chains, so lessons are never directly transferred from one project to the next. Standards provide that common framework where new teams can assemble and get going much more quickly.

If we could encourage more people to share their processes and templates as candidate standards or just something that people can reuse (and let the industry decide if it could become a de facto standard), without paywalls or qualification barriers to accessing them, we would see the industry moving much more quickly in the same direction towards higher performing assets and better productivity, safety and environmental outcomes.

If you have any templates or process documents you would like to share with the industry, send them to me and I will publish it online for others to access.

Co-founder and CEO at Barbal.co — helping experts to reach consensus faster.

Co-founder and CEO at Barbal.co — helping experts to reach consensus faster.