Monday, 12 January 2009

Profound misunderstandings

I came across some notes I had made at a meeting with some industry people back in 2005. The purpose of the meeting was a launch of some research these business people had done which was about the construction sector. Interestingly, one of the opening statements was that they had interviewed people from 50 major private sector organizations, which by anyone's reckoning (because of the collective spending power of these organizations) made it a major study. Should I have been pointing out how many papers we had published in CM&E that has larger samples? They were confident that no one had done such a significant study before or since. I remember thinking that they were so confident, they did not need to do a literature search in order to ascertain this for sure.

Another speaker declaimed that if you do not know what kind of health care you need 25 years from now, then you should not let a 25 year PFI contract. And if you do not know how we will be educating children in ten years' time, then do not let a 25-year PFI contract. I wondered what he thought of 999-year leases on land. I wondered if he had a 25 year mortgage on his own house, even though he did not know what his lifestyle would be like ten years from now, or where he would be working. I wondered if he knew what it meant for a business to own real estate, and then I wondered how he had become so important in our industry.

He went on to talk about "value", a word that still makes me squirm. Why does it make me squirm? It is indefinable because it means all things to all people, and it usually is introduced into conversations about the impoverished nature of the kind of objectives that business set themselves for their "key performance indicators". This guy defined value as what you wake up worrying about in the morning. Ha! What wonderful mumbo-jumbo.

The session included some e-voting opportunities where each audience member had a little device to select from options that were presented to them. Fascinating. Questions appeared on the screen, with 4-5 options to choose from. Often, the last option would be "other", and the speaker clearly had not wanted this, because in putting each question to us, he described this option as being there for those who could not make up their minds between the specific options he had listed. We could see the collective choices being counted on the screen in real time. The speaker knew what he wanted us to answer, because whenever the majority chose the option that he favoured, he used the phrase "finally being honest"! What was even worse, he then told us that he was going to use this as "data" to inform the policy for the organization he represented. I despaired.

There were many other presentations that day, from a series of industrial captains, many of whom had been involved in the preparation of the reports being launched. There were some interesting points that I took away from the meeting. One speaker asked why people were so preoccupied about capacity when efficiency (productivity) was so low. Surely we should first improve productivity, before trying to increase the capacity of such an inefficient sector. Another questioned the tone of the rhetoric surrounding partnering in the industry. He said that driving improvements from the client side is not as effective as equal partnership. Even radical change can be made step-by-step. But it is rare to find partnering agreements that are genuinely equal in terms of commitment.

As is often the case, I wondered about how we could bring industry and academia closer together. This was five years ago. I think we are making progress.

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