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Philosophy of Expertise

 

Construction is a major industry which involves extensive use of expertise at a variety of levels, from technical craft to managerial skills in intense situations driven by time and resource constraints. Traditional approaches to management in construction assume that organisational knowledge, experience and expertise can be separated from the individuals and groups who possess it and be stored in a systematic way. This, according to Professors Mark Addis and David Boyd of Birmingham City University is an oversimplification of the nature of expertise that can impede best practice in the construction industry.

Philosophy is not traditionally an area of research considered to be of importance in construction, but the pioneering interdisciplinary work by a research team led by Addis and funded via an AHRC Knowledge Transfer Partnership has assisted three major construction companies, Mouchel, Rider Levett Bucknall and Thomas Vale Construction, to better understand their practices. The team created a conceptual dictionary of key construction management practice ideas to help find the right kind of language for construction companies to talk about management and skilled performance.

At Rider Levett Bucknall (RLB), project managers used ideas from the new conceptual category of expertise management to reflect on the types of knowledge that are particularly important for effective project delivery. There was better appreciation of the importance of maximising individual skills and sharing such abilities within the company along with learning from projects. The RLB representative remarked the work by Addis and Boyd “has given the company new insights into what better practice means and how it can be achieved”.

At Mouchel Highways, structural engineers dealing with design, feasibility studies and quality assurance gained greater understanding of the importance of acquiring expertise in integration skills for finding effective solutions to design problems. There was increased appreciation of the difficulties created by engaging external subcontractors on a short-term basis and why this method of cost control carries risks. The Business Improvement Director at Mouchel commented that:

"The project enabled Mouchel Highways to re-appreciate the skills of its employees as being broader and less tangible than previously understood. […] at an individual level, those involved in the project gained a confidence in their application to their tasks and are now more able to address the uncertain and ambiguous world of construction."

At Thomas Vale Construction, expertise management ideas were employed to identify the multiple skills (including interpersonal ones) which staff require for efficient work completion and turn-around times in social housing refurbishment. Their Director commented that the project “enabled us to revise our perspective on expertise and how we go about bringing together our knowledge”.

The research has been disseminated further throughout the construction industry through publications, presentations and other networking opportunities. Addis was invited to write an article for Construction Manager, the official magazine of the construction industry with a circulation of around 42,000 and to contribute to an article on philosophy in the workplace in special issue of Philosophy Now, the world’s highest circulation philosophy periodical. The team also presented to three leading national construction industry representative organizations, namely, Constructing Excellence, Construction Industry Research and Information Association and the Chartered Institute of Building. These events were attended by representatives from major construction companies and consultants to the industry, and resulted in discussion leading to greater understanding of the character of better practice. Boyd and Addis also contributed a Briefing Note for the Construction Industry Research and Information Association.

These dissemination activities resulted in consultation by the National Federation of Builders (2010) about ways to enhance membership services, including appreciating the limits of online delivery, and the Association of Project Managers (2011) about how expertise management could inform conceptualisation of accreditation procedures. The dissemination activities also led to work with a further construction company, Willmott Dixon, (c. 4000 employees) in 2011. The Project Manager at the company called the collaboration with Addis and Boyd “significant in shaping our practice” and added:

"[working with the academics] challenged us to think differently about how we go about construction projects – not simply using automated systems in our work, but empowering the skilled tradesmen to take decisions ‘on the ground’ based on their expertise in this area. This research was extremely valuable to us as we sought to implement a step change in the working culture of the organisation. These findings helped to challenge conventional wisdom that existed in the construction industry and stimulate debate amongst stakeholders […], showing the need for a more nuanced approach to complex project management."

Gateway to Research Project Links: Philosopher in Residence in Construction Companies (Nov '08 - Oct '09)

Image Credit: Birmingham City University