Data education vs data application: are construction professionals equipped to do their roles?

Survey responses from a group of construction professionals show a significant disparity between the data education respondents received and the way they are expected to work with data in their current roles


  • Simon Longstaffe

05 June 2020

In 1994 I graduated from Portsmouth University with a degree in commercial management (quantity surveying). Computers were still somewhat of a novelty at the time – we had one or two in the university department and software, such as BCIS, was loaded on to them from floppy disks – but there was already much discussion about how these computers would transform the industry.  

Although, 26 years later, much of the language has changed – we're now talking about digital disruptors rather than simply computers – the conversation hasn't. We're still discussing how advances in technology can impact our industry, its processes and its outputs – and we still haven't truly worked out how to use these advances to our advantage.

Of course, there is one thing that underpins all this technology: data. It is fundamental to the construction industry: it is needed and used across the full range of responsibilities of quantity surveyors and project managers, from the inception of a project right through to disposal of an asset.

Data is essential for measurement, estimates and cost plans, benchmarking, management information and KPI's. This is just the tip of the iceberg: the industry generates a huge amount of data for a range of functions, but the question is whether this data is used effectively. For example, a number of the large infrastructure bodies I work with have large quantities of data, including cost data, but they don't know how to control the quality of the data or ensure it is used appropriately. This is particularly relevant to benchmarking, where there seems to be a desire to benchmark projects without understanding whether the data being used is relevant.

Another issue is the lack of industry standardisation in terms of how to organise data. This makes it time-consuming, difficult and, in some cases, nearly impossible to analyse data and turn it into something meaningful. This is particularly problematic because clients tend to have their own data standards making it harder to achieve comparisons across different clients, and often resulting in time being wasted inputting data into an appropriate and useable format. The silo mentality that has been associated with the construction industry for many years is present when it comes to data too; some construction consultancies have even been known to monetise data for their own benefit.

There are some industry initiatives working to address these problems. The International Construction Measurement Standards, for example, aim to 'enhance transparency, investor confidence and public trust' in our sector. In addition, the Department for Transport has recognised the need for consistency of data in its bodies, such as National Rail and Highways England, and is looking at how to achieve this as part of its transport infrastructure efficiency strategy (TIES).

Such initiatives, though, must achieve industry buy-in to be successful. The industry needs to take control of its data and the way to do that is to ensure that its practitioners and operators are comfortable using it. We need to decide what the requisite skills are to be able to work with data and make the most of advancing technology. The whole surveying profession must understand its changing relationship with data and train its workforce accordingly.

"The industry generates a huge amount of data for a range of functions, but the question is whether this data is used effectively"

Survey results

Last year while in my previous position with Faithful+Gould, I carried out a survey to try and better understand employees' involvement with and perception of data. I asked 62 construction professionals about their education, their experiences with data on their respective courses, and how they use data in their current roles. The respondents were asked the following questions.
  • What university did you go to?
  • What did you study?
  • What year did you graduate?
  • Did your course cover data?
  • If yes, was it a core or wider module?
  • Which specialism do you work in?
  • What do you mainly use data for?
  • How important do you think data is?
The specialisms of those interviewed were as follows:
  • 50 per cent worked in quantity surveying and construction
  • 20 per cent worked in project management
  • 21 per cent worked in other industry roles such as building surveying engineering and facilities management
  • eight per cent worked in more niche roles, such as health and safety, infrastructure and management consultancy.

The remaining one per cent was comprised of two professionals occupying newer roles driven by advances in technology: one in data analysis, and the other in digital strategy.

For the most part, the degrees studied aligned with the specialisms in which those surveyed now work. Many of those employees working in quantity surveying and construction, for example, had studied quantity surveying, or quantity surveying and commercial management. The professionals working in data analysis and digital strategy studied physics and construction programme management respectively.

The top line results are what I imagine many of us would expect.
  • Of those surveyed, 61 of the 62 professionals said they use data as part of their job.
  • A total of 89 per cent of respondents believe data is 'very important' to the construction industry, while a further five per cent said it is 'important'.
  • Benchmarking and estimating were by far the most common uses for data, with analytics, design and project controls also cited.

However, some results were more surprising. A total of 48 per cent of those surveyed said they hadnt studied data as part of their degree – perhaps to be expected since the year of graduation of participants ranged from 1984 to those expecting to graduate in 2022. But if we look at this in more depth, 60 per cent of those who said they didnt study data as part of their course graduated in the past six years. To put this into context, it's worth remembering that the UKs BIM strategy was published nine years ago.

Of the 52 per cent of people that did study data as part of their course, only 25 per cent said it was a core module – the other 75 per cent studied it as part of a wider module. In fact, of the four participants that graduated in 2019 – all studying either quantity surveying and construction or project management – only two studied data, and even then it was only as part of a wider module.

The results of the survey show a mismatch between the knowledge of data gained through education and the required skills to work with data in a surveying role. Is it any wonder, then, that the potential of data has yet to be realised?

Comments from respondents

"I do not feel that existing data is utilised enough in the industry, nor do I feel that the importance of using data is taught at university, perhaps the only exception being quantity surveying when learning about benchmarking"

Project manager, graduated with a degree in building surveying in 2012

"Data is only as good as the decisions it enables"

Building surveyor, graduated with a degree in building surveying in 2011

"Data can be extremely powerful. However, I believe how it can be used is firmly based upon relevance and user knowledge in assessment and analytical tools. Without an understanding or education in such, its benefits are limited and it can be a hindrance"

Quantity surveyor, due to graduate with a degree in quantity surveying in 2020

"Data is important, but what is more critical is how well it is used and understood. For this, the industry needs surveyors who can properly use and interpret the data for clients using their considered professional judgement"

Facilities manager, graduated with a degree in building surveying in 1984

"We us data all day every day in the projects we work on. It is so important this is capture and utilised appropriately. Data is the hot topic currently, and ensuring data is captured and appropriately managed enables us as professionals to effectively manage our projects and work"

Project manager, graduated with a degree in construction project management in 2014

"A lack of standardisation in how we organise data in some cases makes it nearly impossible to analyse the data and turn it into something meaningful. This is particularly problematic when different project clients have different requirements of what data they want and how it should be presented to meet their specific needs. We have lots of data, but it is not in a format that allows for making like for like comparisons on a larger scale, because each client has their own standards"

Quantity surveyor, graduated with a degree in quantity surveying in 2018

Data education

As data-driven decision making becomes embedded in the way we work, we need to better understand how to draw statistically valid inferences from data as opposed to the 'gut feeling meets years of experience' approach many of us currently take. To achieve this, we need to bring data analysts and specialists into our industry.

This doesnt necessarily mean hiring those trained to work specifically with data – although that could be a worthwhile option in some cases – but re-evaluating the job specification of the various roles in our industry and integrating data management into our education programmes accordingly. Our professionals need to understand what data to input to generate a subsequent data output. They need to be able to advise clients on the correct data requirements so systems can work effectively and system-based collaborative working can be enabled.

All those working in our profession should be trained to use, manage and analyse data appropriately, regardless of their specialism. Data should be at the core of higher education courses so the next generation of surveyors enter the industry job ready.

More in-depth data education would allow the industry to overcome many of the issues around data, which were cited by many survey participants as a lack of collaboration, the quality and trustworthiness of data, and data access and storage.

RICS, too, must evaluate the way data is taught in its education pathways. The current RICS Data management competency is centred around how data is collected stored and retrieved – in other words, how it is handled rather than how it is created and used. Perhaps what would be more effective than a singular Data management competency is for data management and analysis to become a requisite part of each of the competencies.

And what about those surveyors, like me, who received their initial qualifications many years ago. Should we upskill, so we are able to work more effectively with data? If so, how do we go about it? These are, perhaps, not easy questions to answer. As a starting point, however, I invite you to carry out a similar survey to the one I did, with the construction professionals at your own company. And please do share the results – we should, after all, be breaking free of our silos.

"All those working in our profession should be trained to use, manage and analyse data appropriately, regardless of their specialism"

Simon Longstaffe MRICS is operations director at Mace

Related competencies include: Data management

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