CONSTRUCTION JOURNAL

Opinion: sharing knowledge and skills in construction

Professionals are struggling to keep pace with an industry that is changing faster than they can adapt. Networks, rather than experts, may be the way to go

Author:

  • Mike McNicholas

06 January 2021

In this fast-paced, chaotic world, there simply isn’t as much time for learning – at least not in the way we used to. And as construction professionals, the topics we need to learn are so vast and varied, and progress so quickly, that it feels like an impossible task. The pace of change has outpaced our ability to learn.

While it may seem daunting to some, this new reality means we no longer have to try to learn everything ourselves. We must instead learn to come together as networks of experts, connecting knowledge across different disciplines, industries and generations.

This requires us to look critically at our skill set – do we need a thorough understanding of every aspect of our professions, or only an awareness of them? If we can connect people with awareness to a network of those with ability, it opens the door to innovations we simply couldn’t make by ourselves.

The answer is no longer hierarchies – subject matter experts and managing directors such as me – but networks. Instead of thinking of ourselves as the technical expert, we need to think of ourselves as part of a system of experts.

This shift is absolutely critical to the necessary transformation of our industry. What follows are examples of how this way of thinking has been implemented at Atkins, and in my own personal experience.

"Instead of thinking of ourselves as the technical expert, we need to think of ourselves as part of a system of experts"

Technical networks

A decade ago, the most senior person in the room would have been deemed to be the most knowledgeable. That is simply not the case now. If we are talking about a digital project, for example, the data analyst or GIS specialist would be the expert.

To help us share our skills, Atkins set up technical networks throughout the business, across internal divisions and management hierarchies. These networks are responsible for bringing the best technical advice and innovative new ways of working to clients and projects. Crucially, they go outside the traditional domains of construction knowledge into the realms of data and technology.

These networks allow skills to be shared laterally and vertically through our organisation rather than hierarchically. They establish connections through technical areas, rather than by geography, business group or grade.

Reverse mentoring

A decade ago, I would have looked to subject matter experts in the business for information on industry trends, innovations and ways of working. But as a leader who took a traditional career route to leadership, I felt I needed to engage more with people from different backgrounds, who face different issues and who came into the industry at a very different time to me. I wanted to engage with those from different genders, ethnic and economic backgrounds.

I now work with three such reverse mentors, who have fundamentally changed the way I view our business and industry. Reverse mentoring has forced me to look at things in new ways and try different approaches. I learnt quickly that some of the values that drove are no longer attractive to their generation. I learnt that immediate line managers, at the level where day-to-day business decisions are made, are important role models, in addition to those for their longer-term career aims.

Cultivating understanding and connecting different generations is key. We must create the channels for information, knowledge and experience to flow both upwards and downwards.

"Reverse mentoring has forced me to look at things in new ways and try different approaches"

Applied understanding

Setting up networks and mentoring schemes is all well and good – but how do we bring knowledge to bear on a specific problem in a quick and dynamic way?

This is where agile and lean thinking comes in. At Atkins we use 100-day sprints, where we form temporary teams from across the business to tackle a set problem in the fastest and most innovative way possible.

This is about bringing a so-called scrum mentality into the world of construction – sharing ideas from all different viewpoints, testing and scrutinising them then testing them again until we find the one that works best. This way of working is more aligned to software development than traditional construction practices, but it is an approach we must embrace.

The digital world enables a more agile mentality where all ideas are considered, not just those of the subject matter expert. It makes construction projects a more democratic process, where we choose the best approach regardless of the seniority or discipline of the person who put it forward. This results not only in a more inclusive and dynamic workplace, but a more holistic and sustainable offer for clients and end-users.

"The digital world enables a more agile mentality where all ideas are considered, not just those of the subject matter expert"

The next generation

Using other peoples’ skills rather than trying to develop all the skills ourselves is a subtle shift, but a very important one. Construction professionals must accept that they cannot succeed without being brilliant integrators. They need a much broader perspective, in addition to detailed technical knowledge in their chosen subjects. Soft skills such as stakeholder management and influencing will only become more important as time goes on.

This concept of coordinating and nurturing ideas rather than imposing our own is something we can bring into our STEM engagement with students at school and university level as well. Inspiring the next generation isn’t about showing them what experts we are, but helping them see the ideas they already have and how we can bring them to life through construction.

The fact that problems are no longer solved by hierarchies should attract more people to our profession. It opens up opportunities for people from different backgrounds and perspectives to be involved in change.

Knowledge is no longer power – it is a resource for everyone, and something to be shared for the greater good. And while senior people may have more experience, it is more often than not the younger professionals who have fresh ideas and theories. If we can put these together, it is a powerful combination, and one that can truly change the way we do things for the better.

"Construction professionals must accept that they cannot succeed without being brilliant integrators"

mike.mcnicholas@atkinsglobal.com

atkinsglobal.com 

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