The traditional excuses for the slow spread of ideas are that the industry is fragmented and secretive. We do not talk to and learn from each other, as they do in other industries. Many companies worry that they will lose their competitive advantage. But this has always struck me as odd, because of the continuous movement of people between firms.
So what has changed? We are starting to accept that the real threat to UK construction does not come from our UK competitors, but from other countries and industries. There is a growing realisation that if the industry does not change, others will come and change the industry.
This has led to a significant shift towards shared learning. Companies are now hosting open days and inviting their competitors to observe their practices, as part of the Inside UK Enterprise Programme.
Also, there is now an unprecedented dialogue between clients and the industry. Until recently, the big unanswered question was: "What do clients want?" Now, they are falling over themselves to tell us.
We can speed up this process even further by changing the way the messages are put across. Consider the terms that are being used: lean construction, key performance indicators, value streams, clustering, the Movement for Innovation. What exactly do they mean?
Buzzwords and jargon turn people off. They confuse, alienate, intimidate, arouse suspicion or provoke cynicism. Rather than capturing people's imagination, they tend to have the opposite effect in this practical industry.
The most famous buzzword of all, partnering, has been subject to a lot of abuse. It has been hijacked by consultants and corrupted by contractors. Many firms have been guilty of cherry-picking the bits that suit them and discarding the rest.
I will never forget the time I attended an interview with a major client and was asked to talk in detail about recent examples of value management and benchmarking. I had a vague idea of what the two concepts were, but could not discuss them with any confidence. It was only later that I discovered precisely what they meant.
Buzzwords and jargon turn people off. They confuse, alienate, intimidate, arouse suspicion or provoke cynicism
If only I had known that value management was all to do with answers to the following questions: "Why do it?", "Why do it this way?" and "Why do it now?" If only I had known that benchmarking was all to do with answers to the following questions: "Who is better?" and "Why are they better?"
I would then have happily recalled the many examples where we had saved the client money on projects by coming up with alternative proposals. I would also have enjoyed revealing that our competitor database is a prime example of benchmarking.
It is easy to get carried away with jargon and end up losing all contact with the real world. Let us not forget what lies behind many of these ideas. Most of them are re-packaged common sense. They formalise certain things that most of us strive to do anyway.
Being more efficient; coming up with alternative proposals; working with, rather than against, people; taking a positive attitude and a long-term view; having targets and incentives; and looking at projects from the customer's point of view.
Following that unsatisfactory interview, I realised that, as professional, forward-thinking contractors, we need to "talk the talk". There is no longer any excuse to plead ignorance, as we have instant and free access to all this information via the Construction Best Practice Programme.
The programme uses technology to spread the message of best practice and draws the different strands of the industry together by helping it to pool experiences and share ideas.
But I would like to see more plain words used. And I would also like to see more practical examples and demonstration projects that are relevant to occasional clients, small and medium-sized contractors and subcontractors. Only if they feel part of the programme will they want to participate in it and use it. And only then will the message reach the front line, where it will have the biggest impact.