I recently became acquainted with someone who had found himself in exactly this position and his initial thoughts were very interesting. Firstly, he felt there to be a marked contrast between the levels of customer service expected in his industry and those being delivered by his construction team. Secondly, he was amazed that the proponents, who were supposed to be providing that service, appeared to spend more energy making sure that their defence would be sound when the trouble started rather than actually working together to make sure that the trouble didn't start in the first place. He had watched them write eloquent letters to each other (copied to him without explanation as if he understood what they were talking about), which added absolutely no value but ensured that the writer would not be to blame because they had written letter number A/263748 at 2.32pm on 26 January, which confirmed that to be the case. He saw items constantly fall between stools because various combinations of his consultants failed to speak to each other and merge their designs as he – reasonably – thought they should.
The client was bewildered by the ability of our industry to invent costly issues from thin air, as if this was the first time a building had ever been built, and then present them for resolution with the threat that, if he didn't do it quickly, it would delay the programme and cost him even more money. First impressions indeed …
So where should our occasional users go initially for help? To an expert, of course, but with no knowledge of the industry, how would you know who the advisers are and which to appoint first? Aha – it's a building, so why not call an architect? But how can you be sure that they will create an affordable building that meets your requirements, rather than autographing the landscape at your expense? OK, perhaps a QS then. Do our occasional users even know what a QS is, far less what the QS will actually do for them? Therein lies the catch 22. Where do you get an adviser to advise on the advice?
According to Darwin, a species will evolve to cope with its changing circumstances
The DTI's strategic forum, led by Sir John Egan, has floated the idea of independent construction client advisers, or ICCAs, giving the clients clear and simple advice about using the industry. The proposal appears to be that people will be drawn from across the industry and no doubt the major QS/project manager/planning supervisor consultants are already planning their new "independent" offshoots. The challenge to them will be demonstrating true independence, and the crunch will come when the tender lists for the QS and project management are being compiled. Would clients believe that the ICCA would criticise the service provided by their QS colleagues and, perhaps more importantly, would their professional indemnity insurers let them?
If for those reasons the ICCAs cannot be aligned to existing firms, we could be seeing the early signs of evolution among the industry's professions. According to Darwin, a species will evolve to cope with its changing circumstances, and usually that means retaining effective characteristics and eliminating unhelpful ones. Time will tell whether the ICCA will take a large enough evolutionary step to avoid being pulled back into the past. Making our industry more user-friendly is so important, we must all hope that step is large enough. If it isn't, it could easily be 10 years before we take the next one, and do our clients deserve that?
Frank Devoy is an executive consultant in Ernst & Young's real estate, hospitality and construction group.