Robin Hood-Leeder explains how the Federation of Master Builders is trying to help its members improve their performance by setting up IT workshops

Robin Hood-Leeder has had a busy summer, organising a series of IT workshops for FMB members. From May to July there have been a total of 47 half-day workshops across the UK, organised in partnership with ConstructionSkills. Robin says it’s something he’s had in mind for several years: “We carried out a survey among our 13,000 members to find out about their use of computers. We got 2600 responses back, and from that we realised there was a real need to improve IT skills.”

The aim of the workshops is to get more small and medium-sized firms to use computers. Most will have a computer for basic accounts, but few have realised the potential in other areas: “People may have heard that they can fill in tax returns online, or promote their business through a website, but few will have the skills or confidence to do it.”

Eighteen months ago Robin approached ConstructionSkills to see if, with the FMB, they could develop an IT training package. “I wanted it to be more than just the basic introduction to Word or Excel software, and I was delighted to find that ConstructionSkills had already developed a package called Building Works that enabled the user to run a diary, keep track of cash flow and plan project schedules. It was basic but useful and presented in a friendly format.”

But that was not all, Robin also found out that ConstructionSkills had developed a risk assessment package in response to the recent HSE requirement. “I realised this would be a real winner with our members. Companies now have to produce a document detailing how they will reduce the risk on site such as falls from height or ensuring the safe use of specialised equipment. The incentive for firms is that insurance premiums are lower if you have carried out a risk assessment. This package offered an easy way of doing that.”

Robin had a hard task trying to persuade members to attend the workshops: “Many were worried it would be too difficult, some never use a computer – their wife or partner does the accounts and they work on site. So we encouraged members to bring along the person in the business who normally deals with all the admin side of things. In many cases couples came along and worked out how to use the software together.”

Since running the workshops the sales of the risk assessment package, priced at about £60, have soared. “At one workshop a builder was so pleased when he managed to do an entire risk assessment in 10 minutes, when he would have had to pay a consultant £100 to do it,” says Robin. For small businesses, saving money is the key – if a computer package has a clear financial benefit then they’ll use it.

After the success of this summer’s workshops the plan is to train up the FMB’s regional directors so they can show members in their area how it works. “The feedback we’ve had from the workshops has been extremely positive – nearly everyone has bought the package. It was hard getting people to attend in the first place but once they saw how useful it was they were off. Many have expressed an interest in doing more IT training.”

Readers' views: The one thing construction needs ...

Engineers can teach us a thing or two
Many training schemes seem to concentrate on traditional building skills and practices. My company is almost as much an engineering business as a construction business. I believe we need to adopt more of the engineering practices in construction (a view held by at least one major contractor and the HSE) in order to improve the industry performance.
Wilson Kindred, Dane Group

Where have all the joiners gone?
There is a lack of trained joiners and I am unable to recruit skilled workers. There seems to be a lack of interest in the trade and we need to create a better image of joinery and more awareness.
Derek Young, Acorn Joinery and Design

It's about paying for quality
We need greater emphasis on quality in design and construction and higher paid, more skilled contractors. Contractors also need to take ownership for their work and get respect for what they do.
Richard Harrison, Volue 3, architect

Health and safety is for our own good
We need to get away from the notion that health and safety is there to stop people doing things when, in fact, it's there to prevent harm to themselves and others. People on site must be properly trained with proper qualifications.
Sam Webb, architect