Lack of knowledge could be damaging your professional practice

We are all familiar with the complex framework of standards, regulations, policy, contracts, best practice guidance and other documentation that set the baseline for our performance and provide us with the knowledge we need to do our jobs. If this knowledge framework is not comprehensive, accessible and easy to use, we are not able to perform.

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ut a recent study of the 3.5 million people a year, from every part of the industry, who create, access and share knowledge on Designing Buildings Wiki, suggests there is a worrying and widening construction knowledge gap.

Six million pieces of data were analysed, giving a unique insight into how construction knowledge is created and used. The resulting report, ‘Fit for purpose? Big data reveals the construction knowledge gap’, includes a series of never-before-seen maps which have serious implications for the industry.

The first map shows the relationships between the subjects covered by the 5500 articles on Designing Buildings Wiki. The proximity of subjects on the map shows how closely related they are, and their colour and size shows how much has been written about them. This exposes a clear bias for the creation of knowledge around traditional ‘academic’ subjects, such as theory, research and innovation and case studies, as well as design and products).

The second map is an analysis of 724,000 users during a two-month period, showing what subjects they actually read. This reveals that practitioners are much more interested in practical ‘project’ subjects such as construction management, appointments, procurement, contracts and payment than they are in the ‘academic’ subjects the industry writes much about. They are looking for straightforward guidance to help them with their daily work, and this is not what the industry is providing. This difference between what people want and what they get is a clear knowledge gap and it suggests industry resources are being misdirected.

The study then looked at how long people spend reading different subjects. This suggests people spend longer reading the ‘project’ subjects than the ‘academic’ subjects, which is surprising, as academic research tends to be much longer than practical guidance.

Crucially, the data shows that people are only prepared to spend around three minutes trying to find the answers they need, then they click back and look somewhere else. So, the knowledge that is buried at the end of long research papers is unlikely to be found.

The industry needs to get grips with this as a matter of urgency as it is going to get worse. This year, the number of internet searches carried out on mobile devices exceeded those carried out on traditional computers for the first time. People who are on the move, looking at a small screen, do not want a long read.

The iGeneration, glued to their phones, expect to get access to the things they need quickly, and without having to pay for them. This is the new reality. If the industry continues to publish knowledge in the form of long PDFs sitting behind paywalls, the iGeneration will look somewhere else and may end up with the wrong answer.

British Standards are an example of how potentially serious this is. We rely on British Standards heavily, both in our specifications and in Building Regulations. Approved Document B refers to 99 different British Standards, and just one of those – BS 9999 – is more than 400 pages long and costs £380. Whilst some companies may have the resources to buy and digest this amount of knowledge, most do not. If we expect people to use critical information, it needs to be made freely available and easy to apply.

The study then analysed the demographics of the people using construction knowledge. This shows a clear gender gap but, interestingly, it is only apparent after the mid-twenties. Before that, things are relatively equal, and if those young women can be encouraged to stay in the industry, this could be a positive sign for the future.

The demographics also show four times as much activity from people under 45 as from people over 45. This may reflect a greater need for knowledge by younger people or may reveal a distrust of online sources by older people.

The final set of data looked at the locations of knowledge consumers. This confirmed the dominance of the capital, with three times as much knowledge consumption per person in London compared to the rest of the UK. In part, this may be because the industry is concentrated in the South East, with London accounting for 22% of total UK construction output. But it may also be because of the draw London has on 25- to 34-year-olds, who account for 24% of the population, compared with just 14% in the rest of the UK.

The report concludes that there is a lack of strategic leadership in the industry and, as a result, there is little collaboration or coordination of construction knowledge. Too many resources are targeted at ‘academic’ research when practitioners are actually looking for straightforward practical guidance to help them do their jobs. This is the result of an entrenched top-down funding model, set up to attract bids from niche researchers. There is little support for more demand-driven general guidance about the practicalities of the industry that people clearly need.

The report closes by making a series of recommendations that would help the industry catch up with the changing world around it:

• More practical guidance is needed to help professionals understand how to perform everyday project activities
• Practitioners should be encouraged, supported and rewarded for sharing their knowledge
• Research needs to draw out useful findings and explain how they can be applied
• Strategic leadership is needed to ensure construction knowledge is targeted, comprehensive, accessible and easy to use.

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