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Technology enabled collaboration

Published 22. Jun 2016 by Erland Rendall

Charles Darwin said: “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” Author and activist Helen Keller said more simply: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

It is on this basis that partnership structures were born, bringing two or more parties together in business for mutual gain. Whether sole trader, partnership or corporate, most entities have collaboration noted within their core vision and values. But perhaps the true value of such collaboration is yet to be realised in the built environment sector.

My own early experience working within a professional practice was of an “eat what you kill” approach to client engagement and fee income, in which knowledge exchange and mutual gain were low on the agenda. Perhaps it is human nature to distrust others and seek to betray the other party in the hope of gaining a competitive advantage. But the world is changing, and technology is increasingly helping people to see the value to be realised from open-ended collaboration. For example, Wikipedia, the free online encyclopaedia created in 2001, now has 33.7 million pages of content. Every single word has been written by anonymous internet users.

Likewise, commercial enterprises are embracing the power of collaboration. Tesla, the American electric car manufacturer, released its numerous patented technologies into the market in June 2014, with the clear intent to realise its vision of advancing electric vehicle technology. Yes, one of the large automobile corporations could step in, take advantage and carve into Tesla’s part of the car market. But by doing so they would be boosting the entire electric vehicle sector, to everyone’s benefit.

With the advent of building information modelling (BIM) and a built environment sector that demands increased integration, innovation and efficiency, our profession needs to be getting more out of collaboration, for everyone’s advantage. One of the key obstacles to achieving this is the fear of transparency and exposure. BIM in particular dramatises this problem, by creating an environment in which data can be shared between all parties in real time, helping to iron out inefficiencies and stop expensive problems before they occur. The issue is that taking full advantage of this technology cuts across years of established practice of architects, contractors and consultants hoarding data jealously.

Building trust is key and it has to start with simple exchanges where the risk of betrayal is low. For example, use regular meetings to talk more openly and honestly, encouraging exchange and sharing expectations. Through this low-level relationship, what could normally be a transactional exchange can develop into one where trust is built and reinforced. Furthermore, to earn trust, you must demonstrate trust in your collaborative partner – so micromanagement is out. Likewise, it’s important to focus on your collaborator’s strong points, rather than their deficiencies. Who wants to work with someone always finding fault, or, worse, taking advantage of those faults? Finally, giving others their due, and expecting yours in return, is fundamental to success.

Reciprocity is everything and helps to make the next collaboration easier, too. At whatever step of the career ladder you are on, and in whichever sphere of the sector, the individual benefits derived from collaboration may just be as important as the overall corporate benefit. As collaborative networks are formed, strong ties will be built and reinforced, and our industry and profession will be all the better for it. Indeed, a collaborative culture may also deliver the attraction and motivation for the world’s best talent, within our own surveying profession.

[Printed in RICS Modus Magazine, December 2014 / January 2015]

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