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Debate - Skills specialisation

DEBATE

Specialisation is seen as the way to a more efficient industry. But does it make you better at your job or do you just get stale?

This week we ask:

Is greater specialisation a route to a better skilled industry?

Yes Frank McLeod Aviation director, WSP South

Our industry and professions are changing at an unprecedented rate, with new demands on us from emerging technology as well as challenging relationships with clients and the supply chain.

These demands drive us down a sector focused route, with our clients insisting that we are a 'best at' organisation and not just a 'can also do'.

To provide this level of service demands a highly skilled resource. By specialising as a service provider we are able to offer products and services, be it acoustics or facades and products such as aviation or healthcare. Quoting Rethinking construction, we 'integrate the process and the team around the product'.

This 'matrix' approach to our business creates centres of excellence with cross functional teams working in an environment that fosters creativity and innovation, communicating and sharing across our services within products and across our products within services.

As a young graduate or technician entering the business you are able to do a tour of the sectors, receiving a broad understanding of your chosen profession, allowing informed decisions as to the sector you may wish to move towards.

This sector focus allows us to target our investments, in a world of ever increasing knowledge and faster information flow we can focus investment in training, process, tools and understanding our customers business.

Our people can discuss with our clients and advise them as to the impact decisions have directly on their business. A general practitioner approach to service cannot deliver this level of value.

We are finding that by taking a specialisation route with our processes and organisation we are creating the environment to allow our resource to become more skilled, creative and innovative, while being more engaging with our customer in delivering them the value they demand.

No Bob Haywood Director, engineering and design WS Atkins Consultants

No, most emphatically not!

This is not to say that we should have no specialists, since it is necessary to have expertise in particular fields to execute esoteric aspects of works of technical brilliance and to impart this knowledge to others.

But this is part of the problem;

the expert or specialist, by his/her very being, is so beset by lack of time to spare as to be unable to pass on this knowledge.

Furthermore, many specialists (unfortunately) end up in court - not for their mis demeanours - but either protecting or exposing those of others!

Should we not be using them in a more creative sense rather than dissecting disasters after the event?

Thank goodness that we do possess those who are happy to use their intellect in the miasma of mathematics that surrounds FEA, or ferret around in the finer points of the latest layered elastic analysis for pavement design.

But, conversely, do all engineers crave design or construction of power station foundations or steel portal frame structures, day in, day out?

Those who do not can work on many facets of engineering, using their skills in new fields, which provides stimulation as well as playing a most important role in guiding young engineers who, in their first years after graduation, have no real idea of the direction in which they wish to proceed.

It is vital to ensure that these young people are presented with all of the possibilities open to them. Some will quickly find a niche, others will want to explore.

The explorers, or generalists, are important, because most major civil engineering projects will require a multiplicity of skills, some specialist, some mundane, and the generalist is able to place these skills into their appropriate places, knowing their relative values, to pull together and manage a complete team, a task that the specialist could not contemplate.

The facts

The Rethinking Construction revolution launched by Sir John Egan six years ago relies on individuals specialising in what they do and getting better and better at it.

Egan pioneer BAA has reduced the costs of key construction operations by up to 30% by adopting the specialist ideal and setting up cluster teams of personnel from different suppliers to focus on cladding or aircraft pavement, for instance.

The skills shortage is encouraging the development of specialisation of engineers.

People with technical, engineering qualification are being encouraged into the very technical areas with geographers and statisticians being recruited to fill spaces as transport planners, for example.

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