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Harnessing creativity

Your career: Creativity

Fiona McWilliam asks if British engineers make the most of their creativity.

A lack of 'can-do' mentality and an aversion to risk are preventing UK firms from tapping into employees' creativity, claims the Institute of Management, despite the fact that 'two thirds of executives believe creativity is key to gaining and sustaining competitive advantage in today's global business environment'.

The IM's comments were in response to a report published by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA). The report 'Harnessing creativity to improve the bottom line' represents the views of around 830 senior business figures from most industry sectors.

It suggests many organisational structures do not create the right environment for creativity; 52% of respondents said that focus is on delivering results quickly, and that insufficient time and space is given to allow managers to thinking creatively.

In addition to the lack of cando mentality (the 'we've tried it before and it didn't work' attitude), the report cites a desire for risk aversion and 'tribalism syndrome' - people saying 'that's the way we do things around here' - as factors that seriously hamper workplace creativity.

These criticisms are among the most popular levelled at construction industry firms by their employees, judging by the feedback NCE has received over the past couple of years from readers. But are they fair, particularly given the creative nature of civil engineering?

'I think some professions, such as architecture, have a creative reputation greater than that of civil engineering, ' says Jeremy Galpin, Costain human resources manager, 'because it's the unusual and striking buildings or bridges that tend to catch the headlines - and architects are better than engineers at claiming the credit.'

Creativity is vital in the workplace, he adds, providing mental stimulus and satisfaction. 'In fact creativity should be one of the ways a business develops and maintains a competitive edge.

And in an industry which increasingly integrates design with construction, opportunities to be creative are tremendous.'

Alan Powderham, a director of transportation at Mott MacDonald, agrees. In his long career, first as a structural engineer and more recently as a specialist in foundation engineering, he says that he has not felt limited by 'constraints on creativity'.

But he believes that the abundance of information available represents a challenge to new graduates and their ability to be creative, making it harder for them to achieve that all-important 'holistic view' of how things are moving forward.

'The construction industry needs to put a better focus on managing its knowledge, ' Powderham asserts.

'We don't learn enough from our projects in general and optimise what each has to offer in terms of innovation.'

He also believes that British engineers' rigid adherence to codes of practice, particularly with third party certification, can be a serious constraint to innovation.

It would be better in many cases, he adds, to make more use of peer review, as firms do in the US, so the entire design process becomes more of a knowledge exchange and less of a 'processed audit'.

He cites Motts' success at introducing tunnel jacking on the Boston Central Artery project as an example of a cost-saving and innovative solution facilitated by the adoption of such an approach.

'It was down to the design teams to ensure that the calculations were correct, while the peer review assessed whether it was the right way of building, ' he says.

CIMA's report claims that organisations in all sectors of industry are starting to recognise the value of creativity - with 60% of respondents admitting that their company had adopted 'strategies to promote creativity'.

For companies still refusing to wake up to the importance of nurturing creativity in their employees, be warned, you could be missing out on potentially lucrative and unexpected commercial opportunities.

For example, Mott MacDonald's general policy of encouraging research and development 'on a local basis' - within its various divisions - looks set to extend its influence well beyond the boundaries of the construction industry.

According to Nick Waterson, senior engineer for the firm's railways division, embracing creativity allows him and his colleagues to 'make connections between existing things - links that not been made before', with potentially far-reaching implications.

He describes a scheme to apply research conducted within the railways division - more specifically computer simulation techniques for modelling air flow - and applied to modelling blood flow within the human body. 'The plan is to create something, a tool or a service, that can be used by vascular surgeons, ' he adds.

So this is miles away from standard construction project - if there is such a thing - and most of us invariably feel disillusioned by the fact that everything we are involved in is being driven by the bottom line. 'It's easy to get frustrated, ' says Alan Powderham, 'but if you're creative, you're going to make things happen'.

He recalls Sir Alan Harris's definition of civil engineering ('the art of making the world habitable, '): 'If that's not creative then I don't know what is.'

Key points

Lack of 'can do' mentality stifles creativity

Businesses are too riskaverse

Think laterally to supply techniques in new areas

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