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Keeping focused on engineering

The stock of the engineer as innovator is rising, driven by client demands for better cost and time certainty on increasingly complex projects. So much so that it is prompting enlightened consultants seriously rethink attitudes to research and development and the way they treat their technically-minded engineers.

It’s a move London Underground (LU) – one of the great innovators around right now – is keen to push. “Do engineers have the clout they should have in big organisations?” asks LU capital programmes director David Waboso. “You see so few engineers on the boards of companies,” he bemoans.

Waboso sounds a warning shot to consultants heading down the road of turning themselves into programme managers. “The move towards programme management is okay if it is because you want to embrace and respond to the client’s need. But you must never forget that core of everything is engineering. Here [at LU], everything is underpinned by good old fashioned engineering,” he says.

Consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff technical lead Steve Denton says Waboso’s view is echoed by other clients. “There have been times in the past when we haven’t valued engineers and technical excellence,” he says. “What major clients are learning is that this has huge value.”

The signs are that the industry has caught the mood. After all, the surprise with WSP’s sell-out to the Canadian firm Genivar was not the familiar story of another British firm being bought by transatlantic suitors, but that Genivar is, as WSP chief executive Chris Cole described it, a “pure play” consultant – WSP is still very much focused on the engineering.

As is Hyder. Responding last week to the recent trend of UK consultants being swallowed up by US programme management giants, its chief executive Ivor Catto was emphatic in defending the firm’s principles. “We are happy that we are what we are,” he said. “Our share price shows that the City has confidence in that.”

But it’s not just the “pure play” design houses that have got the gist. Parsons Brinckerhoff, itself a major player in the global programme management market, recently concluded an 18 month project to root out the factors that make for good innovation in its business.

The project was instigated by the consultant’s UK operations director Steve Reffitt and his focus has been sharpened after studying the findings.

It looked in detail at 17 innovations arising from its projects around the UK and abroad from the first application of building information modelling (BIM) to a linear rail project in the UK on Crossrail’s south east section to its re-analysis of bridges on the M4 that extended their lifespan by applying more complex analytical methods. In each case it looked at what it was that made the innovations possible, and reached the conclusion that it was always the same factors.

“We found that in every case the innovation responded to a client need and that then realising it demanded a high degree of intimacy and deep understanding of that client need,” explains Denton, who was the project’s leader. “This offers a big lesson to us and our partners as it shows we have to invest time, cash and our reputation in developing these innovations.

“This contrasts with the image of the ‘lone inventor’, working in isolation that many perceive as a typical means for delivering innovations” he adds. “That’s not how it works.” Instead, it needs collaboration within a technically strong, passionate and tenacious team,” he says. Access to state of the art technology, good data and an environment conducive to taking on some level of risk is also a necessity.

The outcome of all this for his firm is a clear realisation that it needs to put more effort into understanding its clients’ needs and, fundamentally, that more cash needs to be found for teams with bright ideas to go develop them.

“It will change the way we invest,” he adds. “We already do invest in research and development globally, but responding to this we are launching a global programme for teams to seek funding for ideas that have a good business case.

“It might be a few thousands of pounds, it might be significantly more, depending on how valuable the idea might be.”

It all adds up to a rise in recognition in the value of the engineer. At Parsons Brinckerhoff that means explicitly recognising that there is a technical career path that leads to the top of the organisation – Denton as a member of the UK leadership team exemplifies that. And, says Denton, it means freeing those who want to focus on the big ideas from the need to also be project managers or business managers.

“I’m really passionate about the role of engineers and what they contribute to clients and the world at large. And when you look at really talented engineers, yes they can excel in project management and in business management, but what we find is that it is impossible for them to be at the top of their game in all those at once as you really don’t have the time.

“So to really be at the top of the tree as an engineer you really need to focus.” This would seem to be an increasingly well understood option.

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