For too long the geotechnical community has focused on its difficult and interesting technical challenges at the expense of wider issues, believes Bill Rankin, Mott MacDonald director and incoming chairman of Ground Forum, the umbrella organisation for ground engineering-related industries.
'Technical aspects and developments are hugely important, but we must realise that technical solutions alone are not the holy grail, ' he says. 'The industry needs to start looking at the wider business of how services fit in the whole civil engineering and building process. It is about bringing the business element into the equation.'
Some outsiders view geotechnics as a quirky boffin-dominated sector, whose experts speak an incomprehensible language and who are forever pointing out risks and problems that the client would rather not hear.
Rankin believes this must change.
'Ground engineers need to comprehend better the larger picture, how they slot into the construction process, and they need to develop ways of capitalising on technical innovations and developments.
In short we have got to become more user friendly.'
So how does Ground Forum fit into the equation? It is, after all, a fairly disparate grouping of trade associations and learned societies covering industries from mining and quarrying to analysis of contaminated land.
When Ground Forum was set up in 1993 it had a clear objective to provide a single point of contact to the ground-related industries and in particular establish representation on the Construction Industry Council, which in turn gives access to government.
This was achieved rapidly under founding chairman David Sherwood.
Essentially the CIC provides the system for government to find bodies that can provide representative and impartial guidance on about 50 construction industry sectors.
'We simply have not had this kind of access to government before, ' Rankin says. 'This means it is beholden on Ground Forum to provide balanced advice and opinion. We need to make sure we are not pushing a fringe view and need to present ourselves in a balanced way.'
While Ground Forum has developed its representation and influence within the CIC, in other respects it has struggled to sustain the drive and enthusiasm that surrounded its launch. However the last couple of years have seen Ground Forum re-emerge with a strong sense of purpose.
First Quentin Leiper, chairman for the last two years, pulled the group from its moribund state, and now with new chairman Bill Rankin Ground Forum is well and truly back with a mission.
Rankin sees the group's underlying aim as integration of the ground community to present a more coherent image to the outside world. It is also a communication vehicle and facilitator of its members' activities.
'It is about getting momentum going within member groups and energising in aco-ordinated way. Ground Forum is working if it stimulates its members to do things, ' says Rankin. With only four formal meetings a year, developing communication mechanisms between group members will be a high priority.
Rankin maintains that clients are looking for competencies, and in this respect Ground Forum is seriously contemplating introduction of professional registration across all the ground-related sectors.
The aim will be to establish equivalence at specialist and adviser status between different ground engineering professionals. For example, a specialist tunnelling engineer will have an equivalent knowledge level and experience to a specialist engineering geologist.
He points out that learned societies already operate registers and the proposed Ground Forum register would initially direct people towards these to enable further assessment of competence levels and qualifications.
Both the British Geotechnical Society and the Geological Society have printed directories which are being developed into electronic format. The Institute of Mining and Metallurgy is preparing a membership list and the British Tunnelling Society is actively considering a register.
The aim is to bring these together as a web-based service under the Ground Forum Register of Ground Engineering Professionals. This will establish a simple, single page format which will build on existing registers but provide information and links for clients from one central point.
Rankin's own motivation stems from a belief that engineers are responsible for the industry they operate within.
'There is no magic wand, we need to improve our professional standing by our own efforts, nobody else will do it for us, ' he says. 'True, all projects start with clients, but innovation doesn't come from the ether, we must stimulate clients to innovate.'
Ground Forum also gives Rankin a new platform from which to drive his personal crusade to make clients appreciate the importance of pre-planning and early involvement of ground related specialists within multidisciplinary project teams.
This was a key theme during his recent chairmanship of AGS and his goal here is to see ground engineers routinely taking a really positive role during the early stages of a project.