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Raised voices

Focus, forum and catalyst are some of the words that describe the various roles of the new Construction Industry Computing Council. To the list could be added another: watchdog.

The council has been set up by the Construction Industry Computing Association to make better use of members' knowledge and experience across the industry.

It is intended to provide a focus for consideration and debate on IT matters and future trends, and give impartial comment, aimed at helping the construction industry, its clients, Government, researchers and suppliers. Nor will the body shy away from issuing warnings, if a software supplier is making misleading claims.

The industry has lacked a strong focus for IT, particularly in responding to Government, believes CICC's first president David Taffs, the IT director of Ove Arup & Partners. 'There are far too many bodies, and so many have IT groups or subcommittees which are often quite weak.' Securing funding for research and development is also a difficult area, with widespread confusion about where to apply.

CICC is intended to bring together the people with the most relevant up to date know-ledge. 'We want to maintain a good level of expertise,' says Taffs. People will be asked to step down or join, depending on what the key areas of development are, or where their jobs are taking them. Taffs is sure they won't be upset by this. For the sort of people involved, 'there is nothing more pleasing than having a committee meeting cancelled'. He himself plans to be president for no longer than three years. The group will meet three times a year, but as e-mail is on all their desktops, they will be in frequent touch between times.

'My observations are that the construction industry is by its very nature very adaptable and flexible and has lots of talent and entrepreneurs. It takes up new technology and squeezes every last ounce out of it.' Among CICC's roles will be to share and discuss information on latest trends, and flag up important developments and concerns.

Taffs is a supporter of the Egan report Rethinking construction, published in July. He believes CICC will have a part to play in the drive to implement the report's aims, which included setting up integrated processes and teams and being better focused on the customer. It is essential to recognise that there are many different types of client, he adds, and that their needs evolve with time.

Paying more up front might, for example, allow prototyping of a building, something only recently started. With the expertise around the table, Taffs believes the Council will be able to give a view on the readiness of these new technologies for widespread adoption. To someone claiming that every firm should install systems to allow their employees to work at home using their TV sets, CICC might say that the potential is wonderful but to wait at least another year, says Taffs.

A more likely topic is object technology, a much talked about field which relates to building up a model from electronic objects which include the properties of the thing they are modelling. There is still a long way to go before this technology is fully developed, believes Taffs, and he doesn't see it being completely adopted even in his lifetime.

CICC could also have a role in encouraging people to put more time and money into developing common standards. Taffs, in common with IT directors in other major firms, finds himself facing many requests for funding for R&D projects. 'I would like to see more funding for co-ordination of research, using technology such as the Web to cut down on duplication.'

He is particularly sceptical about attempts to superimpose on to construction software software developed for other industries. It is all too easy for people to be seduced into buying unsuitable systems, he says, citing the example of US defence management systems which were marketed following the end of the Cold War.

Another strand of CICC's advisory role will be to keep vendors' promises under scrutiny. 'I understand and I respect IT vendors,' says Taffs. 'They have a good idea of what's required - users are great at reacting and saying what they don't like, but they are useless about saying what they need.

'Vendors have to keep coming up with new products to maintain revenue and don't generally have time to develop them until they are bug free. They are in the business of selling promises, getting people to buy in to the current product.'

Although they take on board feedback from user groups and the like, vendors in trouble with their releases are adept at putting up smokescreens, he says.

'If they can't sell the product, they promote themselves as the world leading supplier,' he claims. 'If you peel away the wraps, you may find they are undergoing a major change in direction, but they can't afford to disappear off the market for a year.'

CICC members can help the industry by giving a commentary on those things when we see a smokescreen going up, adds Taffs. 'We're not trying to do product reviews, only to pick up on an issue and say for example that something is not going to be ready next year and will take at least two years to develop the first prototype.'

Finding impartial advice can be difficult. When someone is sold on an idea and buys into it 'they need to justify it', says Taffs. 'They are desperate to get other people to buy into it.'

He is also sceptical of endorsements at seminars and conferences, when independent consultants say a new product is wonderful. 'I've heard presentations that are a dead copy of supplier's sales blurb,' says Taffs. Then you find the guy is on a retainer. Years ago, I was being quoted figures of up to pounds 10,000/ day being paid to some of these respected consultants to prostitute themselves.'

CICC can give an objective view, he feels, which could be praise as well as warnings. 'There will be occasions when we say about suppliers 'good on you, well done',' he promises.

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