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What's best for us all?


The failure of negotiations between the Institutions of Mechanical, Electrical and Incorporated Engineers over the formation of a single institution this week, certainly reinforces my relief that the ICE was left out of the deal nine months ago.

As with all corporate mergers, the closer that they got to doing the deal the more nervous - and personal - everyone no doubt became. Is this the best deal for our organisation? Has anything major been missed?

Will I have a job in the new organisation?

The need to protect the interests of members seems to be the prime candidate for the fatal breakdown in talks. But regardless, I remain convinced that the exercise was doomed to failure from day one. Put simply, too much time was spent by these institutions looking inwards at structure rather than outwards and towards the real needs of their members.

For this reason I take heart from the Construction Industry Council's quiet but persistent work to examine ways to unite the built environment institutions. Here it seems, good sense is set to prevail.

While I still believe that the world would be a better place if we did have a single institution to represent the whole of UK engineering, I am realistic about the scale of the task required to make it happen and for it to work effectively. It's a shame, but there you are.

So what's the next best thing?

Right from the creation of the CIC's cross-institutional Futures Group to examine how the built environment institutions might work together, chief executive Graham Watts identified a spectrum of possible outcomes.

These ranged from full merger through to simply co-operating on a few isolated initiatives.

News this week that research will soon start to identify areas on which the 20 built environment institutions can work more closely together - and possibly even merge operations for - clearly shows a sensible approach. Rather than running headlong into a process of forcing people together, Watts is hoping to find the areas and issues that actually help people to work more closely and so more effectively.

Natural caution means that, initially at least, we are likely to see cross-institutional working in only peripheral areas of activity. But as confidence grows and as the benefits start to come through to members this will no doubt increase.

The really exciting area will, I believe, be the regional activities. Away from the oppression of institutional headquarters, secretariat and tradition, crossinstitutional fertilisation will flow more naturally and more easily.

With the support of the CIC we should soon start to see more engineers using their institutions for the precise reasons that they were created in the first place - to meet peers and to share knowledge and experience. Disciplinary barriers will increasingly be removed as engineers discuss the real issues affecting their worlds.

And if this leads to the eventual formation of a single institution one day, then so be it. But the important thing is that along the way the focus will remain not on the structure and internal politics of the institutions but exactly where it should be - on the engineers and professionals for whom the institutions exist.

I'm sure that if they had adopted this mentality, the electro-mechanical's proposal might still be on track.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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