Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Shall I Compare Thee?

As I enter sedately into the middle-age chapter of my mortal existence, I thought I’d better take up a new hobby, with the principal aim of attaining my prescribed 3 x weekly cardiovascular quota. Far behind me are the days of haring about a soccer pitch in search of County-level cup glory. And the old knees just don’t have it in them to take up an impact sport like squash or, Heaven forbid, jogging. So that left rowing as my activity of choice. Now, being rather land-locked where I live, I thought the obvious conclusion was to opt for an air-rowing machine, tucked away in a nice quiet corner of the garage. With this in mind, I did a bit of research and ventured into the online bidding world of Ebay, where I found myriad makes and models at my disposal. The interesting thing about buying a used rowing machine on Ebay, is that it’s very easy to compare like with like – and to tell straightaway if one is getting what my American friends would refer to as bang for the (sculling) buck.

It occurred to me that we are, in fact, becoming rather obsessed with the science of comparison, in all facets of our personal and business lives.

Look at the financial sector, for example; how many adverts do we see on TV for price comparison these days? Insurance premiums, loan interest rates, credit card APR rates, mortgages, savings accounts, utility bills, the list goes on and on. On one leading site, I counted 55 separate items that are up for forensic examination!

Anyone who has ever bought a used car in the UK will be familiar with the process of getting their old clunker valued by the shiny suited salesman at the auto dealer. What's the first thing he does, before he even sets eyes on your old jalopy? He reaches into his coffee-stained desk drawer for his dog-eared copy of ‘Glass’s Guide’ to used car prices, flicks to the appropriate page, and tells you that your car is worth about as much as a tank of petrol. But the point is this; they have an industry-wide accepted guide, a bible for used car valuations, and no-one ever questions the numbers in the Glass Guide, even though we have no clue how they are derived!

Look at the telecoms sector; how often do you see price comparisons for landline rates, mobile phone tariffs, or broadband speeds? When buying and selling property, a quick look at upmystreet.com will soon tell you if the real estate agent is being less than scrupulous in his valuation of your house! Supermarkets spend vast fortunes on telling us how much cheaper a basket of their groceries is than the competing megastore down the street. Schools and colleges publish their results in microscopic detail, whilst fretting parents pore over the league tables every year. Travel firms tempt us with deals for flights, hotels, trains, cruises, sunshine getaways. Local authorities publish annual performance charts, health providers regale us with a smorgasbord of medical data, police forces publish crime cleanup targets – we are literally drowning in a sea of statistics and information – all of it parcelled up for direct comparison and benchmarking against industry or society standards.

So how does this apply to CAD & BIM? It's certainly an interesting time in the AEC industry, with respect to BIM in particular. Many firms are embracing the challenge of BIM adoption, whether by choice, or because clients and partners are pushing them down this path. One of the direct consequences is the huge range of tools now being employed on projects. Gone are the days when the average user could get the job done with a passable understanding of AutoCAD or MicroStation. Now, it would seem, it is necessary to become adept in half a dozen different software applications to produce the required data for modern-day construction projects.

This is reflected by feedback from over 100 CADsmart customers, when asked recently what applications they would like to see covered under the upcoming i-Skills AEC test format. We currently have requests for 102 - yes 102 - separate topics! Over 50 of these, predictably, cover tools from the Autodesk & Bentley stables. But that leaves more than 40 additional tools, representing a further 20 vendors, including; Graphisoft, Solibri, Google, Vico, Adobe, Gehry, Tekla, Nemetschek, Informatix, IES, ESRI and others.

In addition to the software applications themselves, we're also seeing an enthusiastic demand for quality control and accreditation of Standards and processes; we're currently working on content covering; US National CAD Standards, UK AEC CAD Standards, BIM Standards (bit trickier!) and general concepts of BIM.

Our aim is to deliver a suite of tools which encourage assessment of users’ ability, with the aim of benchmarking and comparing performance against industry standards. In this way, AEC firms can hire the right people with the right skills for each role; they can map training to recognised skills gaps in the firm’s skills matrix; they can create content to address specific project Standards and in-house work flows; they can create knowledge management processes for sharing best practice across their teams.

Benchmarks are all around us, telling us how to get the best deal, the most value, the most competitive terms. Clear comparison of how to get the maximum return on a significant investment in software technology and management resources is an essential ingredient if AEC firms are to reap the huge potential rewards that BIM presents.

As I write these lines, I can see that the clock on Ebay has turned red; I’m into the last 10 minutes of a 3-way bidding war for a Concept 2. May the best rookie rower prevail; Sir Steven Redgrave had better step aside; there’s a new guy in town. Although I’m not sure who looks better in a fitted lycra all-in-one..


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