It’s time for fresh ideas on construction product data, not old hat


Darren Lester, founder and CEO of SpecifiedBy, explores the shortfalls of the proposed new Code for Construction Product Information and offers a more constructive look at demystifying ‘digital transformation’ to find more productive ways to move forward

The misguided David Brent in UK comedy favourite The Office famously claimed that ‘a good idea is a good idea forever’.

It might seem that this approach is also one favoured by the Construction Product Association (CPA) as they look to introduce yet another new badge in the guise of the Code for Construction Product Information.

This code forms part of the industry’s response to issues raised in Dame Judith Hackitt’s report ‘Building a Safer Future’ following the Grenfell disaster. While there is no doubt many challenges in finding the right initiative to move the industry forward on such an important issue, is introducing a new Code really it?

The Code will not be compulsory. It will only be applicable to those that choose to pay for it. Most frustratingly, it feels like the industry’s standard response to everything.

When viewed through the lens of an industry that is trying to make a meaningful recovery from the mistakes of Grenfell is it really enough?

So how should we approach this instead? Perhaps this framework is a useful starting point:

  1. Understanding

Best practice says not to jump to a conclusion before the problem has been properly defined.

The CPA has insisted that a new code will be introduced regardless of the feedback, which suggests that they started with this as the solution and then worked their way back from there. This doesn’t demonstrate a desire to properly understand the problem.

In fact, an independent review of the CPA’s 2019 call for evidence, which was completed by a member of the Market Research Society, concludes that ‘there are several puzzling, questionable and poor choices in how the CFE research was designed, delivered and reported.’

Rather than trying to get to the root of the problem, it appears so far that all of the focus has been on implementing a quick fix solution to repair the image and credibility of manufacturers, not to improve public safety. Equally, it shouldn’t just be the job of marketing to fix, as that would imply that this is simply a perception problem. If this is the case – changing perceptions rather than the underlying issue of construction product data – then the Code is more likely to make public safety worse rather than better.

The process to understand the problem should call on expertise across a whole range of disciplines — manufacturing, data governance, behavioural change, software development, product standards and testing, digital innovation, market research, information management, specification, procurement and probably much more.

Let’s say that the desired outcome is then more accurate, digital and standardised construction product information for greater transparency, safety and accountability. The questions that should be asked to understand the challenges in achieving this should include: what are the barriers from the manufacturers’ perspective? And how can it be delivered in a way that is most useful to the end-user?

Taking the time to define this properly will help in reaching a more meaningful solution.

  1. Engagement

To find out exactly what the industry viewpoints are in relation to these questions, appropriate engagement with a representative cross-section is necessary. Yes, a consultation is a good idea, as the CPA set out to do in 2019, but it’s only useful if it is done correctly.

Asking both manufacturers and end-users the exact same questions was an obvious error. They have different but equally important perspectives that need to be explored, and from these a solution needs to be moulded to offer value to both. Where the blended answers made the survey fairly convoluted, the sample sizes for the CPA’s consultation of just 238 providers and 286 users do not suggest that it was comprehensive enough in any case.

And more recently a follow-on consultation at the start of 2021 only received a couple of hundred responses, although the CPA heralded this as ‘excellent engagement’.

This is an industry-wide concern, so let’s start again and engage properly.

  1. Incentive

Unfortunately, it took a disaster on the scale of Grenfell to bring the issue of product data accuracy into the spotlight, but in reality the vast majority of organisations are understandably detached from what happened at Grenfell – the mistakes do not reflect anything in their own practices.

But that doesn’t mean that this is irrelevant to them either. There’s a collective win to be gained from making changes that will enhance, modernise and future-proof the way that product data is handled across the board, so let’s make that the incentive.

To get the buy-in of every player, it’s important to highlight the things that will make a tangible difference to how they can better run their own organisations. Efforts should be made to help manufacturers understand the upside of digitisation rather than just being told that it’s something they must do.

That’s the kind of incentive that’s needed, not the opportunity to include a new badge in your signature.

  1. Leadership

There’s a great opportunity here to make this a real pivot point in moving the industry forward towards better practices for everyone. A good idea is not a good idea forever, so this is a time when we need fresh ideas, in particular when it comes to digital transformation.

Why don’t we look towards those that are the most digitally competent to lead on this? There will be talented individuals within every business that can own the digitisation of product data, so let’s enable and champion them.

Industry-wide change is a tall ask by any measure, but by encouraging and equipping individual businesses and professionals to make changes that will improve their commerciality through better practices, the industry can also enjoy the cumulative benefits and growth.


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