Projects Are Learning

Posted on September 20, 2010


I read a curious blog reply several months ago. The reply was a response to a post on how BIM is used in projects. The original post noted how BIM was being adapted in a new way to a project, and the blog reply contended that using a program without full knowledge of its capabilities and usefulness was wasting client money because it was akin to learning on the client’s dime. It hinted that until a tool is mastered, it should not be employed professionally.

This is a particularly disturbing accusation for many reasons. First, unless a client is charged on a “time and materials” (T&M) basis, the cost of training and learning anything new—a program, process, or teaching a new employee how to do something—is already priced into a project. Most people forget this.

Second, professionals are hired to use professional judgment to come up with unique solutions. This is how the Department of Labor defines “professional” services as opposed to repetitive, mechanical tasks. Those creative solutions are the product of everything a professional has gained in her past experiences. Just as a professional does not charge for every minute of research required to develop unique solutions, the professional should not be expected to be 100% proficient with all technical aspects of a job. It is unreasonable to expect an architect or engineer to have hundreds of code books memorized, but he does know where to go to find the information when required; once again, this time is priced into a job.

Third, professionals are value producers. Value is derived from the judgment and expertise of a topic, not from employing repetitive processes. Thus, efficiency is not relevant for the client unless the client is charged on an hourly basis. If a project is designed on the first try or the seventh, the client is not charged less or more, respectively.  Value is produced from exploration to the end product (design is not a linear process), not by selling hours.

Fourth, innovation rarely waits until all bugs are worked out. Even clinical trials with drugs or other healthcare procedures do not wait for 100% certainty before getting FDA approval. Software and cell phone models all have faults when they are taken to market that get fixed or improved upon with time, but companies do not wait for mythical perfection to roll out a new product or process. The same can and should be expected of BIM and design innovation products in the design and construction realm.

Finally, professionals learn from every project they are a part of. They learn what works and does not, and carry those lessons with them for the rest of their careers. Each client benefits from the projects a professional has completed previously. It is this collective knowledge which provides one professional’s value over another. Without the learning curve of each prior project as the foundation for each subsequent project, every project would start from complete ignorance—which would cause every building to cost a lot more because everything would need to be learned again for each client.

So, the path of learning in professional services is a double-edged sword. It is easy to say ‘I am not financing anyone’s education with my fee,’ but that would be short-sighted because: 1) it is the professional who exercises her judgment to determine the best way a client’s fee is used to produce the desired result; if that means, BIM or another program gets a test drive, then so be it. And, 2) the client has a debt owed to previous clients which made the professional the expert they are today. The way to pay that debt is to allow the professional to further develop under his project, which helps the professional provide a better service, thus driving down prices and benefitting everyone seeking like services in the future.

A client cannot utilize the collective knowledge other clients have ‘paid for’ and then say they will not have that on their project; this would be having the proverbial cake and eating it, too—something everyone selfishly wants, but is rarely achieved. Every project is for learning.