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21 Feb 2024 • Tom Haley

My data science inspiration

I have always been interested in technology. Admittedly, I was never going to be the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, but right from a young age I had a keen interest. I remember friends getting new computers and their parents would ask me to set them up. I enjoyed the challenge of getting them to work so I didn’t mind, and it was always a nice surprise, although I never asked, to get a few quid as a thank you – win/win!

When I started as a trainee quantity surveyor in 2003, this interest persisted as I quickly realised that being agile with technology gave me an advantage in everything I did. Whether it was agreeing a variation valuation, a subcontractor’s monthly payment certificate or preparing reports for management, you always had an edge if you could quickly move around various data sources to get what you need and represent what you were saying with all the detail neatly sat behind it.

This interest grew and, generally, I was always very comfortable with new technology concepts, implementing improvements or keeping apace with changes.

On reflection though I may have been too comfortable because I knew what I knew enough to stay ahead and I had also reached a level where I had a team of 40 plus quantity surveyors at all levels so my days being head down in a spreadsheet became rarer and rarer.

Looking back, maybe I had become a bit complacent but, in 2020 that all changed.

The inspiration

I was asked to commercially lead the NSW bushfire recovery project which involved clearing more than 3,000 properties in a 4-month period across the state of New South Wales, Australia.

As the clearance of these domestic properties was government funded, there was tight scrutiny on the cost reimbursable contract with audits from multiple government and third-party stakeholders. And for those fortunate to have had the pleasure of being audited, all the stakeholders want to be serviced with similar, but ever so slightly different, information.

The challenges of the project certainly gave me plenty to think about!

There was a data and systems lead in the team. He was an extremely clever individual who was, as I understood it, educated as a mathematician. This meant he was looking to solve problems using a different approach to me. This was unusual in the quantity surveying world where we tend to rule to roost when it comes to project financial information, but I was, and always am, open-minded to new ways of thinking.

I have no hesitation in saying that the creative tension between the data and systems lead and I was not only extremely powerful in responding to the project challenges, but it also completely transformed my thinking about quantity surveying and data science. A whole new world of opportunity opened, and it was endless; the sky really was the limit.

Havin recently completed my University of Cambridge masters research into how procurement competition might be designed differently to act as a catalyst for industry change, this research was the inspiration behind innovations I designed, and I implemented.

I brought my ideas to life in the hyper-accelerated four-month period in which I designed, and I implemented, data and analytics driven solutions such as:

  • An advanced supply chain capability and capacity mapping tool which enabled extraordinary social value outcomes.
  • An automated and analytical approach to verifying more than 20,000 pieces of cost information to comply with robust and rigorous audit procedures.
  • A weekly payment regime acting as a fiscal stimulus in affected areas because money was expedited from government to local contractors using prompt and accurate digital records as an incentive.

With me as the architect and the data and systems lead as the engineer, we very quickly connected these ideas into a whole by putting in place an end-to-end, bespoke, procurement and cost management system. A system that allowed you to trace decision-making on project spend from the subcontractor’s first contact with the process (the PQQ) through the subcontract award process and through to final account.

I was asked to demonstrate this system to government. And they came. MP after MP looking to understand how I could flow money from the government purse to fiscally stimulate the affected areas. This was not achieved with hand-outs, but orchestrated by me within the confines of stringent audit criteria and the requirement to demonstrate value for money in any decisions we had taken.

This wasn’t just innovative. It was game-changing. It was revolutionary.

The team I led were subsequently awarded the RICS Quantity Surveying Team of the Year.

What I learned?

I had to face-up to some difficult home-truths.

Excel is not good for us. We have become too reliant on excel as a tool because it is malleable and we can change it to suit the task in hand or, if the format of the document is not how we like, we can change it to suit our preference. What we may not realise when we do this is we are creating unstructured and polluted data sets. They might make sense to us but, often, others cannot follow them and, almost certainly, they will not be suitable for macro analysis.

My standards and benchmark needed to be much, much higher. We have found a way to get by, so we keep the ceiling low. Smash that ceiling and, like me, you will see that the sky really is the limit. There is so much to be improved in tendering and procurement processes, compiling contract documents, administering contracts, preparing monthly valuations, valuing variations etc. There is literally nothing we do that cannot be completely revolutionised to remove process waste. We are not talking marginal gains here as well, we are talking seismic performance shifts.

If we are honest, whilst we know processes are inefficient, we are comfortable with them so why change. We are self-taught and what we know and the way we do things works. It’s too much like hard work to develop something new and learn a different way. This is a mindset that will cause you, the profession and, probably, your employer to stagnate. I encourage you to remove those mental shackles and see the opportunity. The quality of your work could improve ten-fold, your productivity could increase by 100%, and there is no limit on the operational and financial benefits that you or your employer could yield, if you are willing to open your eyes to the opportunity.

Final reflections

This experience taught me that we need to be braver, and we need to be far less tolerant of process waste. The bar needs to be set much higher and, when we do set it high, we will undoubtedly improve standards.

The most existing aspect though? The technology exists and the will to change exists. The only thing holding us back is our mentality and belief. If we can shift that then who knows what we might achieve.

I remain absolutely resolute in this belief. Remember, as quantity surveyors, #wearescientists.

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