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31 Jan 2024 • Tom Haley

Thrive or die: the necessary QS evolution

In this article we turn the dial slightly and focus on issues relating to #thefutureofquantitysurveying and a subject which is never far from my mind; the existential threat posed to QS's if we not do not embrace technology and the opportunity to thrive if we do.

This is a big subject area, so I have focused the article on one part of a QS role; the preparation of monthly project financial reports (commonly referred to as a cost value reconciliation (CVR). I will explore the shift in thinking which I think is needed to keep us relevant.

Project Financial Reports

The hard thing about being a QS (cue engineers with very small violins!) is the volume of data we are expected to handle every working minute of every working day. We deal with procurement data, cost data, technical data, estimating data, revenue data, variation data, subcontract payment application data, planning and progress data. The data is often structured differently and there are differing degrees of quality, so when it comes to preparing a monthly project financial report, a staple of any QS's role, it can be challenging.

For the contractor QS’s among you, you have prepared these reports to be presented in the coliseum of a monthly project review meeting. Those who have survived the experience will regale stories about their gladiator-like directors delivering a blow-by- blow annihilation of the report. We dust ourselves down and go again, determined that next month will be beter but the challenge of managing the volume of data persists.

As I reflect on my 20 years in the industry, as a reviewee and reviewer in those meetings, I can’t help but think that the way we do things has not really moved on, and I worry about what this means for the QS role.

Our tool of choice is a spreadsheet (we can be that bad I have even known QS’s use spreadsheets to write letters!) and we use spreadsheets to prepare financial information relating to costs, revenue, margin, cash etc. However, whilst we persist with spreadsheets because it is what we have always known, spreadsheets are not always fit for purpose and whilst most QS’s would shudder at the thought of a world without spreadsheets, they are, whether you realise it or not, limiting our performance.

Future Vision

I have a vision of QS’s as data scientists who build data models, create powerful visuals, and yield immediate and effective insights about a project’s financial performance. We seamlessly connect the various data sources to instantly accessible, and high-quality, information about project performance. We go cold turkey with spreadsheets, instead choosing to embrace software such as Power BI (which is included with a Microsoft business license – yes, fellow QS’s, there is no extra cost!) to build platforms which analyse the various data sets we handle (cost, revenue, procurement, planning, operational, contractual etc.).

Imagine if we could combine this with generative AI to ask questions like “were we productive yesterday?”, “did we make or lose money last week?”, “why did we over and under spent in the last month?”, and what we could do with accurate and concise answers? What if these questions could be asked at any level of an organisation and across an entire portfolio? A data driven financial report, which is free from human interface, driving everyone in an organisation to use one source of the truth.

This evolution would liberate us from the mundane data processing aspect of our role and allow us to focus on strategic decision-making and value add activities. The productivity gains would allow us to bridge the skills shortage and offer a compelling opportunity for young people choosing their career path. And the certainty it would offer clients and investors of the construction industry would take confidence levels to stratospheric levels from where we are now.

Barriers to Progress

The primary barrier is cultural. We do not always create environments where the development and application of data science skills is encouraged and rewarded. The construction industry is, and always has been, slow to adapt to technological advancements. Those who work within it embody that resistance and you tend to find a natural resistance to change. That might be hard for some to accept but, if you look hard enough, you will find it is probably true.

This is where leadership comes into play; people who can see a different future and persist with leading a group of people towards new horizons. That leadership has to come from what I would call the bridging generation. Those who are in middle of the new generation joining the industry with technology engrained in their daily lives, and those who are close to leaving the industry with experience and knowledge that cannot be lost.

Then there is the need for training and upskilling. There are some good initiatives in this area and there are many opportunities to improve your skills. What I tend to find though, as others might, is there is almost too much. Given time is a premium nobody wants to commit to a programme of improvement only to find it had little to no impact on your performance or productivity. I think this is where educators, professional bodies, and industry need to keep working together.

These barriers are not insurmountable and can be overcome with persistence and effort; the question is whether we want the change enough to make it happen?

Final Reflections

This article focuses on just one area of our profession and how, whether we like it or not, the stark choice we face is whether to embrace the technology available to us and thrive.

If we do not, the demands for improved performance will not subside and businesses will eventually find other ways of obtaining the information they require. When this happens, a core part of our role will die.

For me, this isn’t just a matter of staying relevant; it is a matter of survival.

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