Sunday, January 25, 2015

Shared Vision

Bob Simmons, FCSI, CCPR speaking at the January 22, 2015 Willamette Valley Chapter CSI meeting (photo by Steven Leuck, CSI, CDT)
The first Willamette Valley Chapter CSI meeting of 2015 featured Robert W. Simmons, FCSI, CCPR, current president of the Construction Specifications Institute. A relatively small but dedicated gathering of members was on hand to hear Bob present a version of his “Shared Vision” speech, which he first delivered at the CONSTRUCT conference in Baltimore last September. 
What will CSI look like in five years? That was the question Bob posed and one he most resolutely believes the institute is ready to answer. Despite declining membership during the Great Recession, he is confident CSI will not only rebound but thrive in an era when other professional associations are struggling to survive and remain relevant. He explained how CSI is moving strategically toward value propositions that will position the organization as the preeminent educator of the construction industry. There is no doubt he trusts educational offerings will drive CSI’s membership and growth in the future. 
Bob cited a number of current and proposed programs as evidence of CSI’s commitment in this regard: 
  • The annual CONSTRUCT show, with its plethora of professional development courses supporting personal and professional growth.
  • The CSI Academies, which foster broader industry participation by teaching construction industry skills and sharing research and technology.
  • The Building Technology Education Task Team and its recommendation to create a Building Technology Education Program that would benefit the industry by raising the technical knowledge of participants.
  • BSD SpecLink, the most advanced master guide specification system available.
  • The Master Specifiers Retreat, which brings together senior specifiers from across the country for a focused weekend of education and group networking.
  • CSI’s popular certification programs, which are recognized throughout the industry as evidence of a proven level of education, knowledge, and experience in construction documents.
  • CSI’s various practice guides and workbooks, which are updated regularly to ensure they remain cutting-edge document tools.
  • Creative outreach to affiliated industry and allied organizations like Construction Specifications Canada, the American Institute of Architects, the American Society of Professional Estimators, and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, expanding mutual influences through education and certification.
Bob rhapsodized about how CSI has streamlined these and other programs to better serve our industry, focusing on those that best support CSI’s membership and mission. He spoke of “building for the future to make CSI a valuable resource in the 21st century to our membership, allied partners, and the construction industry.” He firmly believes CSI is fulfilling its promise of value to current and prospective members by emphasizing educational opportunities as its primary platform. 

I appreciated Bob’s rhetorical flourish and enthusiasm for the strategic initiatives he is championing; that being said, the institute must truly deliver on these promises of value lest we find ourselves regarding his words as mere platitudes. In my opinion the future success of CSI is entirely dependent upon embracing change and seizing a leadership role in a constantly evolving construction industry. Simply reacting to forces beyond our control will not turn the tide of membership loss. 

Is membership growth essential to CSI's future?
There’s no doubt education is the key to expanding professional opportunities. Part of the institute’s current educational strategy is to make many of its programs available online and otherwise to non-members. By providing valuable content this way, CSI’s hope is to broaden its reach. In turn, the institute would expand its base, attracting more people to the organization.

Like other common-interest groups or associations that formed in pre-Internet days, CSI is confronting the fact there are so many other ways for people to spend their diminishing discretionary time. Young professionals in particular seem to have limited time for or interest in volunteer and membership activities after work and family obligations. As Bob reported, CSI has in response been re-tooling its programs to offer more “value” to help recruit and retain members.

What previously served as a raison d’être for membership—access to an industry-specific body of knowledge that was otherwise hard to come by—has been thrown aside by universal Internet access. People don’t want to pay memberships fees for content they can easily get for little or no cost elsewhere. Why buy a cow when you can get the milk for free?

Membership is essential to the success of most professional associations; however, the pace and unpredictability of forces beyond their control brings into question the tenet that membership should be a principal measure of success. Perhaps Bob’s “build it and they will come” educational strategy is correct. Perhaps CSI’s membership growth should hinge upon first attracting young professionals to a broad menu of relevant and effective educational offerings. Perhaps these future industry leaders will become CSI members because they understand how CSI can help them.

I still believe membership in the organization has other benefits. First and foremost is the social capital it confers. Before I became a CSI member, my contacts among the many non-architect participants involved with construction projects were most often limited to job-related exchanges. Seldom were my encounters of an informal or social nature with contractors or the others. My association with the Willamette Valley Chapter broke down the unspoken barriers I was accustomed to, allowing me to develop meaningful cross-disciplinary relationships. Today, these relationships have improved my effectiveness as an architect. There’s no substitute for mutual respect and friendship when it comes to working together to successfully complete complex and difficult projects.

Another huge reason why membership in CSI should be regarded as essential is precisely the tidal wave of information we all manage on a daily basis in order to be effective construction professionals. This holds true whether you’re an architect, a specifier, a contractor, a construction products representative, or a building owner.

I wrote a post a while back about how there exists an opportunity for CSI to seize the proverbial brass ring, one it may lose if it doesn’t act soon and decisively. I pointed out how construction is increasingly dependent upon the effective conveyance of design intent. Our world is only becoming more complex and litigious, not less, and achieving a desired end is commensurately more difficult. The bottom line is clear, concise, complete, and correct construction documents will always be critical to the success of projects. This is the message the institute needs to spread.

CSI should own the training ground for the digital information gatekeepers that everyone—architects, engineers, contractors, and facility managers—will rely upon during design, construction, and beyond. These “knowledge managers” will help realize the full potential of Building Information Modeling and perhaps tilt the project-control pendulum back toward architects, who have abdicated so much in recent decades to others more willing to assume the mantle of master builder (as Bob says, CSI should “own BIM”).

Should this scenario play itself out, society will regard those well-versed in construction communications as among the most valued members of the design and construction industry. Rather than fated for obsolescence as some in the industry are predicting, specification writing and construction information management may be the sector best poised for significant growth within the industry. In particular, specifiers are and will continue to be the indispensable managers of a project’s DNA—the information essential to its successful realization.

Emerging professionals should recognize that a career dedicated to the management of a project’s knowledge base can be both intellectually and professionally rewarding, not to mention lucrative. Being a member of the Construction Specifications Institute should be cool because real power and authority comes with being a knowledge manager. I contend this is essential to attracting and retaining those of the millennial generation all professional associations covet the most: the smart future leaders who will shape our industry for decades to come.

There needs to be a cachet that comes with CSI membership, and that should be the privilege to associate with like-minded thinkers who appreciate and promote excellence in construction documentation and communication. Like Bob, I think education is a key. I also happen to believe we shouldn’t undersell what comes with the full value of membership. If CSI doesn’t manage its message well, it will continue to “gray” and lose members to age and retirement. That would be a shame and a golden opportunity will have passed us by. If done well, the institute will buck trends by growing and thriving in an era when other professional associations are losing influence.

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Thanks to Bob for visiting the Willamette Valley Chapter and describing for us his vision for the future of CSI. His tenure as CSI’s president lasts through June of this year. He is also the president/CEO of his own company, RW Simmons & Associates, an independent product representative firm located in Federal Way, Washington. Bob is a member of three Northwest chapters (Puget Sound, Mt Rainier, and Big Sky), and has served in leadership roles at all levels of CSI. You can reach him via e-mail at

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