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13 December 2018

A Dickens of a tale, revisited

This is an update of a piece I first published in 2007. I tweaked it just a bit to update some of the references. I hope you enjoy it!

 Scrooge's Third Visitor, John Leech
Scrooge's Third Visitor
Scrooge was an old man, set in his ways. And why not? He had been doing things the same way for many years, and the resulting success was sufficient evidence of the wisdom of continuing in that path. Whenever it was suggested that change might be a good thing, “Bah, humbug!” was his response. “I like things the way they are! I started this business, I’ve been doing things the same way for fifty years, and I don’t see any reason to change! All this new-fangled stuff is just a fad.”

One evening, a strange series of events befell our dear Mister Scrooge. Having had a particularly trying day, he tried to enjoy a rich repast and a few glasses of wine in an effort to forget his problems. As he fell asleep, he was thinking of how much fun he had had in his youth.

The First Spirit

“Wake up, Scrooge!”

“Who is that?”

“It is I, the Spirit of the Past. Come, let us revisit those wonderful days!” As the words were spoken, they were transported to a city long ago. They stood in the midst of a group of young men busily engaged in excited discussion.

“Good Heaven!” cried Scrooge, looking about. “I know these people! They are specifiers, one and all! Oh, what a marvelous time that was, with the construction industry expanding, and so much work to do.”

“Yes, it was. Do you recall why these people met, what they planned to do?”

“It comes back to me now! We were a group of architects who were unhappy with the haphazard way specifications were done. Not surprising, considering we worked for the government! We met and decided specifications could be improved, and we formed an organization to work toward that end. We thought that, by working together, we could improve the practice of writing specifications, make them simpler and easier to understand, standardize government agencies’ documents, standardize building codes, and bring greater efficiency to the industry as a whole. Ah, those were exciting days!”

“You certainly were enthusiastic,” observed the Spirit, “and you set some lofty goals. And, in the early days, you made significant progress.”

Although it seemed to Scrooge that he and the Spirit remained stationary, the scene around them shifted and changed; different times and locations came into focus, and vivid images of people and documents materialized, then faded away.

“There is Carl Ebert!” Scrooge exclaimed. “He was there from the beginning - Institute President, first editor of the Construction Specifier, charter member of the DC Chapter. I see Ben John Small, a founder of the New York Metropolitan Chapter, and author of a column in Pencil Points. He was a great promoter of the value of good specification writing. And J. Norman Hunter! When he was president, we added twenty-two new chapters!

“I don't know some of these newer members as well as the older ones, but they have done some marvelous things! It took a while, but Dick Eustis and Gilman Hu finally got the College of Fellows going. Dennis Hall and Rick Green were deeply involved in the National CAD Standard and MasterFormat updates, and Bob Johnson was working on a Building Technology Education Program."

“Once you started growing, what did you do to address the issues that brought you together?” asked the Spirit.

“Why, isn’t it obvious? Look there - it’s the CSI Format for Construction Specifications. The industry needed organization, and building designers quickly began using it to bring order to their specifications. It was so useful, it was also used for filing information about products, and it became the industry standard MasterFormat. And see there? It’s SectionFormat. We didn’t stop with an overall grouping of information, we also established an order for the information for a specific product! Or “work result” as today’s young whippersnappers say! There again, we saw the need for better communication through standardization, and we responded. And what about the CSI Manual of Practice? Once more, we created a standard for the industry!”

“Yes, you did all of that - and you created a forum where design professionals, product manufacturers and installers, and contractors could meet and discuss problems and solutions. In forty years, CSI grew from a handful of people to a nationwide organization of nearly twenty thousand. Indeed, those were the good old days!”

Suddenly, the Spirit disappeared, and Scrooge found himself wondering if he had seen the Spirit, or if it was just something he ate for dinner. He took a couple of antacid pills and went back to sleep, fondly remembering the way things were, so many years ago.

The Second Spirit

“Wake up, Scrooge!”

“What is it this time? Are you real, or am I having indigestion?”

“I am the Spirit of the Present. It isn’t your dinner, though you really should watch what you eat. You seemed to enjoy your visit with the first Spirit, so let’s take another journey.”

“If it’s like the last one, it will be fun!” said Scrooge. “Let’s go!”

Once again, Scrooge and the Spirit were surrounded by changing scenes of places and faces. But it wasn’t quite the same.

The construction industry was even stronger than before. Despite a few economic setbacks along the way, there were many more design professionals, contractors, and building product manufacturers than ever before. The industry appeared to be moving ahead at a frenetic pace, with plentiful new construction and renovation of existing buildings, seemingly without limits. Projections of future work indicated more work would be done in the next several years than ever before.

The results of Scrooge’s earlier work were evident. That part of the construction industry involved with buildings was making good use of CSI’s Formats: Manufacturers included MasterFormat numbers on their literature; design professionals and contractors alike knew where to look for whatever information they needed; and, even though specifications often ignored the rules established in CSI’s venerable Manual of Practice, communication was much improved over that which existed before CSI’s standards existed. And, where before specifiers were forced to create their own documents, there now were several commercial master guide specification systems, some of them automated to the point that the user no longer had to worry about section numbers or titles, cross references, or all of the other nagging minutiae that consumed so much of a specifier’s time in the past.

Scrooge was delighted, thinking he would continue on and become even more successful. Still filled with such thoughts, he was taken aback when the Spirit showed him a smaller part of the industry - his own business. “Whatever is happening?” asked Scrooge. “The industry is growing by leaps and bounds, yet my own part of it is not keeping pace! There are so many fewer members, and the chapters that once were thriving and growing have lost their vigor! Is it possible I am mistaken? How could I have missed such ominous portents?”

Sadly shaking his head, the Spirit replied, “What you see is what now is. From the time of your visit with the first Spirit, your membership has decreased by more than half. Your chapters seem to have trouble understanding what they are to do. And, in the comfort of your middle age - I’m trying to be kind - you lack the energy and purpose of your youth. You have become complacent, satisfied with your great accomplishments of days gone by.”

“You have been, perhaps, too successful, and, pleased with that success, failed to see the opportunities to further improve communication in your industry. You continue to concentrate on paper documents, even though the problems of the past have been solved, and little remains to be done with them. It is in electronic communication that today’s challenges lie, and others have stepped forward to answer those challenges.”

The Last Spirit

The second Spirit vanished, only to be replaced by yet a third Spirit.

“Judging by what has gone before, am I correct in assuming you are the Spirit of Yet to Come? If so, I fear what you may have to say. And yet, I sense that the visits by you and your kin are meant to help, and I am ready to listen.”

Scrooge and the third Spirit were transported to an indefinite, yet not distant, future. Around them appeared a group of young people, engaged in serious conversation.

“I thought CSI was a TV show way back when!” exclaimed one.

“Well, yeah, but there was this organization with the same name that had a huge impact back in the latter part of the twentieth century. They did some really cool stuff, like organizing construction information - back when it was all on paper. You wouldn’t believe how crazy construction documents were before CSI came along.”

“So what happened to them? If they had so much going, how did they let it slip away?”

“I don’t understand it. What they did for paper later needed to be done with electronic documents. Maybe it was just a case of turning into a bunch of old farts, who didn’t understand computers and couldn’t see the new problems. Instead of moving on to deal with information in electronic form, they continued to think of everything in terms of paper.”

“Didn’t they do a lot with education and certification?”

“They did, but they were so busy telling each other how important those things were that they forgot to tell anyone else. They offered excellent education programs but invited only their own members. They demonstrated the value and importance of good specifications, but mostly to themselves, and didn't try to convince government agencies of the importance of certification of specifiers.

“Here’s a funny thing: After all the good things CSI did, other groups came along, and in just a few years many of them convinced government agencies across the country that what those groups did was the most important thing, and, often, that it should be done by someone other than the design professional. Energy-efficient buildings, accessible design, commissioning, value engineering, construction management, partnering, “sustainable" design, lean design, evidence-based design, integrated project delivery - all of these should have been done by design professionals all along. In the end, other organizations were doing things CSI could have done, and CSI members didn’t have much to do anymore.”

“I bet it was pretty sad in the end, when it was just a bunch of the same old people getting together, reliving the good old days, waiting for each other to die.”

Scrooge cried out in agony, “Stop, Spirit! Please tell me that what you have revealed is only what might be, rather than what is destined!”

After a pause, the Spirit replied. “It is not that you no longer do useful things. Your work with interoperability and global standardization are truly worthy efforts, and will one day make the industry better - but those things are of no immediate concern to your existing members, nor will they bring in new members. You have been distracted by irrelevancies; what you call yourself, what you call your members, and how you do business mean little if you have nothing to offer.

"In the beginning, people were eager to join CSI because it offered things that were not available elsewhere - how to write specifications, how to organize information, and an opportunity to correct existing problems. Because of the things you did, construction communication improved. Since then, you have ignored the possibilities of the future, when the value of information itself will far outweigh the value of explaining it in words - a process that continues to demand less and less expertise, and has already become partly automated.

“Some have said that all professional organizations have suffered from loss of members and inability to connect with younger people. That may be true, but it is not an excuse to relax. Those organizations that survive will have found something of value that will attract new members and give them something important to do. You claim to represent all those involved in construction, yet you have done little to attract most of them. Owners, contractors, and others who have been ignored represent an untapped resource of knowledge and challenges that can carry you into the future.

“You do have much to fear, and much to do if you are to avoid the future we have seen this evening. That is but one possible path, though it is one that becomes more likely with each day you do nothing to avoid it. It still is possible to regain your former stature, but only if you look to the future. What was it that made you great? It was your ability to see the needs of communication in the construction industry and to provide solutions for those problems. Yes, certification has become more important in the construction industry, but if that certification is not required by government agencies or valued in the construction industry, it has minimal value. And yes, education is important, but there are many well-established sources of education, and you have no chance of displacing them.”

The End?

We leave Scrooge on the verge of waking. What will he do when he wakes? Will he regain the energy of his youth, or will he be content to rest on his laurels, meeting old friends until they are no more?

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