Where’s the Threat?

May 10, 2004

Last Saturday morning a friend of mine, Peter Sisk, called to see if he could stop by my house on his way out of town to visit his aging parents in Hartford. He had the latest version of a book he is writing and wanted to give me a copy of it. The guy is a talented writer. His stuff is interesting, funny, and thought-provoking. Conventional wisdom says engineers can’t write, but it’s certainly not true in his case! Sisk— today a software developer— worked in an earlier life as a structural engineer. But that’s not the point of my story. He told me that after the last time he stopped over (to show me his new British Racing Green Mini Cooper S!), he left my house and went to see another friend of his who lives nearby. This guy (don’t know his name) is still in the A/E business, working for one of the mega firms that designs and manages huge public infrastructure projects. Peter said they somehow got on the subject of engineers in India. While Peter would be the first to admit that in the software business a lot of code is written in India, he was surprised to hear about how much A/E work is being done there now, too. His friend went on to talk about the fact that they could get utility as-builts produced in India for $60 a sheet— and that this was expensive compared to what it costs to do them in China these days! Go to any conference or pick up any publication geared toward management for A/E and environmental firms, and you’ll see a lot of talk about A/E jobs going overseas to India and China. And while most of us would see this as a threat to our livelihoods, I don’t think it has to be. But we can’t sit on our rears, or we will end up as the proverbial buggy whip makers at the turn of the last century. Here’s what we need to be doing: Becoming experts in our clients’ businesses. The fact is that there’s no substitute for specialization and really understanding your clients’ businesses. That’s how you can help them best. That’s how you can anticipate the problems that they are likely to have and help them avoid them. That’s how you can pass on lessons learned from solving similar problems for similar clients elsewhere. I have never understood how some professional service firms— be they architects, engineers, attorneys, management consultants, or environmental consultants— think that they can be viable working for any type of client. How in the world can anyone be so smart or ask enough questions to really learn about every client type they serve? Client specialization is a major driver that any foreign firm is going to have a hard time matching. Opening up our minds about what we are and what we’ll do. If we are going to adapt to a changing environment, then we need to be open to doing different things. There will always be low-cost service providers who slide in and undercut us on things that anyone can do. But what about the things that only we can do? Those are the services that I would want to get into. These will always be the services that are more consultative in nature, more personal in nature, and changing at a faster pace than those that are quickly becoming commodities. And these services will support better billing rates than those that can be provided by anyone with a computer and a modem connection, regardless of where they are located. Being creative. The value of creativity is unlimited. And the fact is that American design is respected worldwide. Why else would the Japanese automakers have design studios over here? They know that we are the design leaders for the world. But, to keep that position, we have to be willing to keep pushing the envelope, ala I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid at The Louvre or Gensler’s wine bar at The Ducati Store in Manhattan. Creativity has no bounds. A good design is worth whatever someone will pay for it. Perhaps if we see the market disappear for the stuff anyone can do, we will be forced to come up with something better. That’s good for us. Forming relationships. It’s the glue that holds professional service firms and clients together. And this glue doesn’t work so well if the distances between the parties are too great. This is another way we can stem the tide of work flowing out of the country— by having trusted relationships that stand the test of time. We have to exhibit more care for our clients than anyone in India or China ever could over the phone or by e-mail. We have to communicate with our clients more than all others. And our clients need to keep seeing that we understand them and are complete people with a wide-ranging perspective, not just task workers who are there as a part of a necessary evil. I truly believe that, if we do the right things, there’s plenty out there for everyone. What do you think? Originally published 05/10/2004.

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