Bringing new insights to the construction industry through the philosophy of expertise
Submitting InstitutionBirmingham City University
Unit of AssessmentEnglish Language and Literature
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Built Environment and Design: Building
Commerce, Management, Tourism and Services: Business and Management
Summary of the impact
Professor Mark Addis of the School of English undertook pioneering
collaborative interdisciplinary work with David Boyd (Professor of
Construction at Birmingham City University) to engage with an area of
business where the humanities are not usually valued. The philosophy of
expertise assisted three major construction companies, Mouchel, Rider
Levett Bucknall and Thomas Vale Construction, to better understand their
practices. These new perspectives into construction management challenged
existing practices and stimulated practitioner debate in the industry. The
impacts were for individuals, who made more effective interventions in
their practice especially in terms of skill development and project
organisation; company groups, who gained insights which developed their
practice; and the wider industry through presentations to leading national
construction representative organisations.
Construction is a major industry which involves extensive use of
expertise at a variety of levels, from technical craft to managerial
skills, and in intense situations driven by time and resource constraints.
Various governments have argued that construction should be able to
introduce new methods and techniques to raise overall performance, but the
industry is still being criticised for its failings (continuing in the
same vein as J. Egan, 1998, Rethinking Construction: Report of the
Construction Task Force. London: HMSO). What differentiates
construction from many other industries is that situations involving
buildings, sites, and personnel are seldom uniform. Objectivist knowledge
management approaches, which assume that much organisational knowledge can
be separated from the individuals or groups who possess it, with knowledge
stored in a systematic, generalised and codified way, predominate in the
construction industry. Research undertaken by Addis and Boyd has shown
these approaches to be problematic as they oversimplify the difficulties
of successful practice.
The research underpinning the impact was undertaken by Addis and Boyd
from 1999 onwards as a consequence of recognising their interest in the
same problems from different perspectives. Addis carried out significant
research on Wittgenstein and allied areas, as well as on the philosophies
of language and mind. His work on abilities, action, practices and
understanding in Wittgenstein led to an interest in the philosophy of
expertise, which is defined here as covering practical knowledge of
various kinds, attention-based knowledge, skills, decision making and
action planning. Addis considered various ways in which the successful
situational response which characterises expertise could be theorised.
Through this analysis of practice, Addis developed a desire to influence
the construction industry to adopt a more holistic approach to project
management. In so doing, he was able to bring new insights to long-term
problems about effective performance in construction through his
innovative idea of using expertise-based language and concepts to express,
analyse and improve practice. This meant investigating not just how
philosophical theory can inform practice but how practice, properly
understood, can inform philosophical theory, particularly in the
Wittgensteinian sense of practices being an embedded and communal
Boyd has an extensive track record of research in construction relating
to knowledge management and organisational learning. In a previous 2003
Department of Trade and Industry funded project, he and Dr Hong Xiao
worked with small and medium-sized construction companies on their
organisational development through knowledge management, using an
innovative technique of knowledge capture. They discovered that, although
companies sought improvements in practice via objectivist knowledge
management, their actual practice depended on the application of
individual expertise in particular contexts, with the result that
companies become more aware of the nature of their expertise. Fusing their
extensive research in diverse academic fields, Addis and Boyd were able to
develop novel solutions to existing problems within construction
management and demonstrate the benefits of greater engagement and
interaction between the humanities and construction companies. Addis'
philosophical approach to knowledge management enabled these organisations
to vitally reassess their approach to managing complex projects.
References to the research
Addis, M. (2013). `Linguistic Competence and Expertise' for a special
issue of Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences entitled `Tacit
Knowledge: New Theories and Practices'
[DOI: 10.1007/s11097-011-9211-5] (in REF2).
Addis, M. (1999). Wittgenstein: Making Sense of Other Minds.
Aldershot: Ashgate [ISBN: 978-0754610434].
Addis, M. (2007). `Wittgenstein's Private Language Argument and Self
Consciousness', Sats-Nordic Journal of Philosophy, 8:2 [DOI:
10.1515/SATS.2007.89] (Returned to RAE2008).
Boyd, D. (2006). `Developing a Knowledge Centric Approach to Construction
Education', Architectural Engineering and Design Management 2:1-2,
149-159. [DOI: 10.1080/17452007.2006.9684612] (Returned to RAE2008).
Boyd, D. and Addis, M. (2011). `Moving from Knowledge Management to
Expertise Management: a Problem of Contexts'. Centre for Environment
and Society Research Working Paper Series, no.3. [ISBN:
978-1-904839-46-0] (in REF2).
Boyd, D. and Addis, M. (2010). `Philosophy in Construction: Understanding
the Development of Expertise', in T. Sulbaran (ed.) Proceedings of the
Associated Schools of Construction 46th Annual International Conference:
(major conference proceedings; papers assigned to 5 or more reviewers in a
blind review process).
Key Research Grants
2008-9 Philosopher in Residence in Construction Companies.
PI: Mark Addis. AHRC Knowledge Transfer Fellowship: £34,227 (AH/G010099/1)
2003 Knowledge Management for Construction SMEs.
PI: David Boyd. Department of Trade and Industry: £198,000
Details of the impact
Addis (Professor of Philosophy: Fellow) and Boyd (Professor of
Construction: Co-investigator) conducted pioneering collaborative
interdisciplinary research in philosophy and construction which extended
traditional disciplinary boundaries in an AHRC Knowledge Transfer
Fellowship project Philosopher in Residence in Construction Companies.
The work demonstrated the benefit that the humanities can bring to
businesses by using the philosophy of expertise to assist three major
construction companies, Mouchel, Rider Levett Bucknall and Thomas Vale
Construction, in challenging their existing practices. Mouchel is a civil
engineering and public infrastructure management organisation employing
nearly 11,000 people. Involvement was through the Highways Division
Business Improvement Director. Rider Levett Bucknall is a
multi-disciplinary consultancy offering cost- and project-management
services, with 2000 people worldwide. Involvement was through their
Chairman. Thomas Vale Construction is a medium-sized building contractor
operating in the Midlands employing about 830 people, with a strong record
of public and private sector partnership working. Involvement was through
a Director. The research explored the nature of practice from a
practitioner perspective by working in critical dialogue with groups of
staff, ranging from tradespeople to construction professionals and
managers. It encouraged theoretical reflection on expertise in the
companies, including encouraging a critical attitude towards objectivist
knowledge management approaches in construction, and promoted a better
appreciation of the complexity of the industry, including the range of
skills and intelligences required for effective performance. A conceptual
dictionary of key construction management practice ideas was created to
help find the right kind of language to talk about knowledge management
and skilled performance. This dictionary also helped to communicate the
results, which included understanding the limitations of logical
analytical rationality and the importance of analogical thinking in the
construction environment when there is incomplete information.
Despite the fact that the period since the Knowledge Transfer Fellowship
has seen the construction industry affected badly by the recession, there
continue to be major impacts resulting from the work. These impacts have
been insights into achieving improved practice, especially in terms of
individual skill development and project organisation for individuals,
company groups (2008-9) and the industry (2010-2012), facilitated by
presentations to three leading national construction representative
organisations (2010-2011): Constructing Excellence, Construction Industry
Research & Information Association, and the Chartered Institute of
Building. Impact occurred through the critical dialogue with groups of
staff, which took the form of individual interviews and team discussions
about the nature of their expertise, as participation in this discourse
resulted in greater understanding of the character of better practice.
Addis' contribution to the impact was in terms of theoretical analysis of
expertise and of the data from the companies, along with being involved in
the critical dialogue sessions. At Mouchel Highways, structure engineers
dealing with design, feasibility studies and quality assurance gained
greater understanding of the importance of acquiring expertise in
integration skills for finding effective solutions to design problems.
There was increased appreciation of the difficulties created by engaging
external subcontractors on a short- term basis and why this method of cost
control carries risks. The Business Improvement Director at Mouchel
The project enabled Mouchel Highways to re-appreciate the skills of its
employees as being broader and less tangible than previously understood.
[...] at an individual level, those involved in the project gained a
confidence in their application to their tasks and are now more able to
address the uncertain and ambiguous world of construction. 
At Rider Levett Bucknall (RLB), project managers used ideas from the new
conceptual category of expertise management to reflect on the types of
knowledge that are particularly important for effective project delivery.
There was better appreciation of the importance of maximising individual
skills and sharing such abilities within the company along with learning
from projects. The RLB representative remarked the work by Addis and Boyd
"has given the company new insights into what better practice means and
how it can be achieved" . At Thomas Vale Construction, expertise
management ideas were employed to identify the multiple skills (including
interpersonal ones) which staff require for efficient work completion and
turn-around times in social housing refurbishment. Their Director
commented that the project "enabled us to revise our perspective on
expertise and how we go about bringing together our knowledge" .
Research impact was extended into the wider construction industry through
publications, presentations and other networking activities. In 2010,
Addis was invited to write an article for Construction Manager,
the official magazine of the Chartered Institute of Building with a
circulation of around 42,000 . He was also invited to contribute an
article on philosophy in the workplace to a special issue of Philosophy
Now, the world's highest circulation philosophy periodical . In
addition to numerous research presentations to academics in construction,
education and philosophy , Addis has given invited talks at several
industry events hosted by Constructing Excellence and attended by
representatives from major construction companies and consultants to the
industry . Along with Boyd, he contributed a Briefing Note  to the
Construction Industry Research & Information Association (CIRIA) and
gave a presentation to CIRIA's Construction Productivity Network in 2010
These dissemination activities resulted in consultation by the National
Federation of Builders (2010) about ways to enhance membership services,
including appreciating the limits of online delivery, and the Association
of Project Managers (2011) about how expertise management could inform
conceptualisation of accreditation procedures. The dissemination
activities also led to work with a further construction company, Willmott
Dixon, in 2011. The Project Manager at the company called the
collaboration with Addis and Boyd "significant in shaping our practice"
and explained how the experience of working with the academics challenged
us to think differently about how we go about construction projects - not
simply using automated systems in our work, but empowering the skilled
tradesmen to take decisions `on the ground' based on their expertise in
this area. This research was extremely valuable to us as we sought to
implement a step change in the working culture of the organisation. These
findings helped to challenge conventional wisdom that existed in the
construction industry and stimulate debate amongst stakeholders [...],
showing the need for a more nuanced approach to complex project
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Testimonial from Business Improvement Director, Highways Division,
- Testimonial from Associate, Rider Levett Bucknall Ltd.
- Testimonial from Director, Thomas Vale Construction Ltd.
- Addis, M. (2010) Expert comment `The Thinking Man's Industry', Construction
Manager, Nov/Dec 2010: http://www.construction-manager.co.uk/news/thinking-mans-industry/.
- Addis, M. (2013) `Philosophy in the Workplace'. Special issue of Philosophy
- Invitations to speak at major conferences and seminar series at the
University of California at Berkeley, Kings College London, and the
Association of Researchers in Construction Management. Organisation of a
number of events, including Understanding Expertise at the
London School of Economics (26/02/12), which featured a Director of
Constructing Excellence, and the Theorising Expertise conference
at the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London
- Industry presentations: Building Expertise, Constructing
Excellence Ethics Symposium (London, 08/03/11); Profiting from
Expertise: A Simple Approach to Developing Your Company Through
Working with its Expertise. Constructing Excellence Members' Forum
- Boyd, D. and Addis, M. (2010) Profiting from Expertise.
Construction Industry Research & Information Association (CIRIA)
briefing note July 2010 (Ref: 05-04-10):
Improving Productivity with Expertise. CIRIA Construction
Productivity Network (Birmingham, 23/03/10).
- Testimonial from Project Manager at Willmott Dixon Ltd.