News focus: School of thought

5 July 2012

Adam Leach | 12 July 2012

The Supply Chain Sustainability School is bringing together competitors in construction to teach good practice. Adam Leach looks at how this could be a template for other sectors to follow.

It’s a well-worn saying, but “two heads are better than one” remains as true today as when it was first uttered. Current economic woes and the development of technology have made collaboration a more compelling proposition and the procurement function is starting to adapt to it.

I saw an example of this last month, when I attended the launch of the Supply Chain Sustainability School. Now, it’s not a school in the uniform, board rubber and detention sense of the word, but it is an entity for sharing knowledge and educating. Online in the main, although it will involve a number of summits and meetings for suppliers to attend, it is an initiative designed to help suppliers, particularly SMEs, in UK construction learn about the various issues in sustainability, be it carbon emissions, water usage, or sustainable sourcing.

The concept itself is not revolutionary – holding supplier summits on sustainability and providing training to suppliers are frequent features of corporations’ sustainability agendas. But the difference with this particular initiative is that it is not just for the benefit and PR uses of one company, but a number of them and, what’s more, they’re competitors.

Skanska originally conceived the idea. But to receive funding from national training organisation CITB-Construction Skills, it had to be opened out to other companies, many of which were direct competitors. So in came Morgan Sindall, Sir Robert McAlpine, Wilmott Dixon, Kier, Lend Lease and major construction materials supplier Aggregate Industries to back the school, offering time and resources to try to reach the majority of the companies currently operating within UK construction.

According to Shaun McCarthy, director of Action Sustainability, which is running the school, the cross sector approach creates huge potential for making substantial strides in sustainable construction.

He tells SM: “I think it’s unique. What tends to happen in the construction sector is that firms will join ventures to bid for work and things like that, but they don’t normally collaborate at this sort of level. I think this is a first for the construction sector.”

The main aspect of the initiative is a website that provides case studies, assessment materials and learning resources, which anyone can use

for free to learn about the issues and develop their own action plans to address the challenges. Users can also submit information anonymously, which will enable the school to develop a clearer understanding of the competence within the industry and which areas need improving. In addition to the online offering, there is a series of 10 supplier conferences.

Skanska supply chain director Andrew MacAskill, explains to SM that the uptake to the events has so far been strong, with more than 1,000 companies scheduled to attend. But they’re aiming higher: “Our target is to get the majority of those people to have an opportunity to build and to construct more sustainably through the school.”

While the project is currently geared towards the UK construction sector, MacAskill can see it being of use internationally and even by companies in other sectors: “At the moment it is focused on UK construction, but it’s easily available for any construction sector to use and if you really broaden it out, there’s no reason why it should just be for construction.”

McCarthy agrees that the model, can be applied both internationally and by other sectors, either by extending the scope of the school in the future, or the development of different schools for different sectors.

As for how it can evolve, he foresees it moving to answer the big questions facing the sector. “It can go up in intellectual value, from providing fairly basic training, which we have, into face-to-face teaching and then to more collaborative learning and practice-based research.

“When we get the supply chain up to a level of competence that can really support contractors, that is when the exciting stuff will happen.”

Both MacAskill and McCarthy say they haven’t found equivalents in other industries or internationally. There are collaborative projects and initiatives that focus on specific issues, though. The Ethical Trade Initiative and the Fair Labor Association spring to mind. However, they are initiatives where companies joined after the momentum has started growing.

The school is an instance where the industry itself has worked together to get things moving. If the benefits clearly outweigh the drawbacks of working so closely with competitors, then it won’t be long before other companies in other sectors start to work together on mutually beneficial aims.

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