Beware the commercialisation of BIM certification

David Shepherd, project BIM leader, House of Commons
Certification has its role to play, but beware the commercialisation of certification, warns David Shepherd.

Not a day goes by that doesn’t include a corporate social media announcement about BIM certification or a corporate endorsement of a recently acquired BIM software solution. 

For BIM certification, the social media post usually includes a picture of a company’s BIM manager (with an appropriately grandiose title, like chief digital twin officer) accompanied by a representative of the auditing organisation. Both look relieved, as they brim with pride, while the former holds aloft the framed prize: a certificate printed on oh-so-official 80 grammes per square metre parchment paper. For certain occasions, the more sustainable digital ‘paper’ will never do!

In stark contrast with their beaming smiles, the post itself reads: “I am truly humbled by…” Irony aside, this kind of announcement typifies all that’s wrong with the BIM compliance/endorsement industry. 

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with compliance or endorsement per se. However, let’s be honest: rewarding compliance is akin to giving medals to soldiers for doing no more than wearing the right uniform!

“The ensuing efforts to monetise certification have turned standards compliance into a feeding frenzy of commercialism.”

Of course, what exacerbates this abysmal culture of rewarding compliance is that in addition to the original certification, AEC companies are expected to pay for annual audits that certify that they still comply – and the announcement of a new or updated standard just gives the certification bodies a license to print money.

When it was released in 1987, the ISO 9000 suite of standards became the unwitting progenitor of this compliance industry.

To be fair and absolutely clear, I’m not criticising the standards themselves, which contain valuable guidance. Nevertheless, the ensuing efforts to monetise certification have turned standards compliance into a feeding frenzy of commercialism.

As a result of that commercialisation, training and certification have become the ‘go to’ prescription for any and every business malady. Behind this persistent assumption is the underlying fallacy, known as the ‘law of the instrument’. It was aptly summarised by psychologist Abraham Maslow when he wrote: “It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” 

The same is true for the information management ‘hammer’. And, worryingly, as with quality assurance certification, BIM certification appears to be following a similar path of commercialisation.

Danger of non-compliance

Whenever a BIM standard is updated or amended, it’s not long before a raft of new certifications are promoted with the stern warning that, without re-certification, previously certified organisations will be rendered non-compliant.

The truth is that, as with ISO 9000, clients are driving most of the impetus behind BIM certification. To its credit, certification provides a shorthand for quickly ascertaining provisional acceptability during procurement. In that sense, if certification streamlines responses to the BIM aspects of pre-qualification questionnaires, then, regardless of intrinsic value, the certificate does confer a competitive advantage – if only because the pass/fail criterion means that organisations that are not certified are at a decided competitive disadvantage.

Also, for publicly-funded bodies, there is nothing inherently wrong with using these proprietary certification schemes and management tools.

“Publicly-funded bodies may well promote objectively derived standards, but not proprietary accreditations or technical solutions.”

It only becomes an issue when a publicly-funded body abandons the objectivity of truly competitive selection criteria to throw their weight behind a particular certification scheme, or technology solution.

For example, let’s say that a public servant created an ISO 19650-compliant CDE solution. However good that they or their colleagues think it might be, it would still be unconscionable for their publicly-funded employer to prioritise endorsement and promotion of the benefits of that solution to the AEC industry. The phrase ‘conflict of interest’ comes to mind.

Scrupulous governance

Fortunately, in this regard, British public bodies have a proud history of scrupulous governance. Every year, they run their own certification scheme whereby all staff are required to register their interests.

Publicly-funded bodies may well promote objectively derived standards, but not proprietary accreditations or technical solutions.

Suffice to say that if this kind of endorsement ever does occur, it should be rightly called out as corrupt and an anti-competitive threat to free markets.

That freedom, which is rooted in our democracy, has been hard-won. So, let’s ensure that no one endangers it. As the great Thomas Jefferson may once have wrote: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”

David Shepherd is the House of Commons project BIM leader. The opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the views of his employer.

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  1. Well said David, there is no single standard for the accreditation/certification against ISO 19650, There are so many variation and national versions that it is almost impossible to have an international or even national certificate. add this to the fact that the ‘standards’ or guidance in each country is endlessly updated. The industry sees these certificates, rather than certification, as a badge of ability. If all the competent (?) staff leave the organization is that company still certified?. for the CDE this gets even more difficult because any company can have the technical solution configured to their own particular way of working. We should remember that the CDE is a process not a particular technical solution.

  2. We said! I have found that certification is meaningless anyway. Certification gained by a company rarely reflects a the capabilities of the team on a project and performance can often fall short of the promise when bidding for work.

    I say scrap all certification, but make sure contracts have more teeth to hold teams to account to perform as they should, and ensure appropriate focus is placed on retaining fees for underperformance.

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