How do you raise the bar on product competence?

Blog by Hanna Clarke, CPA Digital and Policy Manager, who sits on the Industry Response Group (IRG), the Competence Steering Group (CSG) and is secretariat for Working Group 12 – Products.

In August, the Industry Response Group (IRG) – a joint government and industry forum set up to address shortcomings in the construction industry revealed by Grenfell - launched a first response to the Hackitt review with the interim report Raising the Bar – Improving Competence, Building a Safer Future. Nestled near the back of the report are our proposals from Working Group 12: Products. Chaired by CPA interim CEO, Peter Caplehorn, our group tackles a tricky and overarching scope: how do you quantify and ensure all those interacting with products are competent to use them in a safe and appropriate way?

This is a broad question. To get the right solution and the culture change necessary we have to think about every type of person using every type of product at any stage of a project on all different types of buildings. With a task this big, it is important to understand the fundamental problems and form a solution that is practical, applicable, and measureable.

While there are many concerns, broadly WG12 identified three big problems that we would have to address.

Products do not work in isolation. A building or asset is a holistic system. The way a product performs is fundamentally different accordingly to how it is used. A products safety can’t be assessed until you decide the function or understand how it needs to perform within its environment and for how long. If the relationships between products and systems are not understood, inappropriate combinations can be used, sometimes to the risk of life and property.

It only takes one broken link to break a chain. Buildings are not created by one person. Of the hundreds of people involved in the construction of a building, there may be individuals who make a decision that will impact how safe a building is. For example, a product may be designed to perform beautifully but it will mean very little if a procurer switches the product without understanding the impacts, or a contractor installs it poorly. To make buildings work, we have to understand all the key actors and the different stages of creating and looking after a building that require a certain standard of competence to make decisions safely.

Nobody can know everything. It is crucial to consider the sheer volume and variation of products, tasks and outcomes. You cannot generalise that being competent with one product makes you competent with another – it has to be specific. You have to have the appropriate level of competence to the type of product and type of work. We need a consistent way to recognise who knows enough to make a good decision, and who does not.

So what is the answer?

WG12 have identified a framework. It starts with defining 5 levels of product competence, ranging from a basic understanding to the expert and technically adroit. Once these levels are plotted against certain key actors at a key stage within the RIBA Plan of Works, a matrix can emerge. This matrix can broadly describe how competent everyone should be to safely use a certain product.

Having set these standards, it can be matched against the various roles and agreed how to demonstrate competent levels of skill, attitude, knowledge and experience. Combinations of qualifications, training, applicable experience and continuing professional development will be needed to validate the levels.

The work is at a prototype stage, but as a starting point offers a clear process to untangle this complex area, allowing all participants to establish the level of competence that manufacturers feel is necessary.

Working Group 12 are seeking feedback on the proposals as part of the public consultation on Raising the Bar – Interim Report. The deadline for responses has been extended to 31 October 2019. Responses can be emailed to

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