If you are a business, as architects' practices tend to be, how can you best make sure that you maximise your chances of getting the next job over all the other architects touting for the same crumbs?
How, in short, can you beat the opposition?
One way is to provide an indispensable service; to raise the bar; to improve every day in every way and make sure that prospective clients know you, covet you and recommend you to others. The other way is to stitch up the opposition through gamesmanship, rumour, chicanery and physical violence. Both of these business strategies, in varying degrees, have made the corporate wheels go round for at least a century or two. Businesses sort themselves out one way or another.
There is now, as they say in the era of New Labour, a 'third way', which portrays businesses as hard done by by the vagaries of the market. This victimcentred perspective has resulted in employers, instead of fighting their business corner, simply calling for legislation to police strict new performance standards. New codes of conduct are regularly put in place to overwhelm those with slightly less rigorous (and selfrighteous) values.
The new clamour for official correctives designed to squeeze the competition comes in a wide range of guises these days. Whether it's on environmental grounds or health and safety, sustainability strictures or risk management, big business is now calling foul on the small guy. There is something unsavoury about this: it points to the inability of business to survive without state aid or technical support.
Many of the big construction players most associated with PFI projects - WS Atkins, Serco, Capita, Amey and Amec - get over half of their revenues from the public sector. This gives them a stable income, but their reliance on state funding is not the best foundation for real business dynamism.
Not that there are direct similarities, of course, but it is interesting to look at RIBA's proposal for a new Chartered Practice Scheme (CPS) in this light. The CPS seems to have been designed to safeguard the big architectural players.
There's nothing wrong with that if only it didn't pretend that it was a model of virtue.
It has been set up to frame 'quality criteria to provide an assured service to clients'.
In fact, it will root out the competition on the basis of its inability to comply with the weight of the new bureaucracy in a similar way to the government's Quality Mark Scheme for contractors a few years ago. The CPS has nothing to say about design standards, just performance appraisals. It is reminiscent of the ISO 9000 dilemma, whereby the quality of the manufacturing processes can be rock solid, saying nothing about the quality of the out-turn product at all.
Most of the documents will already be in your quality assurance armoury anyway, so it shouldn't be too much of a hardship to package it into a new file marked 'CPS'. But that just shows how inured we have become to paperwork. The rise and rise of audit culture - or 'transparency' as the third wayists have called it - is giving rise to a belief that form-filling has inherent merit: I tick, therefore I am.
The CPS, which replaces the Registered Practice scheme, comes into force on 31 December 2007, so it's still a long way off and not yet obligatory. But if you don't sign up, registered practices 'will not benefit from any of the marketing support offered by the RIBA'.
For more information, telephone the RIBA on 020 7307 3600.