Most surveyors and, more specifically, owners and managers of survey firms, would say that our work is project-based—that is, we tend to speak of the “Jones Boundary Survey” or the “Smith Construction As-Built” when we divide up our workdays. And of course this is a natural and smart way to organize infrastructure work; project-based workflows have been around for a long time and are responsible for the Pyramids, the Moon landings, and just about everything in between those two milestones.
But there’s another way to think about survey work. Rather than projects, we can think about products. Product-based business models are quite common in other professions, and may be more relevant and profitable given recent developments in survey deliverables.
Let’s consider our two hypothetical projects above, the Jones Boundary Survey and the Smith Construction As-Built.
Suppose the boundary survey is in a high-end subdivision that goes back several decades. Existing maps and documentation are poor quality, and nothing has been georeferenced. If we contract with a lot owner to produce a boundary survey, we are also likely to produce a lot of other work—control network, corner locations, georeferencing, etc. —that we won’t necessarily transmit to our client. After all, a homeowner is unlikely to need our control coordinates and, depending on how our contract is worded, we aren’t obligated to give those coordinates to them. Really, we owe them a single product—a certified boundary map. But consider the value that our additional work might have in other applications. A georeferenced control network, for example, together with coordinates for found subdivision corners, will speed all subsequent work in our hypothetical subdivision, and it can be reused or even potentially licensed to other surveyors. So most projects generate multiple products, and there may be multiple ways to generate value from those products.
The above example probably sounds familiar, though the terms may be new; most surveyors have likely thought about the value of a control network. But now let’s consider the Smith Construction As-Built. Suppose this is a survey of facade work at, say, a mall. And let’s further suppose that we do this work with a laser scanner. In a project-based workflow, we’ll probably visit the site, scan the area of new construction, and deliver a point cloud to the contractor. But if we’re thinking in terms of products, we might go ahead and scan the entire mall facade—after all, we’re already there, and scanning goes fast once we’re set up and on basis. After we deliver a point cloud of the work area—the product the client contracted for—we will still have the ability to deliver more products based on the same work. The mall may want a good reference for future work, a future contractor may want another section of the facade point cloud for use as a design survey, or visualizations may be needed for advertising or public meetings. Put another way, a point cloud of a large site is money in the bank; all we have to do is carve off sections as needed, and charge appropriately.
Viewing our work as product-based requires careful contract language and maybe some imagination and changes within our industry. In fact, a “product-oriented” business model is the norm for many professions; financial and insurance service firms routinely provide products, and so do many legal and medical firms.
A product-based business model offers more freedom to survey service providers, encourages reuse of our work and other innovations, and forces us to focus more on the product and less on the process. We’re all dealing with smaller budgets and the need to do more with less. Focusing on reselling products, and not just charging by the hour or by the point, is one way to improve our bottom lines.