I recently attended a continuing legal education (CLE) seminar dealing with building your business in the new economy. The similarities in the market forces affecting the legal profession that the speaker was describing and what I know about the market forces in the geospatial community"1 were striking.
First, the numbers in the two groups are somewhat similar. According to the speaker’s data, in 2009, there were 1,180,386 active attorneys, or as the speaker put it, one attorney for every 258 Americans. Similarly, in 2008, the U.S. Labor Department accounted for 857,000 people in the geospatial occupations; by utilizing the same math, that works out to be about one geospatial occupation for every 355 Americans.
The speaker also discussed the “Cobb Value Curve”2 as it relates to legal services. Cobb broke legal services down to four basic types. “Commodity” services that are low budget and high turn-around, where the services offered by one attorney are virtually indistinguishable from that of any other attorney. “Brand Name” services where the client recognizes the service provider’s name and associates that name with higher quality. “Hired for Experience” services where the service provider has special skills, and the client recognizes the value of the experience of the service provider and is willing to pay a premium. And “Nuclear Event” services (high-end services) where the outcome is virtually life and death, either physically, financially or both, and cost is no object.
The curve rates these services with relative value from the high-end “nuclear event,” where money is no object, to the low-end “commodity” services where the services of one provider are, in the eyes of the client, impossible to differentiate from any other provider. At the low-end, the only distinguishing characteristic is price; the lowest-priced provider generally gets the job. The slope of the curve as it descends from the high-value work to commodity work can vary from very steep to gradual depending on the client’s perceived value of the services being offered. This is what Cobb referrers to as “Client Power.” (See the Cobb Value Curve below.
Only a very small percentage, maybe 3 to 5 percent, of legal work falls in the “nuclear event” category. For the next 15 to 17 percent of legal work, attorneys are hired for their special skills, expertise and experience by well-informed clients who know what they are looking for and understand the value of what they are getting. This 20 percent of all projects represents the high-value work that tends to be insensitive to price. Below this point, price becomes sensitive. At the higher end of price sensitivity, 20 percent of available work goes to attorneys who are hired based on name recognition. The work isn’t nuclear and special skills aren’t necessary, but the client is somewhat sophisticated and wants to trust a name brand. The remaining 60 percent of the work is all commodity services. Clients are relatively unsophisticated and can’t distinguish between the services offered by any two competing service providers. Sound familiar?
What does all of this have to do with land surveying? Everything. As the speaker noted, one way to get yourself out of the low-end commodity work and into the higher-end “hired for experience” category--where the relative value of the services is exponentially higher--is to have a specialty, or niche, that differentiates you from the crowd. This is not a revolutionary idea. It’s a well-known marketing strategy to develop a niche and exploit its potential. What may be a new idea to many land surveyors, or at least new relative to the last decade or so, is to view our role as land surveyors against the broader geospatial community.
Viewed against the backdrop of 857,000 geospatial occupations, the 57,000 licensed land surveyors in the United States are a small group representing less than 7 percent of the community. This should tell us immediately that we can’t compete at the commodity level. Google, Microsoft and Esri have already shown us how the commodity market for geospatial services works. They are mapping the entire world and providing the data at dirt-cheap prices,3 far below what can be achieved through conventional surveying.
If we consider the “FIG Definitions of the Surveyor”4 (see sidebar) and use the summary and detailed functions as Cobb’s “Volume of Work Available,” we can relate the geospatial community to the legal profession on the Cobb Value Curve. Let’s start at the bottom and work our way to the top. The commodity services are going to be those where the provider is irrelevant and price is everything. This will certainly include wide-scale determination of the size and shape of the Earth, acquisition of spatial information, administration of GIS and the measurement of resources. This is half of the summary items and nearly half of the detailed functions, and these services are already being provided by, in my own estimation, 60 to 70 percent of the geospatial community without the need or input of licensed land surveyors.
Next, let’s consider brand name services: the planning and administration of resources, the positioning of objects for engineering works, the management of construction works and the assessment of value and management of property. This is all of the other available work, save the determination of property boundaries. Licensed land surveyors are certainly involved in these functions, but not exclusively. In addition, others outside the geospatial community are involved in these functions, including lawyers, engineers, architects, real estate professionals, property appraisers and government bureaucrats. These functions and the commodity work constitute the vast majority of work available to the geospatial community.
As a general proposition, we don’t have nuclear events like they have in the legal profession; although, one neighbor shooting another neighbor over a property boundary is certainly a life-changing event for all concerned. The only function left that constitutes the smallest amount of available work and where the professional is hired exclusively for expertise and experience (and in this case, licensure) is the determination of the position of property boundaries. But instead of exploiting this niche work and receiving relatively high value, land surveyors and the land surveying profession have turned this exclusive work into commodity services that are among the lowest valued work in the entire geospatial community. It is so low now that Google maps that show property lines on them are considered by many to be just as good as a survey of property.
How did we do it? Easy; we allowed anyone who can run a closure and slap some math on the ground to call that work “boundary surveying.” I don’t have the time and spaces in this short column to go into all of the details of how we got to this point, but this is not what land surveying used to be all about. If you read the works of surveyors such as Francis Hodgman out of Michigan in the late 1800s, A.C. Mulford out of New York in the early 1900s and many others, they had a completely different view of the role of the land surveyor in society than we do today. It wasn’t good enough to just slap some math on the ground and call it a boundary survey; surveyors were hired for their experience and expertise, and their services were valued by their clients.
“In an old settled country, the principal work of the surveyor is to retrace old boundary lines, find old corners, and relocate them when lost. In performing this duty, he exercises, to a certain extent, judicial functions. He usually takes the place of both judge and jury, and acting as arbiter between adjoining proprietors, decides both the law and the facts in regard to their boundary lines. He does this not because of any right or authority he may possess, but because the interested parties voluntarily submit their differences to him as an expert in such matters, preferring to abide by his decisions rather than go to law about it.”5
Our “technical standards” generally create a low standard for practice. This, as Curtis Brown observed, contributes to the problem.
“Without superior knowledge, we have an inferior profession … One of the reasons for giving surveyors the exclusive privilege of marking boundaries is to prevent the unskilled from monumenting lines that encroach on the bona fide rights of others … The major deterrent to our becoming a learned profession is our low requirements for the right to practice. So long as we have low admission requirements, we will have low standards of practice and low public opinion.”6
Because our technical standards do not differentiate between good practice and bad, a map of survey can be of the wrong piece of property and still pass muster under the standards. As long as closure ratios are met and the proper abbreviations are on the map, the technical standards are satisfied and now anyone who can run a closure and slap math on the ground can call the results a boundary survey. As a result, boundary surveys are commodity work.
These issues are fixable, and in order to maintain relevance in the 21st century, they must be fixed. The solution is extremely simple, but instituting the solution may prove to be too difficult and may ultimately bring an end to land surveying as we know it. The solution is to distinguish between good practice and bad. This will require those who promulgate and enforce standards of practice to do the dirty work of defining what it means to survey property as opposed to simply slapping math on the ground. However, when half of the profession doesn’t see a problem with the status quo and half of the practitioners who sit on regulatory boards actually see boundary surveying as a commodity service (we know who they are and they know who they are), the likelihood of instituting the fix may be remote.
The alternative doesn’t take a "rocket surgeon" to predict. As long as boundary surveying remains a commodity service, there are 800,000 others in the geospatial community ready to provide this service. When that time comes, our niche will be gone and we will all be competing for the lowest price for services. You think it’s bad now, wait till that day arrives.
- According to 2008 U.S. Labor Department statistic, the “geospatial” community in the United State consists of 857,000 occupations, including GIS practitioners and technicians (418,000), precision agriculture and remote sensing (130,000), licensed land surveyors (57,000), cartographers and photogrammetrists (12,000) , and various support personnel (240,000).
- Cobb, William C., managing partner of Cobb Consulting (WCCI, Inc.), based in Houston, Texas.
- The only expense in many cases is the hardware and software necessary to capture and manipulate the data that is available.
- Federation Internationale des Geometres (International Federation of Surveyors).
- Hodgman, F., M.S., C.E., A Manual of Land Surveying, The F. Hodgman Co., Climax, Mich. 1913, at Page 289.
- Brown, Curtis M., The Professional Status of Land Surveyors, 1961, “Surveying and Mapping,” Vol. XXI, No. 1, at 63-71.
Neither the author nor POB intend this column to be a source of legal advice for surveyors or their clients. The law changes and differs in important respects for different jurisdictions. If you have a specific legal problem, the best source of advice is an attorney admitted to the bar in your jurisdiction.
Don't miss Jeffery Lucas’ latest book, “The Pincushion Effect.” The book can be purchased through the AEC Store at www.aecstore.com/ pincushioneffect.
FIG Definition of the Functions of the Surveyor
The surveyor’s professional tasks may involve one or more of the following activities which may occur either on, above or below the surface of the land or the sea and may be carried out in association with other professionals.
- The determination of the size and shape of the earth and the measurement of all data needed to define the size, position, shape and contour of any part of the earth and monitoring any change therein.
- The positioning of objects in space and time as well as the positioning and monitoring of physical features, structures and engineering works on, above or below the surface of the earth.
- The development, testing and calibration of sensors, instruments and systems for the above mentioned purposes and other surveying purposes.
- The acquisition and use of spatial information from close range, aerial and satellite imagery and the automation of these processes.
- The determination of the position of the boundaries of public or private land, including national and international boundaries, and the registration of those lands with the appropriate authorities.
- The design, establishment and administration of geographic information systems (GIS) and the collection, storage, analysis, management, display and dissemination of data.
- The analysis, interpretation and integration of spatial objects and phenomena in GIS, including the visualisation and communication of such data in maps, models and mobile digital devices.
- The study of the natural and social environment, the measurement of land and marine resources and the use of such data in the planning of development in urban, rural and regional areas.
- The planning, development and redevelopment of property, whether urban or rural and whether land or buildings.
- The assessment of value and the management of property, whether urban or rural and whether land or buildings or landed interests.
- The planning, measurement and management of construction works, including the estimation of costs.
In the application of the foregoing activities surveyors take into account the relevant legal, economic, environmental and social aspects affecting each project.