Professional Surveyors: Ensuring the American Dream
If only this were the case. How different would the land surveying profession be if this were the general perception people had about land surveyors over the past several decades? How different could the land surveying profession be if we made this a reality in the very near future?
I was recently on the NSPS Radio Hour with host Curt Sumner and guests Gary Kent and Bruce Blair, where we began a discussion about this very issue.1 As you might imagine we only scratched the surface in an hour’s time. But we all agreed that it was a good start. Now I want to push the discussion forward with you.
My fear that I have expressed on many occasions is that traditional land surveying as we currently know it will become irrelevant before my career is over. Not to worry, though, I have a bailout plan. I’ll join the lawyers. It’s you I’m concerned about.
What I mean by traditional surveying is that aspect of surveying that requires licensure. There are all types of activities that could be labeled surveying but they are not exclusive to the licensed land surveyor. Given the right tools and a little training, who can’t gather GPS data, acquire and utilize topographic information, get themselves a radio-controlled boat and perform a hydrographic survey, build a GIS or map the world? The answer is anybody can, and they are. When is the last time you mapped the world? Esri did it three times while I was writing this column. The only aspect of surveying that requires regulation and licensure is when surveyors are dealing with people’s property rights, and that happens when a survey of property is performed.
In today’s highly politicized environment, perception is reality. It matters little what the real truth might be. This is something we can use to our advantage moving forward but it can also have some very negative consequences in the near future. When the perception of the general public is that we don’t know what we are doing, surveying is easy anybody can do it (or at least not do as bad a job of it as some surveyors are doing), surveyors are trouble makers, or that map I got from the county’s GIS department is just as good as a survey (and a lot cheaper), then the jig is up. We will be replaced by the county’s GIS map and/or deregulated.
Many surveyors reply to me that there is no money to be made in traditional boundary surveying and, therefore, the argument goes, why save it? The reason we have taken an exclusive niche service and turned it into a cheap commodity is that we allow anyone with a survey license to perform boundary surveying services, even though they may be completely unqualified to properly perform those services. That’s like allowing anyone with a doctor’s license to perform open-heart surgery because the consequences of incompetent practice, in either scenario, can be devastating to the people involved, even to the point of death. A bullet is a lot cheaper than moving fences.
Here we could regulate a fix by simply creating a standard of practice that distinguishes between good practice and bad. But that is a 50-jurisdiction proposition, and we probably don’t have that kind of time on our hands. Even if we did, some regulatory boards don’t see that there is a problem. Other boards (and I have discussed a few in this column in the past), actually punish surveyors who dare to do something other than simply “stake the deed,” breakdown that section for the umpteenth time and show all conflicts real or imagined. And if the title documents do not match what is on the ground, then you better be driving a new pin in the ground. These are the things that actually create conflict and give the public the general perception that we don’t know what we are doing. Surveyors are trouble makers not problem solvers.
So let’s continue with the proposition that we need to save traditional surveying (if we can), and work on the regulatory fixes over time. The only way to do this would be through a private initiative and NSPS, along with the 100 percent membership drive and the participation of state societies, could provide the vehicle to make it happen.
We need a paradigm shift, nothing short of a sea-change in the way not only the general public perceives land surveyors and land surveying but in the way land surveyors see themselves. How can we effect such a change?
I was presenting a program in Indianapolis this past January and I was going through my last couple of slides at the end of my last program on the last day. I had Dr. Spencer Johnson’s “Handwriting on the Wall” from his 1998 book, “Who Moved My Cheese?”2 This book was on everybody’s desk a decade ago, but still offers timely advice in a changing world. Even though I have talked about theses slides many times in the past in the context of personal changes in one’s life, I was suddenly hit with the thought that our collective land surveying cheese is moving. How do we move with it so that we can continue to enjoy the cheese?
In the airport on the way home from Indiana, I found Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point”3 in the bookstore. Gladwell wrote his book back in 2002, before YouTube and the concept of something going “viral.” Gladwell talked in terms of something becoming contagious and reaching epidemic proportions. It could be anything from an actual virus to a fashion trend. In all of the events he described there was a tipping point when the thing turned epidemic. In some cases the tipping point is something that happens quite by accident and other times it happens by design. No matter how an epidemic spreads, however, there are common denominators in both types of events.
The Law of the Few: Three types of people are needed in order to effect an epidemic; connectors, mavens and salesmen. Connectors know a lot of people, mavens are knowledgeable on the subject and salesmen can sell the idea.
The Stickiness Factor: The message has to have a “stickiness” factor, by making the message so memorable that it sticks in someone’s mind. Connectors, mavens and salesmen are instrumental in massaging the message to help make it sticky.
The Power of Context: Describing the epidemic fall in crime in New York City in the late 1990’s, Gladwell observed: “It is possible to be a better person on a clean street or in a clean subway than in one littered with trash and graffiti.”
The Magic Number 150: Founder of the Methodist movement John Wesley “realized that if you wanted to bring about a fundamental change in people’s belief and behavior, a change that would persist and serve as an example to other, you needed to create community around them, where those beliefs could be practiced and expressed and nurtured.”
The Paradox of the Epidemic: Gladwell also observed that a contagious movement might not happen in one fell swoop. “In order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements.”
Translation: “What mavens and connectors and salesmen do to an idea in order to make it contagious is to alter it in such a way that extraneous details are dropped and others are exaggerated so that the message itself comes to acquire a deeper meaning. If anyone wants to start an epidemic, then … he or she has to somehow employ connectors, mavens and salesmen in this very way.” (Gladwell)
The Tipping Point: “Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped.” (Gladwell)
Is a tipping point possible to fundamentally change the message of the land surveying profession? One thing we know for sure, if we don’t try, then the answer is definitely “no.” Gladwell described a case study involving farmers in the 1930s being introduced to a new hybrid seed. It was a far superior seed compared to what they had been using but it did not immediately gain acceptance the way the researchers thought it would, it came in waves eventually forming a perfect bell-curve.
First there were the Innovators who accepted it right away but there numbers were few; “the adventurous ones.” The next wave was a larger group the researchers dubbed the Early Adopters. “They were the opinion leaders in the community … who watched and analyzed what those wild Innovators were doing and then followed suit.” That was the tipping point. Then came a massive wave of farmers through 1936, 1937 and 1938, the Early Majority and the Late Majority. “They caught the seed virus and passed it on, finally, to the Laggards, the most traditional of all, who see no urgent reason to change.”
Yes, it is possible, but not if we don’t take some action now to change our messaging. Perhaps we need a small group within the larger community to follow John Wesley’s example, practicing what they preach, being innovators. Maybe then we will get the Early Adopters who see that it is better to be problem solvers than to be expert measurers causing problems. If the Early Majority come on board, then we could have our tipping point. Eventually even the Laggards would follow.
Perception is reality. If we can get the message out that land surveyors are problem solvers not troublemakers, that surveyors maintain the status quo and they don’t upset the applecart, that surveyors ensure the American Dream and they don’t crush it, then that could be our reality. In the not too distant future, accurate measurements will be made with a smartphone and everybody has a smartphone. If we are going to remain relevant in the 21st century, then we are going to have to view our unique existence in the context of the overall geospatial community, move from a measurement-centric rubric and embrace our role as the stewards of the nation’s property boundaries. This is the only reason we are licensed, and licensure is the only distinguishing characteristic between what we do and the rest of the geospatial community—if that matters.