Three winning social value approaches organisations can steal from the construction industry

Hannah Oldfield

Tech. IT. Finance. Health. The range of businesses we work with at CHY has changed dramatically since our early days, when 100% of our work was in the built environment sector.

Since our beginnings as Construction Yorkshire (founded in 2006), we’ve watched, and sometimes guided, as the local construction community adopted and integrated social value thinking until it became a foundational way of working.

As the years have gone by, more legislation has been introduced, and we’ve found an increasing number of connected industries are interested in what we’re doing. Today, CHY’s clients are a 50/50 split of built environment work and other sectors who want to get better at social value. 

What we’ve learned…

Working with a broader range of businesses and translating our learning into new industries has been fascinating and eye-opening at times! Construction is where a lot of contemporary thinking around social value has developed in the UK, but actually the sector works in a very different way to, say, financial services or tech. 

For example, outside the construction industry you’re much less likely to find a high percentage of workers hired on a project basis – and more likely to see a permanent workforce spread across the country. This one difference alone changes a lot about how we approach, manage and measure social value.

The resources available to built environment organisations will look very different too, so the way we use those assets for social good will need to be considered in a different way.

And the potential impact of people-first decision making will look different – a construction contractor that thinks only about the bottom line has huge potential to negatively impact the communities it works within, for example, but when it considers these people as part of project design it has real potential to create positive impact instead. What might this look like for, say, a tech firm? Flexible working for employees? A graduate scheme that gets those from under-represented backgrounds into the sector? Using data for social good? 

Three social value lessons that work for all sectors

While there’s lots we need to adapt, there are plenty of lessons learned in the trenches of built environment social value that we can carry across:

  1. Getting organisational buy-in is essential

The project-based nature of construction has always meant that social value needs factoring in early – and the whole project team should be on board. For example, on the Leeds Arena project, CHY worked with all project leads to ensure social value was properly implemented, managed and measured. The contractor ensured these leads have since gone on to oversee further projects within the business.

Other sectors could learn from this approach to getting key people around the table to ensure social value happens – it’s not enough to hire a social value coordinator and leave them to get on with it. Factoring social value into processes and projects by design means stakeholders from across the organisation will need to be involved throughout. This also allows learning to be carried into other areas of the business.

  1. Collaboration is the fastest route to innovation

Construction requires collaboration between a large number of external stakeholders within a supply chain. Using these relationships and connections to improve social value outcomes feels like a logical step. Organisations that have smaller networks and are naturally more self-reliant may find reaching out to develop these relationships less instinctive. But if they avoid it, they risk missing out.

By developing strong working relationships with a network of outside bodies – or building on the partnerships we already have – we can increase opportunities to learn from each other, pool resources and enable social value on a higher level. Embedding these habits in other sectors may require a shift to a more outward focus, but it’s well worth the effort. A culture of external conversation and challenging each other to do better will build a powerful foundation for social value.

  1. Start where the biggest potential for impact is – then build out

Construction means building stuff! That means taking up physical space, which means external impacts are significant, often visible and therefore easy to identify. Considerations like leaving a physical legacy, hiring in an external workforce and supporting local communities are clear opportunities to add social value. 

But what about a healthcare company that provides online services, where the physical presence is far smaller? You might need to start internally instead – looking at employee wellbeing, customer care and accessibility, or how to make your services available at lower cost for those in need. 

The trick for all sectors is to keep innovating and evolving your social value strategy so you can ultimately manage outcomes that reach beyond the “easier” ones and into true trailblazer territory.

Not just a case of “cut and paste” 

Social value in the UK has been born and raised in the built environment sector – it’s definitely not a case of “cut and paste” when it comes to applying our learning elsewhere. This is important especially for procurement teams who have cut their teeth on social value in the construction trade. Applying the same social value themes (employment, skills etc) and scoring (number of apprentices) just won’t work for many other sectors. 

But if we pay attention to the successes (and failures!) of social value’s early days, there’s still plenty of learning we can carry across. 

The UK started embedding social value with one of the most challenging sectors to get it right in. It’s time to pass on our knowledge to a new generation of businesses looking to put social value first.