The Business of Surveying

by Neil Sandler

Years ago, when I was managing editor of a magazine serving the steel industry, I learned an important lesson in business from one of the greatest leaders in the steel-making profession, the chairman of the board of U.S. Steel Corporation

Ed Speer was not an MBA from Harvard.  He was a steel worker who rose through the ranks to the top of his profession. As head of the most powerful steel manufacturing company in the world at that time, he shocked me when he stated that his company does not exist to make steel.  It exists to make money for its stockholders.  Yes, steelmaking is a proud industry, and for its tens of thousands of workers it is a proud profession. But steelmaking is also a business.  Herein lies the conundrum.

Back then, when U.S. Steel had the opportunity to apply its assets, talents, and clout to enter a related business that was more profitable than steelmaking, the big question was, should it?  Or should its leaders proclaim: “No, we only make steel”?

Likely, everyone reading this would agree that surveying is a profession. But, like it or not, it is also a business.

During a recent presentation I made before the leadership of the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS), I posed a question about the following  true story.

A successful land surveyor looking for ways to maximize the use of his sophisticated scanning equipment loads it in his truck and drives to Indianapolis to watch his favorite event, the Indy 500. There he uncovers an opportunity to scan and identify a problem with a car.  Adjustments to the car are made, the car goes faster, and the surveyor gets paid for this efforts.  Next year other car owners at Indy seek out his services. (This was our lead story in the May issue of PSM.)

The question I asked is: Is this surveying? Of the nearly 100 individuals at NSPS’s meeting, 80% raised their hands enthusiastically, “Yes, it is surveying!”

One young surveyor in the front row didn’t agree.  I asked him why.  “It’s not tied to the land,” he proudly replied.

While I understand his sentiments, perhaps his response is the crux of our problem.  Why not expand the purview of surveyor to include “measurement”?  We are a profession built on our technologically enhanced ability to measure.  Can’t what we measure include race cars, the interior of buildings, crime scene investigations, as well as land? Let’s open our minds to new opportunities; the marketplace may make up our minds for us.

Also, if our goal is attract the brightest minds to our world, we need to offer more than boundary surveying.  One of the leaders on this topic, FIG president CheeHai Teo, offers insights on page 40 of this issue. I urge you to check out his ideas.

I’d also like to introduce you to a new writer, Julien Clifford, winner of our student essay contest who presents his first full feature in this issue about an amazing geomatics program in Texas that is preparing students for these broader markets.

We all agree that surveying has a proud heritage.  But lineage is no longer adequate to attract our youth.  Surveying needs to look beyond its traditional boundaries and recognize that we need to remain both relevant and profitable.

~Neil

» Back to our June 2013 Issue

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