Integrated working – is it the right time again?

For those of us who remember back to the early 1990s, the current drive of the Government’s construction strategy to get better value from construction by reforming procurement may seem like a case of history repeating itself (see The Latham Report “Constructing the Team”, 1994).

What is interesting to note is that both reports followed severe recessions in the construction sector which had themselves followed relatively long periods of growth in construction output. Of course this might be no more than coincidence, or it may be an attempt to embed some much-needed structural changes at a time when the industry is experiencing a buyer’s market, so that when times improve there is less tendency for the industry to revert to type.

I welcome the kinds of change that are now mooted: involving suppliers at the time they can add value to a project, which generally means earlier than usual; clients focusing on specifying output performance and designers/contractors working together to develop integrated solutions; supply chains engaged on serial orders that will encourage research and innovation.

We need more fundamental changes

I believe, however, that this will need a wider set of more fundamental changes to be put in place than just exhorting traditionally separate disciplines to work together. There are a number of hidden drivers that I suspect will also have to be tackled for this change to be effective.

These include the fragmentary nature of the client, the underlying power of the finance and insurance industries, and the tendency to think short-term.

A fragmented client comes from devolution of budgets, which itself promotes budgetary responsibility, but which also means that more organisations become occasional clients and don’t have the chance to develop the skills to deal with a sophisticated and confusing industry.

Finance and insurance underpin many of the choices made by developers and designers in terms of the technical standards they build into their schemes – no landlord wants to be left holding a difficult-to-let office block because the permitted floor loadings are outside the norm, irrespective of whether this capacity is ever needed. Manufacturers may feel the need to offer warranties to give their customers a safety net – difficult to achieve when a technology is new and may be favoured from an energy efficiency point of view.

Short term thinking is natural, but is often the enemy of good decision-making. It drives lower capital expenditure at the expense of higher operational costs. This may come from governments not seeing beyond the next election, or officials not seeing beyond their current posting, or organisations behaving as though they were not going to be around for more than a few years. Which is all understandable, but not really defensible. We have tools to help make good, long-term decisions – such as life-cycle costing – all we need to do is not be afraid to use them.

Integrated working for all supporting stakeholders

In my view, the desire for more integrated working must not be restricted to the primary members of the construction industry, but must also extend to all the supporting stakeholders and really engage with the operators and maintainers of buildings and infrastructure – a distinction which is unnecessarily perpetuated by the separation of CAPEX and OPEX budgets inside client organisations.

So, is it the right time for integrated working?

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