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Building a Collaborative Industry Culture


There are several construction industry initiatives related to collaboration. These mainly focus on broad aspects of collaboration. There are efforts on modularization, Building Information Modeling (BIM), lean construction, interoperability, and education on advanced construction planning. But initiatives specifically focused on transforming the industry-wide things that hamper collaboration, are nonexistent. This suggests the transformation will need to happen with individual businesses at the project level.

For the industry to build a collaborative culture, it needs to change the ways it discourages collaboration.

All construction projects begin competitively during the bidding stage. But new thoughts on delivering construction projects efficiently suggest that the competition should end when the bidding is done. Unfortunately, new competition arises after the owner awards the contract. People then go into defensive mode and focus solely on their own self interests. This deals a major blow to collaboration, and starts people down the path of paying more attention to self-interest than the interests of the project.

Collaboration Haves and Have Nots

There is ample evidence the construction industry could benefit from better collaboration among project participants. Some of that evidence comes from research on the benefits of lean construction.

High percentages of contractors who use lean construction practices say they get higher quality construction, greater customer satisfaction, greater productivity, and improved safety. But, there is a disconnect between the contractors who use lean practices and those who don't. For example, 55% of construction companies that are not familiar with Lean practices consider their current construction processes to be either efficient or highly efficient. However, 62% of construction firms using lean practices consider traditional processes as either inefficient or highly inefficient.

The biggest obstacle to getting more companies in construction to use lean practices, is a lack of knowledge about lean methods by others in the industry. Meanwhile, those who don't practice lean techniques say there is a lack of industry support, and there's a lack of understanding about just what lean is.

Lean construction is only one of several collaborative approaches to construction projects. BIM, Integrated Project Delivery, prefabrication, and some recent variations on traditional project delivery methods like design-bid-build and target value design have collaboration as a prime tenant. All of these efforts seek to move construction from an adversarial process to a cooperative one. 

Effects of Adversarial Contracting

For the industry to build a collaborative culture, it needs to change the ways it discourages collaboration. And that begins with construction contracts because very often contracts use language that benefits some participants over others. If project participants must agree to pay for other's mistakes without reciprocity, then they are more likely to adopt a defensive position. When people feel threatened, and as though others are taking advantage of them, they are unlikely to collaborate in the spirit of helping others to complete a quality project.

Outdated Delivery Methods

The other way the industry discourages a collaborative culture is through project delivery methods that discourage collaboration. Fixed price and lump sum bids not only fail to recognize the realities of delivering complex projects with multiple participants, but they also encourage a defensive stance from everyone involved right from the start. 

When contractors and subcontractors aren’t involved with the design and scope stages of the project, it loses a very important aspect of collaboration. As the building stage proceeds and the unavoidable design issues arise, participants start to resent the changes because they see that they were preventable. So, collaboration on construction projects is about far more than simply how the participants communicate and share information. It’s really about the heart of the methods you use to build something.

Other hindrances to an industry culture of collaboration include entrenched business attitudes, political and economic values, and even deeply held beliefs that have been reinforced by experience. These take much longer and more effort to change, but they do shift, especially when you address issues of security and trust.

Collaboration Strategies

Regardless of industry culture and entrenched mindsets, there are companies that are exploring the benefits of exceptional collaboration, and they are succeeding. So it really does fall to each construction business to set out on their own path to better collaboration. 

Here are some strategies you can follow to advance collaboration on your projects.

  • When possible, influence the type of project delivery method in favor of one that is collaborative in nature.

  • Encourage contracts that allocate risk appropriately and fairly.

  • Extend appropriate risk and fairness in contracts to other participants down line.

  • Try stepping out of your comfort zone when participants come to you with ideas for improving collaboration.

  • Use project management tools that let you easily include all project participants so that you can not only improve collaboration for all, but can also demonstrate for others how better collaboration improves outcomes. 

  • Consider starting with small steps. If your company culture is not one that embraces change readily, then pick limited areas to explore improving collaboration. This can pay big dividends by not only providing experience, but also by providing some small wins to show people what is possible.

A more collaborative culture in the construction industry is unlikely to evolve at an industry level because there is little incentive. But at the project level, it’s a totally different picture.