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Debate | Collaboration

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To some, collaboration is the silver bullet for the construction industry.

Enthusiasts argue that more collaboration across the supply chain would boost productivity, provide better outcomes and ultimately deliver a better product for customers. But despite being a long-held ambition, widespread collaboration across the industry has failed to materialise.

“Every so often this phrase of ‘we must collaborate in a fragmented industry’ seems to come back,” says consultant Pell Frischmann chief executive Tushar Prabhu.

“Everybody vigorously agrees with it and then unfortunately either the business cycle or some other force comes along which we can’t easily name, and then we’re back to the same old fragmented industry.”

All of this is about trust, it’s about building trust and a relationship where you can share ideas and share your thinking without worrying that what you share is used against you

David Colderwood, Heathrow Airport Ltd

 

Prabhu believes there are wide-ranging benefits to be had from broader and better collaboration in construction, particularly among medium-sized firms who are occasionally overshadowed by very large companies.

“We do think that there is a role for middle-sized firms to collaborate with the supply chain, because we think a lot of expertise, a lot of local knowledge resides in the supply chain, and we think that those relationships, could offer a different face for some of the clients who are taking on board larger programmes of work to try out a different way of working,” he says.

Constructing Excellence chief executive Don Ward agrees, arguing that the time has come for medium-sized firms to push for better collaboration practice.

“We do talk a good game, but where are the leaders?” he says.

“It may well be the mid-sized firms that are actually going to stand up and say ‘this is the right thing to do, this is the better way of delivering for our customers, it is a better way of making money and it is a better way of treating our people.”

Pell Frischmann is trying to uncover the barriers to collaboration. Part of the problem appears to be short term contracts, which do not allow time to build good relationships and trust between firms.

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Prabhu: Clients must collaborate too

Heathrow Airport Ltd  delivery director Darren Colderwood agrees that good relationships are vital for the collaboration process to work. At Heathrow, a five-year delivery period has meant that time has been invested in building up trust with the airport’s four big contractors.

“The underpinning of all of this is about trust, it’s about building trust and a relationship where you can share ideas and share your thinking without worrying that what you share is used against you,” he says.

“The relationships are so strong that when it hasn’t gone well, you can get back round a table quite quickly without having to go and look for people.”

Successful collaboration is as much about the client as suppliers. Prabhu argues that clients need to be fully on board.

“If I were to say that the client was exempt from the collaborative behaviour I would be saying something that’s not true,” he says.

If I were to say that the client was exempt from the collaborative behaviour I would be saying something that’s not true

Tushar Prabhu, Pell Frischmann

The Midlands Metro Alliance is an example of collaboration done well, with close client involvement. It is a 10-year programme of work to overhaul the tram network in the West Midlands, expanding existing tram tracks by around 34km. Its five projects will provide better connectivity around Edgbaston, Birmingham and Wolverhampton, among other places.

West Midlands Combined Authority, which owns the Midlands Metro, has been working closely with the nine design and construction specialists in the alliance, including Pell Frischmann.

If you get that early scheme development right, you can then pick the right team and the right team will deliver it

Martin Frobisher, Network Rail

“It’s working because the client is in there with us, so shares some of the issues and shares some of the reasons why things are done the way they are, because they see them up close,” says Prabhu.

Network Rail programme director Martin Frobisher has enjoyed a similar experience on the Stafford Alliance. Together with partners VolkerRail, Atkins and Laing O’Rourke, Network Rail has been part of the UK rail sector’s first pure construction alliance, tackling a bottleneck through Stafford created by unprecedented levels of passenger and freight traffic growth.

Over three years it delivered 9.7km of new railway line, 11 new bridges, upgraded signalling and improved line speeds of up to 100mph from Stafford to Crewe on the West Coast Main Line.

Most impressively the scheme was delivered under its £250M budget and more than a year ahead of schedule.

Collaboration is somehow seen as a luxury which you can chuck out of the window in the hard times

David Colderwood, Heathrow Airport Ltd

Frobisher says that the success of collaboration on the project was down to putting in the work early on, bringing the proposed budget down from £750M to £250M by developing a project that delivered the desired outcomes for less. It helped that people were completely focused on the project, and were incentivised on a “best for project” basis rather than feeling divided by which company they worked for.

“If you get that early scheme development right, you can then pick the right team and the right team will deliver it,” he says.

But Prabhu stresses that collaboration is not suitable for every situation.  At one end of the scale, very standardised projects such as schools do not necessarily require collaboration as they are simple to produce. So argues Cabinet Office head of construction David Hancock. He says that the government – the industry’s biggest client – views collaboration as important on high risk, complex projects such as Crossrail but values it far less for simple, standardised production.

And there are costs associated with collaboration, as Colderwood explains. Despite the benefits Heathrow Airport Ltd has experienced from collaborating with its four big contracting partners, it took two years before the process was up and running; the rest of its five-year delivery period was a race  to catch up.

“For me, the cost of collaboration isn’t necessarily pound notes directly,” says Colderwood. “It isn’t that the contract costs more from the point that you enact it. It’s that it takes longer to get started, it takes longer to get going: it’s time, it’s actually time that it costs you.”

Companies are risk averse

Ward agrees, adding that since the 2008 financial crash, companies have been more reluctant to take a gamble on potentially risky ways of doing things.

“Collaboration is somehow seen as a luxury which you can chuck out of the window in the hard times.”

Constructing Excellence, a body which promotes collaborative working practices in the construction industry, is leading a campaign called “Words Into Action” which encourages people to disrupt the traditional delivery model and deliver practical change.

For Capita Real Estate and Infrastructure business development director Kevin Martin-Read many of the techniques that make collaboration work are free.

“It just distilled down to a number of really basic things that came for free,” he says, describing his own experience of collaborating.

“Me, going in to talk to the project manager every single morning and at the back end of every single day. And that created an environment of openness and a massive channel of communication, and it was free, and we both benefited.”

Some barriers are harder to overcome. While many firms express an open attitude to collaborating, some wonder whether the structure of the industry could hinder closer working practices.

Cleshar business development director Trevor Maginley argues that many senior construction professionals have reached their positions by being hard-nosed and fighting for their firm over others. When those people become managing directors, for example, those behaviours remain. “This is the construction industry,” he says.

“When you try to talk about collaboration, you’re really talking about people changing their behaviours. And this is one of the reasons why it hasn’t been this easy thing to do.”

Ultimately Maginley believes that more willingness to collaborate has to come from the client side. “If you get the customer to want it to happen, then, fantastic. It will happen.”

Collaboration lessons learned?

In 2016 Mark Farmer published his review into the woes of the construction industry, aptly named Modernise or Die.

Farmer identified a lack of collaboration and improvement culture as a major flaw in the industry. He warned that a survivalist approach prevents industry-wide uptake of BIM, while an inability to collaborate on big data damages our prospects of solving the skills shortage.

In 2009 Constructing Excellence published a report called “Never Waste a Good Crisis”. It warned against a return to lowest price tendering post-2008 financial crash and urged the supply chain to demonstrate how collaboration and integrated working could deliver better solutions.

In 1998 Sir John Egan was tasked with setting out the scope for improvement within the construction industry. His report, “Rethinking Construction”, put forward the argument for much closer working between the client, the design team and suppliers and subcontractors. Egan also championed replacing contracts with performance measures and widespread standardisation of common products.

Discussion participants

This report is based on a round table discussion that took place in London in November. The participants were:

Darren Colderwood delivery director, Heathrow Airport Ltd

Simon Flint development manager, Blu-3 business

Martin Frobisher programme director, Network Rail

David Hancock head of construction, Cabinet Office

Mark Hansford editor, New Civil Engineer

Damian Kilburn transport and infrastructure director, Pell Frischmann

Trevor Maginley business development and IT director, Cleshar

Kevin Martin-Read business development director, Capita Real Estate & Infrastructure

Peter Murray project manager, Bechtel

Chris Porter transport planning manager, Transport for London

Tushar Prabhu chief executive, Pell Frischmann

Graham Sant managing director of infrastructure, Capita Real Estate & Infrastructure

Don Ward chief executive, Constructing Excellence

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