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Round Table | Collaboration

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Key infrastructure projects are nearing completion and many major projects are due to get underway in the next few years. So how can the industry ensure that information is shared from project to project?

This round table debate tackled the need to identify the industry’s aspirations to share best practice, the blockers to sharing good practice and how the industry as a whole could become better at it.

The obligation to share

“Every public programme should have an obligation to leave the industry better off than when the project started,” said Crossrail programme director Simon Wright, who used the example of the lessons shared by Crossrail.

“There is nothing that we do that should not be made immediately available to everybody else,” said Wright.

“There should an obligation for all public sector projects to contribute to a common database that is continuous and supported long term, that all the sectors can draw from and contribute to. It’s a unique opportunity to grow knowledge and stop going back to square one.”

Learning from the past

Bam Nuttall chief executive Steve Fox agreed but speculated about why the industry does not already collaborate more. “We have an overuse of the word ‘innovation’, which is about continuous improvement, which becomes code for ‘don’t do what you did before’. And this drives the relentless reinvention of the wheel that we keep bumping in to.”

Steve fox bw cropped

Steve fox bw cropped

Fox: Engineers avoid borrowing ideas

He went on to describe a behaviour he had seen within the industry, “the not invented here culture”, where engineers feel unable to take good examples from other projects because they think they should do something different. If not, they feel they have failed to make an improvement.

“What has changed over the years is that we can’t use our last job and say we will do it exactly the same or even better, because that has become code for ‘we can’t do that, that won’t win the job, you need to do it differently’.”

Fox argued: “this sort of behaviour, we have started to fuel in the industry, pops up all over the place and it stops us doing what we should be doing. That is standardising more things, doing more things the same, and taking things from a previous job. This would actually accelerate improvement and would encourage people to think more about what they were doing and encourage people to share things more.”

Black box thinking

“What drives those behaviours, in particular in the construction industry, that stops learning from lessons learnt?” asked HS2 Ltd design director Kate Hall. “If you look at the aviation industry, they learn from mistakes. It’s part of their culture, black box thinking, and everyone is incentivised to learn from it.

Kate hall bw cropped

Kate hall bw cropped

Hall: What stops lessons from being learned?

“The construction industry is very precious and probably anti-criticism. We don’t like criticism, it’s not in our culture, so the behaviours are that we don’t encourage early collaboration, early discussion of ideas, early pulling an idea apart and building up again. This is because people’s self-importance or self-belief comes from their technical ability, so to have anything criticised is taking away from your culture of self-belief.

“To move forward and to make a difference in collaboration we need to understand more about the behaviours that drive the construction industry. Tackling one without the other, we will not make any material progress.”

A generation thing

Tideway’s head of innovation Paul Morris said that there was a generation gap, and in fact young people are keen to talk and share information. “It is not a criticism to share something to be better. They are inspired.”

Arup engineer Alexa Bruce was unconvinced by claims that the older generation is averse to criticism. “There are different parts of the industry which are more risk averse than others. But I wouldn’t draw a distinct line between youth and non-youth in terms of accepting criticism.”

“It’s a personality thing” agreed Ministry of Defence director general, commercial Nick Elliott. “It’s a behavioural issue and we need to focus on that. It’s the people in the business.

“You need a team of the right balance, so those egos are being tested and challenged.”

Speed dating culture

Arup director and leader of its Infrastructure London Group Tim Chapman said that HS2 Ltd had got it right and asked how it had managed “to design a vision at a higher level which eliminated the bad behaviour culturally and personality-wise to get the right outcomes”?

Hall said it was either the perfect opportunity or the perfect storm.

“When you have a new organisation, you have to do all things that others take for granted,” she said.

“You have the design the value to set the culture. It’s like speed dating everyone up to understand the culture and then proactively do it.

“There are pitfalls and it’s much easier if you are well established and have been around 20 or 30 years.

David hancock bw cropped

David hancock bw cropped

Hancock: Contracts can hamper collaboration

“Personalities are hired in to deliver a job, but how do you change that, and how do you celebrate the personalities who have that collaborative behaviour?” she asked. Contracting collaboration

Infrastructure & Projects Authority construction director David Hancock said that sometimes contracts did not aid collaboration.

“If you look at the contract, it will sometimes say things which inhibit collaboration. You say: ‘I want to collaborate, we’ll collaborate’, and you then look at the contract detail and ask yourself which part of collaboration is in this contract?”

Mott MacDonald major projects portfolio director Chris Dulake observed that, as one contract evolved from another, and over time “it becomes more complex and voluminous”.

“To enable people to experiment and become better at what they do, sometimes you have to say that we should park it [the contract] and do it differently. It’s not necessarily a pilot, but recognising that we have created something so complex that it’s very hard to get the essence of what it is we want to deliver and how different we want to be.

“By holding risk in a different way, collaboratively driving relationships from the start, we are setting a formula that is frozen. Sometimes we just need to delete the last revision of the document and think about it afresh. There is a tendency for people to just rewrite what they did last time.”

Create success without the crisis

“Why do we all come together in a crisis, and why is it when we have a crisis we tend to all come together collaboratively?” asked the MOD’s Elliot. “It’s because we have a shared view of success. If we can create that shared view of success from the outset, then we have a much better chance of delivering it.

“We don’t have it, because if we unpick it and look at the contract, we all have different views on what success looks like and we are not honest in what we are trying to deliver.”

Digitalising collaboration

“Build it before we build it,” argued Fox, who said this is how the industry should embrace digitalisation, explaining how technology could be used to plan projects. “However we are obsessed in this industry with just [digitally] building 2% and then saying let’s get started and then playing catch up the whole way through. We are never going to access the benefit of what we can do in this world virtually.”

Using Rolls Royce as an example, Fox went on to explain how a complete jet engine is designed and tested without “putting a single thing in a lathe”.

Nick elliot bw cropped

Nick elliot bw cropped

Elliot: Shared view helps with delivery

“Our industry cannot get its mind around that. If we really want to assess what it is about, the whole supply chain should have access to the platforms, and all [of those involved] understand how to use them. We need to stop putting things in the way, like timescales or legal processes and the different variants of software and saying we won’t share.”

Threat of disrupters

Tideway’s Morris warned that the industry should be careful in case one of the digital technology firms comes in and disrupts it.

“We think as clients that we don’t have competitors when it comes to building infrastructure projects, but other industries that have been disrupted did not see it coming either. They didn’t collaborate as they were in competition, such as taxi firms and hotel chains. Those industries have completely changed.

“If we spend far too much time figuring out how to please everybody, we aren’t pleasing ourselves because if we can’t do things collaboratively in our industry we are going to be disrupted by a third party who has never even built anything. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and algorithms will do it for us.

“We are collaborating with ourselves, but why aren’t we collaborating with Google or Microsoft or other tech firms? Because if we don’t they might just find a platform to enter the industry.”

Around the table

Alexa Bruce Engineer, Arup

Tim Chapman Director, leader of the Infrastructure London Group,  Arup

Lee Davies HS3 programme director, Costain

Chris Dulake Major projects portfolio director, Mott MacDonald

Nick Elliott Director general commercial, Ministry of Defence

David Ferroussat Infrastructure procurement director, Heathrow Airport

Steve Fox Chief executive, Bam Nuttall

Kate Hall Design director, HS2 Ltd

David Hancock Construction director, Infrastructure & Projects Authority

Mark Hansford Editor, New Civil Engineer

Nirmal Kotecha Director of capital programme and procurement, UK Power Networks

Jo Lucas Founder, Newington Management Consultancy

Paul Morris Head of innovation, Tideway

David Van-Bruggen Director, commercial leader of infrastructure UK, Arup

Simon Wright Programme director, Crossrail


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