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Them and US

Nearly two decades after US expertise and techniques were imported into the UK to launch the construction management revolution, another step change in procurement strategy is on its way across the Atlantic.

Railtrack's choice of American firms as the programme managers for its £10bn investment programme is not the slap in the face for UK firms some may feel it to be, but it does highlight a perceived weakness in British construction.

Programme management - like construction management - is all about the ability to adopt the client's mindset. But it is more taxing than construction management, because it involves delivering a wider range of services, as well as assets. It also means anticipating, and sometimes even welcoming, change as a necessary component of the client's business.

UK engineers have in general tended to find change unsettling and their record of managing it has been patchy - witness the Jubilee Line Extension. Design and project management tasks, however complex, are tackled with resolve and often great imagination, but the absence of carefully defined or consistent end goals tends to undermine the quality of the finished product.

Change management skills are, of course, not totally absent from UK civil engineering.

Earlier this year the 1998 Civil Engineering Manager of the Year Chris Marshall, honoured for his work in the Oresund fixed link, told NCE: 'As we mobilised, I tried to plan the work in a serious and detailed way. I quickly became frustrated because my plans kept being changed and I was unable to predict what would happen next. It was some time before it dawned on me that constant change was not inevitable, but perfectly healthy.'

Taking this 'looser' approach in the still over litigious, adversarial and fractured UK construction industry obviously has its risks. For a start client attitudes must change - indeed Railtrack itself has yet to convince many that it has the skills to operate in this way. But change is happening in the unlikeliest places - the MoD for example - and there is no going back.

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