Partners in search of firmer ground

9 May 2001
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10 May 2001

The demise of the Construction Industry Board appears to have dealt a severe blow to partnership and collaboration in the sector. But all is not lost and David Arminas finds that the industry remains hopeful

By this summer, most of the programmes organised and promoted by the Construction Industry Board (CIB), the sector's main forum for promoting collaboration and partnering, will be divided up among various trade bodies or simply abandoned.

Inevitable and sad is how many purchasers have described the end of the CIB. Even the board's creator was resigned to its demise. "I never envisaged it having a long life," Sir Michael Latham told SM.

The end came when the Confederation of Construction Clients (CCC) - those who buy services including main contractors - called time on the CIB, claiming it was a needless financial drain. They didn't need to foot the bill for a talking shop in order to communicate with their supply chain.

Tony Pollington, executive secretary of the CCC, at least gives the CIB credit for raising the profile of many issues that needed airing, including codes of practice. But the confederation has suggested a forum that meets only a few times a year to discuss strategic issues including collaboration.

The CIB's demise has highlighted a problem that construction has had all along. Purchasers of building work - clients - and the rest of the supply chain - main contractors and myriad sub-contractors - remain distinctly at odds in their views. It is less a question of whether collaboration should take place, but how.

There is no point in having a board just to bring the supply side together, said Latham, whose influential 1994 report, Constructing the Team, began the industry's arduous journey down the collaboration and partnering road. Conversely, any reincarnation of the CIB will necessarily include specialist sub-contractors that provide 85 per cent of work by value done on site. These 'subbies' must not be marginalised in efforts to collaborate effectively for improved project work.

There lies construction's predicament. There may be merit in the argument that collaboration has had a rougher ride in construction than other industries. This is because the number of clients are few - and many are one-off purchasers - in relation to the number of sub-contractors, which are many and in dozens of trade organisations.

Degrees of collaboration

The essential question about collaboration is to what degree and what form it can take for the total supply chain to benefit. In this respect not all industries are the same.

In aerospace, defence, electronics and automotive industries where the manufacturing process is complex, collaboration is more easily defined. Suppliers and clients are highly specialised and there are few alternatives. Thus collaboration in design, manufacture and service becomes essential for all the companies concerned. A symbiotic relationship is easily understood.

But, as one purchaser in a major construction firm told SM, collaboration can mean his purchasing power is taken away from him by other purchasers.

For example, a main contractor construction firm may have a well-established relationship with a bathroom designer and fitter. But the main contractor's client, a major hotel group, has a well-established relationship with a bathroom designer that it wishes to use in the design and build process. The struggle becomes whose collaboration, or supply chain, takes precedence.

So where does collaboration in the construction sector, including the idea of partnering, go from here?

It will continue in some form, in some parts of the industry, as there are many organisations - mostly supplier bodies - ready to take on the responsibilities now handled by the CIB. Purchasers will have to wait until at least the summer to see what organisational structure will emerge.

However, buyers on both sides agree there are too many voices in competition. They argue the industry should have fewer representative supplier bodies and a more representative client body. The CCC represents 11 leading private and public-sector clients, including Railtrack, BAA and Tesco.

Despite collaboration problems, there is an agreement among suppliers, contractors and clients that the sector has come a long way and many lessons have been learned. Companies in other manufacturing and commercial sectors would do well to consult the abundance of material on collaboration published by the construction sector.

Indeed, it would be hard to read anything on the industry without coming across some discussion of collaboration. That is more than can be said for some sectors.


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