What To Expect: Collaboration on Construction Projects

“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” When automaker Henry Ford said these words, he could have been describing the intended outcome of collaborating on construction projects. Electrical contractors know that each project has its own set of challenges because each project team is unique. Architects, engineers, general contractors, subcontractors and suppliers all bring their own goals and cultures to the team, and self-interest dominates the building process. Collaboration is still a relatively new approach to project delivery, and its value is still being debated.

Problems with the traditional procurement model


Traditionally, construction projects have been built in an adversarial environment. Each member of the construction team is forced to compete with the others to earn a reasonable profit; delays, conflicts and disputes are common. Progress is hampered by poor coordination between trades, incomplete drawings and specifications, and underfunding by the owner that slows cash flow and causes further conflict and delay. Subcontractors are seldom treated as equal partners in the process, and punitive contract clauses reduce trust between team members.


The project owner expects a team that works together to produce a quality product, builds according to plans and specifications, and delivers the product on time and for the budgeted price. The project team comprises a group of strangers with competing interests who may never work together again. It’s like trying to win the Super Bowl with a team that has never played together. Project designers and builders work together for owner satisfaction, but that focus can fragment as relationships deteriorate during construction.


Is it possible to create a culture of collaboration on a construction project? Owners believe it is, and electrical contractors who understand the benefits and risks can position their companies to add value and help create this culture—if the potential benefits outweigh the risks.


What is collaboration?


The term collaboration comes from the Latin words for “work” and “with” and refers to shared effort or interests as well as work or activity by a group of people who individually contribute to the efficiency of the whole project. Related words and synonyms include alliance, cooperation, liaison, partnership, relationship, symbiosis, solidarity and collegiality. Ironically, collaboration can also mean “traitorous cooperation with an enemy” (especially during a time of war), and that definition more often reflects the adversarial situation found on traditional construction job sites.


Aconex, an Australian software company, originally developed building information management programs to promote design information sharing. That company has also been credited with coining the terms “construction collaboration” and “construction collaboration software,” and it is still a primary supplier of this technology. In 2003, six vendors from the United Kingdom formed the Network for Construction Collaboration Technology Providers (NCCTP) to promote the use of collaboration software in the architecture/engineering/construction industry.


Since that time, the concept has expanded beyond document and scheduled tool-sharing. Today, collaboration is a model based on equal sharing of risk and reward and the development of a nonadversarial relationship between all members of the construction project team. Ideally, each organization on the project team—architect, engineer, general contractor, subcontractor or supplier—makes an optimal contribution based on its knowledge and capabilities, and then everyone commits to the timely resolution of problems and the completion of the project according to the owner’s expectations.


Benefits of collaboration


The success of a collaborative model on a project depends on communication and performance. Good communication can correct plan and specification flaws and reduce delays and change orders. In theory, improved communication also leads to innovations and technical solutions that improve quality. Cooperation and coordination of activities through interpersonal and group communication support better decision-making and prevent final product defects, ensuring that the owner is satisfied.


The benefits of collaboration include reduced project cost for the owner, higher profits for contractors, earlier completion, and fewer contract disputes. The emphasis on relationships rather than transactions can establish support for continuous improvement and long-term relationships that extend to future projects.


The role of technology


Online collaboration and project management (OCPM) technology facilitates communication among all project participants. Each organization on the team maintains its own information technology system, using the project collaboration software—sometimes called “groupware”—during construction and sometimes to maintain the project after completion. OCPM may be web-based (storing all shared information in the cloud) or web-enabled (hosted by a central database). All parties have real-time access to the information.


The collaboration software includes several components. Administration functions relate to users, access and security. Communication features enable users to publish, manage and provide feedback on shared files. Management components are used to coordinate workflows, team schedules and quality standards. Design features allow computer-aided design (CAD) drawings to be viewed, shared and updated.


While most licenses are purchased based on per-user or per-station fees, collaboration software customers usually pay for a single subscription on a monthly or quarterly basis during the planning, design and construction phases, and the entire supply chain uses that license for access.


For the system to operate effectively, it must be based on the lowest common denominator of what is available throughout the team. Usually, team members can participate using the computers, Internet browser and telecommunications links already in place. However, the costs of training their users, as well as maintaining and upgrading software, must also be analyzed.


Using OCPM doesn’t guarantee a smooth collaboration. Synchronizing schedules can be less efficient when any participant can make changes at any time. Reliability may be compromised if a server crashes and coordination is temporarily suspended. Sometimes, a face-to-face meeting, even with the expense of travel, is the best way to solve a problem.


Do subcontractors benefit?


Construction work has become so specialized that even a small subcontractor can make innovative contributions to a project using its particular expertise. When all team members have ownership of the outcome and are included in decision-­making, the resulting synergy can produce quality products more efficiently. Commitment to a common vision fosters creative solutions to problems that arise during construction.


However, published research on collaboration has revealed several obstacles that must be overcome for its full potential to be realized. General contractors are not always interested in developing cooperative relationships with subcontractors, especially those who prefer to shift risk and delay payment to maximize their own profits. They often doubt the managerial competence of their subcontractors and interfere with their site operations, creating avoidable conflicts. Subcontractors are dismissed as a job cost instead of a resource.


Subcontractors mirror that lack of trust and resent the multi­level approval systems that delay payments and the assertion of authority in ways that undermine their performance. They also complain that their expertise is not used when problems arise on projects and then they are forced to accept decisions they consider wasteful and ineffective.


What makes collaboration successful?


For collaboration to work, the entire project team must commit to a common vision, and each member throughout the supply chain must take a role in decision-making, creating an overall project culture that supersedes the individual culture of each organization. Each team member contributes its expertise, has a problem-solving orientation, and helps coordinate schedule and logistics.


All members of the project team sign the same contract, risks are allocated to the parties most equipped to handle them, trust is established and maintained through prompt payment for performance, and communication is transparent and respectful.


Marketing your business


Electrical contractors who want to work on projects with a collaboration orientation will have to change the way they do business. Building trust takes time and depends on radical changes in contract terms, risk management and payment processes. Some might choose to stay with the devil they know instead of taking a leap of faith.


If you decide to pursue collaborative projects, you have to talk the talk in your advertising, on your website and through social media channels. There are several ways to positioning your company as a collaboration-oriented subcontractor. First, make a statement about the value of collaboration to the owner and throughout the entire project. Next, declare your commitment to working on an integrated team.


Provide examples of your specific expertise and how you have solved problems and improved results on past projects. Outline the promises you can make and keep, such as “assembling a customized team” or working to “lower costs through responsive communication during the design phase,” and explain how your core values align with the common vision needed to execute a successful project that meets the owner’s needs.


Preparing for collaboration


Your company values and culture may need updating if you are accustomed to projects following the traditional model—under punitive contract terms, coping with slow payment and logistical obstacles on the site, and distrustful of your customers and other subcontractors. You may have to train your employees at all levels on how to communicate, build trust and solve problems in a collaborative environment.


If you have been successful at negotiating optimal contract terms, collecting receivables quickly and maintaining your own profit levels and good customer relationships, while other subcontractors on the same projects were struggling, then changing your modus operandi may be unnecessary. If not, begin educating your customers about the potential benefits of using collaboration on their projects. Helping them realize these benefits and demonstrating your commitment to their success can position your electrical contracting business as a leader in building a better system of project delivery.


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