Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Conceptualizing a research project

In my work as a supervisor of dissertations, whether BSc, MSc or PhD, I have developed an approach to help with research design and developing an outline of research.

The first question that needs to be settled is, what kind of science does the student want to do? Incidentally, social science is a kind of science in my mind. Who are the key researchers in the field that this students wants to base his/her work on? Some kind of conceptual model is usually required to make clear how the main concepts connect. The main concepts would be drawn from the research literature on the topic.

Second, where is the data from and how will it be analysed? Many students begin the dissertation process with a description of the kind of observations they wish to make, but this can only be part of the research design if it is placed in the context of the conceptual model, which itself is based on a theoretical position.

Third, if someone is working in a well-trodden academic discipline with a clear theoretical tradition that underpins it, then they typically do not explain their theoretical position, since understanding that is taken as a basic tenet in the discipline. So it is fair to expect that many papers will be silent about their theoretical perspective, even though it can be implied from the kind of question they are dealing with. In a multi-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary field like construction management, it is important to be explicit about the theoretical position. This does not always need a whole chapter. It is sometimes a few lines in the early part of the dissertation.

Following these three aspects, the initial work will rely heavily on literature review and will set up theory-concept-observation as an axis that leads to the research design. I tend to insist on a clear explanation of the connection between theory-concept-observations. Every dissertation student, I think, needs this to be clear in the write-up. This initial setting up will eventually form approximately half of the thesis followed, of course, by the second half; analysis-discussion-conclusions, which acts as a kind of mirror to the first half. These may be translated approximately into chapters: introduction, literature, methods. And it is useful to think how the analysis reflects the methods; the discussion reflects the literature (and conceptual model); the conclusions reflect the introduction.

With this conceptual model of a research dissertation in mind, I find supervision becomes much more transparent and students tend to see better where they are headed. There is no strict recipe for a dissertation, of course, and each student will change this initial framework as their confidence grows. But I find it forms a good starting point. Many different kinds of research can be covered by adapting this model to fit the kind of research.

I sketch this out frequently when talking to students, annotating it with keywords and ideas that relate to their specific interests and type of research. Sometimes it needs significant changes in order to make sense. But it still forms a good starting point for the early discussions when the student does not really understand what it means to do research and the supervisor does not really understand what the student wants to do. I have not yet had time to prepare a nice graphic with drafting software, but a pen-sketch is good enough:

The diagram shows how the conclusions relate back to the theory, how the discussion chapter relates to the conceptual model and how the analysis relates to the observation. It also shows how the aims inform the theory, the theory informs the objectives, the objectives drive the literature review to provide the conceptual model, the conceptual model leads to the research design and so on. Finally, we can see how the general issues lead to increasingly specific issues in the first half, and the second half involves moving back to generalized statements for the conclusions.

It must also be noted that not all research goes through this sequence. Ethnographic methods are often highly appropriate for construction management research, especially for those who have experience in practice. It is not always necessary to behave as if you have no experience or as if you were an outsider to the industry. If you are an insider, then look at ethnographic methods. These often involve immersing oneself in the field and then developing theory from the experience. For part-time MSc students, in particular, this is a very powerful way of construction a piece of valid research.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Doctoral researchers working with industry

There are at least two perspectives for doctoral researchers contemplating working with industry. First is the problem of negotiating access for data collection and second is developing networks of industry contacts for the purposes of further career development. Many researchers feel that practitioners may be nervous about disclosing commercially sensitive or personal information. It is useful to understand such nervousness and deal with it. This requires clarity and honesty about why data is needed, and a careful data collection strategy that avoids giving the impression that data is being trawled on the chance that something useful will emerge. Some participants seem responsive, others don’t. Therefore, do not worry about unresponsive individuals but focus on finding the responsive ones. Many companies fear that they may give away time that they cannot afford, or, worse, reveal confidential information that might weaken their competitive advantage. It helps take an approach where they stand to gain from participation. It also helps if we talk like someone who understands and appreciates the nature of commercial confidentiality (like you mean it). Generally speaking, companies may not be interested in the intellectual aspects of research but they will be interested in problem-solving. So, try to think about what you might give them in return for their participation that helps with problem-solving. It will probably not be the same material that you incorporate into your thesis, but that’s usually a good thing. In terms of networking, it helps your data collection and negotiation of access if you are not a complete stranger. There are strategies for developing networks, inviting industry people to seminars on campus about your research (involving your supervisors and other academic staff as well as alumni of your School or Department), setting up discussions on serious social networks like LinkedIn and so on. Some time ago, a researcher in USA, Phil Agre, wrote about using the internet for developing research and professional networks and he updates it from time to time. It is worth looking at: http://vlsicad.ucsd.edu/Research/Advice/network.html

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Conference posters

After submitting your paper to a conference, instead of being invited to make a ten-minute presentation, you may be invited to present a poster instead. This is a good opportunity to put your work in front of others, and it should involve different techniques to those involved in making a presentation.

The first thing about posters is that your message about the research you are doing is more important than any corporate or brand image of your institution. I would avoid the habit of cluttering up your valuable piece of paper with logos, names of research units, collaborators and so on. You may find that there are certain requirements of some funding agencies and some institutions to have a clear acknowledgement of their support. These should be adhered to. But don't add unnecessary logos and associated names unless they are really needed.

Next, it is good to use graphics and large fonts. A good poster will focus on one aspect of your work, rather than trying to put everything across. There is no need for bibliographical references, and it is good to avoid jargon and complex sentences; big fonts, nice graphics and short messages. Graphical communication works best when you avoid fussy and unnecessary embellishments such as 3D, shadows, gratuitous use of colour and so on (most of the default settings in Microsoft Power-point and the like need to be changed to remove many of these features; it was developed for business presentations, not research presentations). An overriding principle is that the density of data in a graphic should be greater than the equivalent text that might alternatively be used to represent the same data. So pie charts are a complete waste of paper, because the message in a pie chart can be put across in one sentence of text. Histograms are frequently better portrayed as a list of labels and numbers. Your audience is not innumerate, and they understand the relative sizes of numbers. (You don’t need to draw me a picture to explain that 75 is much bigger than 10.) Graphics work best when every line, colour, symbol and label perform a function that is more concise than writing things out. There is some really good advice and detailed exposition on the use of graphics for conveying information by Edward Tufte; get hold of it if you can.

It is interesting to type “scientific posters” into Google. That is how I stumbled upon some useful guidance from North Carolina State University where it is emphasized that there are basic principles of scientific poster design: Focus, Graphics, Order. I like the advice given there. Also, I recommend a good PhD Blog, called the Thesis Whisperer, where there is further good advice.

To summarize, this is a good opportunity to develop a skill-set that differs from making presentations. Posters should have minimal clutter. There should be a clear focus, good use of graphics and a clear sequence of ideas. This will make it easier for observers to ask questions and for you talk about your research. Finally, it is OK to be uncertain about research that is in progress.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Guidance on delivering a paper

The purpose of a conference presentation is to tell people what your work is about, why it is important, how you went about it and what you discovered that we did not already know.

Conferences run to a tight schedule, typically allowing only ten minutes for each presentation. Find out in advance how much time you will be allotted for your presentation. In such a short period, it is impractical to put over more than three real points. Remember that the audience have your paper and that they will be able to read it later. Your aim in your presentation is simply to get them sufficiently interested in your work to generate discussion during the discussion period and to get them to want to read more, later. The golden rule is to simplify what you are trying to say and then exaggerate the points in order to generate interest. Forget the detail. Make sure that your talk progresses through a series of logical steps, so that you finish with a clear conclusion. The worst thing is to finish by saying "I was going to say something else but I have run out of time"! If you are not sure how much material will fill a ten minute presentation, practice it first with friends or colleagues.

Repetition is essential in a spoken presentation. People cough, sneeze, nod off or whatever; they miss things. The significant points must be introduced before they are made and reiterated afterwards. Towards the end of the talk, summarize the main points. People will remember most the first things and the last things that you say. Therefore, speak at your loudest and clearest when you first open your mouth. Do not fumble through notes or with trying to get your PowerPoint slides to display; get these ready beforehand. If possible, try out the room and the visual aids in a break before your talk. Also, if you are not the first speaker, you can practice talking to the particular audience by making comments or asking questions on other presentations.

If you are using slides or presentation software, do not use too many. Two or three are more than enough to fill ten minutes. Do not put lots of small text on them that cannot be read. If you are just making a summary of the main points of your paper, you should not be drawing attention to the fine detail of the data.

If you are using power-point, please avoid excessive animation and flashy colours. They serve only to distract the audience from the point of your work. (It is useful to remember that power-point was developed for business presentations, not for scientific presentations, which are very different.) Better still, do not use slides if they contain only your own notes in bullet point format. There is no need to show your notes to the audience. Doing so will only draw attention to the things you have to miss out when you run out of time. Moreover, it will be difficult to adapt your sequence and flow to suit the way that the audience appears to be reacting to your talk. Use the slides only for graphical portrayal of things that are not easy to express in words. When you are ready to start, and your power-point file is open, remember that typing the function key F5 will start the slide show; this is much easier than trying to find and click on the little icon to start the slide show, which is in a different position in different versions of power-point. Practice this on your own computer, before you get up to speak. Get used to operating power-point in slide-show mode. Some people only use it in editing mode until the day they stand up to make their presentation!

With any form of visual aid, switch it off once you have finished referring to it. (In powerpoint, simply pressing the letter B during the presentation will turn the display all black; press any other key to bring it back.) Avoid passages of text on a screen, unless you are going to keep quiet for a few minutes while people read it. Also, never stand in front of the screen. There is no point at all in putting things on the screen and then obscuring them with your body. Stand next to the screen to avoid this problem.

Finally, be yourself; do not try to stop moving about the stage or using gestures, if that feels natural, and do not force behaviours that do not suit you. You only have time to make a few points and to raise the general level of audience interest in your work. The main aim of the conference is not the presentations, but interaction with your peers.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Supply-led procurement

I am interested in how new developments to procurement and business practice will impact roles in construction projects. For example, I can see a strong and compelling case for distancing architects from the construction process even further than they are now, so that their focus would be more on the art and less on the technicalities of building. I am developing my research along the lines of Supply-led procurement (a more robust development of the industrialized building agenda). This basically means handing over responsibility for innovation (and the rewards for innovation) to the supply chain. Either architects become more technical and get involved commercially with innovative producers of technical solutions, or they step aside from the commercial process completely, and develop a more advisory role. The idea of an architect co-ordinating and certifying work in progress may become a thing of the past. Indeed, I would like to go further and suggest that construction work should not be based around labour and materials paid for on a work-in-progress basis. The supply chain has an opportunity to get its act together and become truly innovative and integrated. It may be that architects and the professions are the main obstacles to developing new models of finance, new contracting methods and new business models. What would a fit-for-purpose construction sector look like in the Third Millennium? What kind of obligations are suppliers willing to take on, in return for a closer relationship with construction clients and users, and the opportunities to introduce technological innovations without having to route their work through layers of intermediaries?

Friday, 28 October 2011

Hard times

A friend of mine asked me to write something about the impact of the current financial crisis on the construction sector. What follows are my personal impressions about the threats and opportunities currently confronting the sector.

Since the beginning of the financial crisis, things have panned out in a somewhat strange way. First, the impact on the construction sector was a long time coming. There were many public sector projects already in progress, which was part of the government's problem at the time. They had continued to spend on major public sector projects at considerable rate, and all those major projects in the pipeline kept construction companies in work, though at a more relaxed rate until well after the labour government was unseated in a coalition of conservatives and liberal democrats, when there was no outright majority in the 2010 general election. The new government soon discovered that the adventurous public spending by the previous administration had all but exhausted the countries reserves, so a comprehensive public spending review soon put paid to many planned construction projects. As work for the construction sector finally dried up, new major projects were announced, and the tap of public sector investment was quickly turned on again, to try to avoid too many insolvencies and consequent redundancies. Thus, while there is not a lot of work about, the public sector investment programme has maintained a low level of work that seems to have provided a buffer. But the private sector has slowed significanctly, largely through the disappearance of capital markets. Once  the full impact started to hit the construction sector, insolvencies were seen to rise much higher in the construction sector than in others, with a 20% increase in some quarters, compared with the previous year. But most of the time we seem to be seeing insolvencies running at about 10-15% higher than the previous year. Of course, these headline figures are increases, not the proportion of companies disappearing. Headline grabbers are great for creating disquiet. Normally, I would expect construction insolvencies to run at the same rate as all business sectors (contrary to popular belief). But construction insolvencies are always slightly higher in recessionary periods, as they are now. But, still,the vast majority of businesses are continuing to trade, although they would prefer to be busier.

Few developers can raise capital from banks, because the banks do not have any. Clearly, this is a very lean period for the construction sector.  Construction workers are being laid off and a proportion of business are disappearing. Since most work is sub-contracted, the sector is very resilient. Those contractors and suppliers with workflow are now in an odd situation, becaue if they are making profits, there is a real problem in terms of what to do with their reserves. Contractors typically manage their projects so that there is a positive cash flow, ensuring that payments out are always some weeks behind payments received. Few people seem to notice that this means contractors do not need to invest in projects; their clients do. This positive cash flow means that contractors with projects have surplus cash to invest, typically in developments of their own. But in such an austere period, the markets into which they sell their own developments are somewhat moribund. Since this is often quite lucrative, times are hard. Moreover, trade contractors who design and manufacture the things that they install are reliant on investment in their processes, in a way that others in the sector may not be. And they are also hit with the double problem of very competitive pricing levels and nowhere to invest surpluses. Since the banks are not lending, there is not much happening in the private sector capital markets. So those with surpluses appear to be  shepherding their money for now, to see them through continuing lean patches. What development there is, is relying on capital, rather than debt financing. 

In the longer term, locally and globally, I feel that there is chance the construction sector might be able to finally move away from being a cash cow. If we are to make this into a 21st century business sector, it is essential that we abandon the Victorian business models and ideals that have served us so well throughout the 20th century. I sense that there is an opportunity for businesses to take more of a stake in the things that they are producing. If we can get contractors and trade contractors to invest in the things that they make, and take a greater proportion of their payment after completion, then we shall see greater incentives and rewards for innovative (and, perhaps, sustainable) products and practices. And what better time than now to enable large, successful companies to pump-prime their clients' developments with cash? Many more contractors are establishing capital arms to invest in their own and their clients' projects. This is interesting. If it continues, we could see the end of a business sector based on large volumes of cash being pumped around construction sites, and the growth of significant investment-driven construction companies which will be able to weather financial storms as successfully as any other business sector.

So, who knows what will happen? Even in this difficult time, there are great opportunities. One thing is for sure, as someone once said, "if you always do what you have always done, you'll always get what you've always got".

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Complex, commercial, contractual relations

It is interesting how much research in our field is predicated on the assumption that good process leads to good buildings. If this were so, surely there would be few poor quality buildings by now? After all, we are surrounded on all sides by advice and guidance on processes of all kinds. There are British Standards, International Standards, Codes of Practice, Guidance Documents of all kinds. Yet still we produce poor quality buildings. Clearly, we are dealing with a level of complexity in construction that is difficult and uncertain. Perhaps the idea that good process leads to good buildings would form a useful basis on which to critique a lot of the research that has been published in construction management? After all, it has long been accepted in organizational theory circles that there is more to an effective organization than its structure. So much so, that organizational structure is a rare breed of research paper. Or perhaps they have just changed their vocabulary so that I don't notice what passes these days for organizational structure!

The complexity in construction is not necessarily technical, but organizational. Because of the way that the processes are organized, there is a need for diverse skills, and it is important for the purposes of continuity of work and the development of specialized skills that these diverse disciplines are typically found in different firms. To bring a team together means that contracts are important, because each different group of skills comes from a different business. And we are talking about business, therefore commercial interests play an important role in colouring the behaviour of the parties, even if they are exercising professionalized roles. Finally, because the planning, design, construction and occupation of a building occupy many years, the continuity of relationships can be very important. Thus, the kind of organisational problems we face are characterized as complex, commercial, contractual relations.

Anyhow, today's realization was that buildings are just buildings and not, in themselves, good or bad. Good and bad are judgements that reside in people, not characteristics that reside in buildings. More important, in my view, is that when we judge something to be good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, we are typically comparing what we can observe to our expectation. If our expectations are met, then we are more likely to be satisfied. I have long been aware that this is why marketing is so important for business; good marketing is designed to adjust and deal with our expectations, so that we are more likely to be satisfied with certain products, despite their qualities and characteristics, rather than because of them. So if expectations are the important thing, then clear communication is essential. Within the construction sector, we are used to problems of conflict and dispute. Perhaps these, too, can be laid at the door of inadequate communication leading to unmet expectations? Information asymmetry is an important idea that underpins this. It is inevitable in a complex commercial environment that one party will have more information and knowledge about the transaction than the other. Often, the supply side has the upper hand when it comes to information asymmetry, but if the demand side employ professional consultants and design what is to be fabricated, then perhaps the result would be that the demand side has more information than the supply side about important aspects of the job.

Perhaps the purpose of communication in complex, commercial, contractual relations is to reduce information asymmetry and ensure that expectations on both sides are reasonable. This would lead to a hypothesis that information symmetry should lead to greater satisfaction. Businesses expend lots of effort in precisely this area. Conflict flows from dissatisfaction and it is expensive and destructive.

Above all, in construction the transaction is very difficult because the demand side basically requires space, whereas the supply side can only provide boundaries to space. I think this is the interface between architecture and building. We buy buildings because we want space, not because we want walls. No wonder there is information asymmetry, when we have to buy something other than what we want in order to get what we want!

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