Saturday, 8 November 2008

Managerialism vs enquiry

In refusing to consider a newly-submitted paper for publication in CM&E, I have clearly ruffled the feathers of a colleague and his co-author. I refuse even to send it for refereeing. The author, who is extremely prolific, is angry with me. Interestingly, a couple of years ago, I rejected one of his papers after receiving negative referee comments and he swore to have nothing more to do with us, such was his indignation. So when he submitted a new paper to CM&E, I felt justified in refusing to consider it for publication, on the basis that he had already dissociated himself completely from the journal (including a refusal to referee papers for us). His reaction was, understandably, irate, but I think we never quite got to the real point in our exchanges of e-mails about what had happened, dealing only with his anger, rather than the substantive points.

On reflecting about the underlying issues, I think that the reason for my discomfort with this author's papers is more profound than the ostensible points that I had latched on to in our heated exchanges. There are several academics who appear to be operating in a different world from the one that academics seem to have occupied in the past. Traditionally, the role of universities has been strongly connected with enquiry, discovery and learning. These days, for political and economic reasons, the success of universities needs to be measured through proxies, such as publication rates, citations and research income. As he is quick to point out in his riposte to my rejection, this author is a very important academic with literally hundreds of journal papers to his name and lots of research council grants. Two previous experiences, one with him and another with his co-author, resulted in me rejecting their papers from CM&E, followed by copious argumentative e-mails in which they made various accusations of inadequate refereeing, feeling that the referees and editors did not understand what they are doing. The feeling of the authors was that their brilliant research was being denied publication because of the impoverished imagination of dull referees and editors who were not bright enough to see the inherent value of the work. The reality was that the work was typically a cursory review of literature followed by an unimaginative survey, poorly designed and executed, with unsurprising findings. Usually, the process involves trying to see if something already known as generally true turns out to be specifically true in the construction sector, with no rationale for the hypothesis that the construction sector might be inherently different from the rest of society. This is a worrying phenomenon. Rather than a science that is styled to develop generalizations from specific observations, this is a science designed to enumerate specificities from accepted generalizations. Such papers proliferate now that universities and the academics within them need to justify themselves in terms of metrics.

The result of the increasing predilection for measuring academic output is that a lot of very mediocre and uninteresting research is published, not as a result of enquiry, learning or discovery, but solely for the purpose of promotion of authors and their institutions who wish to climb up various league tables. And they are doing so well that they feel fully justified in their feeling that they are more important than the journal, more important than the referees and editors, and personally more important than the processes of enquiry which ought to underpin academic work. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the particular case, when authors think they are more important than journals, something is very wrong. No wonder they get so annoyed!

Friday, 7 November 2008

ARCOM Website

The website for ARCOM (Association of Researchers in Construction Management) needs regular maintenance. This evening, I have whiled away a couple of hours on extending the tree structures for browsing all the journals that are indexed on the site. I am working on enabling this browsing function so that a user can click on a journal's title and see the volume numbers listed, then clicking on a volume number reveals the issues, and clicking on an issue reveals a list of the papers in that issue. The citation of each paper is presented, and clicking a paper reveals its abstract, and a URL to where the paper is available on the web. The programming of all of this has been incredibly complicated, and I have been glad to have had the help of Darren Booy and Weisheng Lu in developing this, and the functionality I wanted is finally there. What I now wonder is whether anyone would want to browse the issues in this way, or if they would just prefer to search the database, which has been possible for some time. After recent additions to the database, I am now adding articles from the following series:
  • ARCOM Annual Conferences
  • Building Research and Information
  • Construction Innovation
  • Construction Papers
  • Construction Management and Economics
  • Construction Innovation: Information, Process, Management
  • Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management
  • International Journal of Construction Education and Research
  • International Journal for Construction Marketing
  • Journal of Construction Procurement
  • Journal of Construction Research
  • Journal of Corporate Real Estate
  • Journal of Engineering, Design and Technology
  • Journal of Financial Management in Property and Construction
  • RICS COBRA Conferences
  • RICS Research Papers
  • Unpublished PhD Theses
Each new addition to this list requires me to get permission from the publisher to reproduce the text of the abstracts, which is copyright. Until now, the only people to have refused such permission was the American Society for Civil Engineers, who felt that their own website was all the exposure they wanted. This was a shame, because they publish several relevant titles in our area. Perhaps, as this service grows, they might be persuaded to relent.

The idea for building this database grew out of my wish to catalogue everything that had ever appeared in Construction Management and Economics, which I became editor of in 1993. It has gradually evolved over the years and I hope it will continue to grow, and offer a powerful resource to construction management researchers everywhere. With any luck, it will continue to be available to everyone free of charge.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Contractors' clubs

In conversation with a BSc dissertation student this morning, Jan Hillig and I were talking through various methods of financial protection that are used in construction projects. The idea is that the buyer would usually like to find some way of underwriting the risk of a seller's non-performance or insolvency. I have done research into this area in the past (see below), and was aware of many alternatives, the cheapest and most common of which is called cash retention, where a small part of each payment is kept back by the buyer, to accumulate a fund that can be used if the supplier fails to perform or becomes insolvent. Since contracting is a cash-flow business, with money paid for work done to date each month, the manipulation of cash flows becomes extremely important. Contractors can make a lot of profit from utilizing the cash that is passing through their books, because there are plenty of opportunities to make sure that they get cash in before the incur the liability to pay cash out. Therefore, the bigger their positive cash flow, the better off they are. I characterized cash retention as being an option that buyers have, because they could alternatively use a retention bond, parent company guarantees, performance bonds, and many other alternatives. Many suppliers would prefer not to have cash retentions, becuase it would improve their cash flows. And an idea came to me, which might be useful for frequent clients, such as government departments. Why not have some form of a contractors' club where members are not subjected to cash retentions and non-members are? Membership would be earned if the last 2-3 projects were completed on time without defects. As soon as a project is delayed of over budget, through some fault of the contractor, membership is cancelled or suspended. This would be a way of incentivizing and rewarding performance. I wondered if this had ever been attempted. Could this work?

Hughes, W.P., Hillebrandt, P and Murdoch, J.R. (1998) Financial protection in the UK building industry: bonds, retentions and guarantees. London: Spon. 190pp. ISBN 0-419-24290-2.

Hughes, W.P., Hillebrandt, P. and Murdoch, J. (2000) The impact of contract duration on the cost of cash retention. Construction Management and Economics. 18(1), 11-14.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

ISI and CM&E

Andy Dainty and I met today to discuss various aspects of the journal. Among other things, we crystallized some thoughts about the journal's status in relation to ISI, and drafted this message for distribution to the CNBR, Co-operative Network for Building Researchers, about 2,000 construction academics around the world:

The perennial issue of ISI listing is growing more urgent in many parts of the world. The editorial board of CM&E are as interested as any of our authors in getting the journal included in ISI. It will be good for our field in general if more of our journals are included in the list. But inclusion is not easy, because it involves a process of application and the auditing by ISI of various kinds of evidence in a process that usually takes 18-24 months, resulting in a decision that produces no qualitative feedback by way of explanation. We have applied before, but in the process of thinking through this and examining the information in the public domain about ISI, there are some key points about what needs to change if journals like CM&E are to become included in the ISI database.

There is always a tension between fundamental and applied research, especially in our area, because our work is almost always applied research, and therefore, usually multi-disciplinary. The problems that we experience are common in multi-disciplinary fields. We often refer to the more mono-disciplinary areas in which theories are developed as mainstream. Multi-disciplinary, applied research tends to be more theory-testing than theory-building.

If anything is to change in terms of where our work fits in relation to the mainstream journals, as an academic community we need to do two things. First, ensure that the papers we write are citing the theory-building literature in mainstream journals and second, aim to publish papers in mainstream journals that cite the literature in our applied field. Any examination of citations in Google Scholar reveals that most construction management work refers only to the journals in our field, and is cited only from the journals in our field. Clearly, there is a lot that can be done by authors in this field to raise the profile of our work and make the kind of connections with mainstream journals that would make ISI inclusion more likely, not just for CM&E, but for a wider range of our journals.

The kitchen is all but gone

The builders made great progress today, and since they started they have managed to rip out everything, including a wall, the floor and the ceiling. So this is what we are left with. So far, we are still eating properly, but we are only on the third day of what promises to be a dusty month! At least we still have a sink and a cooker, but who knows how long they will last...

The dining room is now doubling as a kitchen, apart from the fact that it has no water and no cooker. The microwave looks set to becoming indispensable. Maybe we should be planning to spend Christmas elsewhere.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

University Board for Enterprise

I had a meeting this morning, the University Board for Enterprise. Some of the discussions were quite interesting. There was lots of reporting from the Faculties about what they had been doing, but the notion of enterprise as a third stream of University activity was challenged by several of us. We felt that enterprise was an attitude of mind, and that all of our work should be carried out in an enterprising manner, where relevant. Among the things that I learned at this meeting was that the government was continuing to push for incentivizing enterprise in universities, despite the economic downturn. There are plenty of initiatives around that will add leverage to any successes we have in terms of behaving more entrepreneurially. As to what constitutes enterprise, the list of potential activities is exceedingly vast, especially as most of the Schools whose reports came via Deans to this committee have each interpreted the enterprise agenda in their own way. One important aspect of enterprise is Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs). These are defined on the KTP website as "Europe's leading programme helping businesses to improve their competitiveness and productivity through the better use of knowledge, technology and skills that reside within the UK knowledge base". There was a suggestion that we could be doing more in terms of developing successful KTPs into further research grants, perhaps closing the loop and having helped businesses to develop and apply new ideas, we should be harnessing the outcomes to raise new questions for our research.

It was clear from our implementation plans that the work of the School of Construction Management and Engineering forms a fundamental plank of the University's enterprise strategy. There is a lot of interest among businesses in executive development related to many of the issues we deal with in this School. Of course, this does raise the question of whether the researchers developing these ideas are the people who can be incentivized to turn them into CPD programmes and KTPs. This is something I shall need to investigate in the School.

I also learned that the University now has a Director of Events, who can help support the Schools with the organization of business-facing events. Clearly, the support for enterprise is growing more tangible.

One of the observations that I had was that although enterprise was clearly an attitude that should be reflected in everything that we do, whether research, teaching or anything else, this is not the only agenda that has to inform everything that we do. I recollect the introduction of quality assurance and quality management many years ago, that was rolled out across all sorts of organizations as being of fundamental importance. It was briefly highlighted as something that was very important, sufficient for people to be given the portfolio of quality management to look after, but then it became clear that this was an abrogation of responsibility, because it produced the idea that quality was something for them to look after, rather than something that should imbue everything that everyone does. In advanced organizations, it now appears to be integrated as part of everyone's activities. Health and safety is another agenda that has to be taken account of in everything we do, and now sustainability seems to be the most crucial issue that should be taken account of in every decision and plan. Inclusivity also rises up agendas from time to time. I was struck by how many things had to be taken account of at every step, and wondered if there was a life cycle for this kind of thing. Clearly, all this was too abstract for this meeting, but it would be interesting to debate further at some point.

One other issue that came up was the employability and entrepreneurship agenda. I was not sure about the idea of "enriching the students' experience" by providing them with skills and knowledge that would make them more employable. I wondered aloud if this were impoverishing the students' experience, and where the debate was about the role of Higher Education, and why students went to universities. I was reassured by the robustness of responses around the table. Many people shared exactly these concerns and were keen to underline the importance of graduates being able to challenge conventional wisdom and think creatively and analytically. The aim of this push was clearly not simply to turn the University into a preparation for particular vocations, but to provide graduates with the flexibility and imagination to respond in any way they saw fit to the situations in which they found themselves.

Remote dissertation supervision

I started a new blog this morning, but you probably will never see it. One of my students is participating in the modular MSc programme, which involves a residential week four times per year over two years. Thus, when he was transferred from London to Zagreb, it was not going to be too challenging for him to continue with his studies, because getting here from Zagreb is not particularly difficult, and probably quicker than driving down from Scotland. However, he is embarking on a dissertation, and the first thing we needed to do was agree what his topic would be, figure out the basic references for him to look at, and figure out how we would interact for the purposes of supervision while he was in Zagreb.

First, the topic. We shared our ideas about what to study and how to go about it. Given that his interest was in construction contracting with particular reference to resourcing at senior site management level, my advice was that his desire to focus on the site management processes in Croatian construction projects was going to prove interesting as it would enable him to make observations of what happens in practice, comparing them to practical guides such as the CIOB's Code of Practice for Project Management (and similar documents about site management) and to look at both observations of practice and the practical guides in the context of organizational and management theory, as it has developed from the early seminal writers such as Galbraith, J (1973) Designing complex organizations. Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley and Cleland, D I and King, W R (1975) Systems Analysis and Project Management. New York: McGraw-Hill. Later writers, such as Dawson, S (1996) Analysing Organizations. 3 ed. Basingstoke: Macmillan provided really strong, theoretically robust guidance for how we should think about organizational structures and management processes. This also connected well with research published in two of my own books: Procurement in the construction industry and Roles in construction projects. Thus, we had a project that I could supervise and that should generate some useful and interesting insights.

Second, the question of how we would work together while in different countries was soon settled because I was interested in trying out a blog which only the two of us could access. We can both read it and post to it, and there is the potential for use to invite others, such as a local professor from University of Zagreb, or colleagues in Reading, or even other students on the programme. One great advantage is the ability to go back and edit and refine a post, adding links and correcting grammar and spelling mistakes. Another is that the blog whould grow as the supervision progresses, and it is always there to backtrack and pick up things that might have got forgotten. It is an interesting substitute for notebooks and a good way of augmenting our supervision meetings that will inevitably be too infrequent. I'm going to try this with some other students now, to see how suitable it is at BSc, MSc and PhD levels of research.

Where are all the ugly people?

A while ago, I was playing in facebook one weekend, and I found that the interactive games worked best if you could engage someone else frequently to do whatever it was that earned points. The trouble was, many of my friends were just too slow to make the points accumulate quickly enough. So I started another account under a pseudonym, in order to have someone a bit more interactive in these games, so that I could accumulate points and then play against my friends. The first thing was that a new person needed at least five friends in order to take part, probably to prevent this kind of cheating, so I had to set up four more accounts! As soon as I was able to get these accumulation games to work, I discovered that glamorous looking women seemed to accumulate friends and rewards far quicker than dull-looking men, so I changed the gender of some of my accounts, and gave them beautiful faces. It is easy enough to find beautiful and glamorous women on the web. All went well, until I got bored of the ease with which I could accumulate these points and use them. Soon enough, I lost interest in this, but the beautiful and fictional women were still visible, and gradually some lonely, sad men started asking to be friends, and telling these non-existent women how lovely they were, and how they would like to get to know them better. This was just too creepy. Initially, I tried telling one or two of these sad men that these were fake accounts and not real people, but their desire to meet these fancy women was so strong, they refused to accept the truth and assumed that my girls were just playing hard to get. Even more creepy! So then I thought that I would change their faces to ugly ones. And this is where things got very interesting. I tried to find some ugly faces through Google images, where I had originally found the pretty faces. It was really tough! There were plenty of people pretending to be ugly, but they weren't really. There were plenty of people pulling faces, or who were flagged as ugly, but they did not have the kind of face that would make you recoil in horror. Anyone who really had a genuinely ugly face never appeared in these searches, because most people are not so insensitive as to flag their acquaintances as just pig-ugly. What a surprise! Most of the so-called ugly people on the internet are actually quite ordinary-looking people who have been snapped while pulling a strange face, or people posing as ugly who aren't really. So this is my question - where are all the ugly people? I then started to think that perhaps most of the glamorous-looking people are really quite ordinary, too, and just happened to be pulling a particularly attractive expression or pose. Hmmm.

Monday, 3 November 2008

CM&E and the benefits of ISI listing

We are having a discussion among the editorial board members of this journal. It has long been our aim to be included in the ISI citations index. The idea of this is that a journal article, an author, a university or a journal can be rated by the number of times that it is cited by others. The ISI Web of Knowledge, as it is now known, tracks citations to all of the journal articles published in the papers that it lists. This is seen as a very powerful method of evaluating the quality of scientific output (see, for example, Judge, T.A., Cable, D.M., Colbert, A.E. and Rynes, S.L. (2007) What causes a management article to be cited – article, author or journal? Academy of Management Journal, 50(3), 491-506.) The trouble is, Construction Management and Economics is not included! Obviously most of those who write for this journal know that it would be better for our academic community if we were included, so we often get requests asking us why we are not. The fact is that it is no trivial matter to apply for listing and we have done so three times (at least). Each time, we spend months putting together the case, and then wait a year or so for a response from ISI. Sufficient time has elapsed since our last attempt for us to now try again, and there are interesting discussions taking place among our editorial board members about what this all means.

One thing that I often raise in this debate is the idea that a journal does not actually have to be listed for papers in it to be cited. I have often thought that if writers in listed journals referred to papers in CM&E, then our authors and our journal would have an impact factor. I'm not 100% sure about this, because I cannot find any evidence in the ISI pages that there are any citations to non-listed journals. But if it were true, then the people clamouring to get our journal included in the list should really be seeking to write the kind of papers that get cited! Whatever the case, if authors' papers were cited from listed journals, then our listing would be more or less inevitable. And we shall be applying again soon, and doing everything we can to get CM&E included in ISI lists. It is simply too important to ignore.

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