Wednesday, 9 September 2009

ARCOM 2009

Nottingham was the location for this year's ARCOM conference. We started on Sunday with a good-natured but busy committee meeting, in which we sorted out various business, not least the finalisation of the election process for next year's committee, since we had more nominations than places. It is strange, but welcome, how the allure of being on the committee seems to be growing stronger. We heard from Simon Smith, the Treasurer, that with the record number of delegates registered, the conference would be a success, at least financially. This was a relief, given the expense of hiring such a venue as Albert Hall, Nottingham.

Monday for me consisted of taking lots of photographs, attending several sessions, including the keynotes, and taking a group photo of the delegates at Nottingham Castle where we went for a reception and introduction to Nottingham's history. It was also the launch of the ARCOM Book about the story of the emergence of "the discipline", a book edited by Dave Langford and me, which provides a selection of offerings about the history of construction, the institutions, the journals, the educational structures, and a series of cameos from a range of different countries, all finished off with a sketch about the future. The index forms a structured picture of the ideas, places and key people that define what we see as the field of construction management. But this is certainly an unfinished story! It seemed to go down very well with the delegates, all of whom received a copy.

Tuesday involved many more photos and many more sessions. In the evening, after an organ recital on the great cathedral in the hall, and a piano recital by our very own David Greenwood, and then the conference dinner, David Boyd regaled us with the story of the ARCOM Movie, a story with an incredible span across the entire history of building. He concluded by using tiles drawn from bags of words to generate random paper titles, and got me, then Richard Fellows, then Faz Khosrowshahi, then himself, to talk for one minute on each of a four randomly generated titles. It was quite a challenge to improvise on a random (and meaningless) title, but good fun all the same.

Wednesday morning began with a "Question Time" style of debate with Andy Dainty chairing, and eight past-chairmen of ARCOM participating. Questions cam from the floor, and covered a range of issues from whether construction management was a discipline in its own right, the issue of the relationship between academia and industry, and the possible theme and location of ARCOM 2034, the fiftieth anniversary conference. The discussion was well-managed and, with so many participants, it was never going to be easy to get heated, especially as the poor acoustics meant we could not be heard without a microphone, and we all had to share the same roving mike! Making do was always something we have been good at, when required. The discussion lead me to make several conclusions about the nature and the future of the kind of things that we do.

First, I have always been clear that construction management is not a discipline in its own right. Indeed, I wrote a paper on this very topic some years ago - Hughes, W.P. (1999) Construction research: a field of application. Australian Institute of Building Papers, 9, 51-58. I still feel that our research into the construction sector should seek to carry out multi-disciplinary research in a way that develops the theoretical understanding of the disciplines that we apply. Can we contribute to real theory-building in this kind of work? What is it that the mainstream disciplines lack that can be met by an applied field like ours? This is a key question for me. The reason that I think that CM is not an academic discipline is that an academic discipline implies a recognisable set of methods, methodologies, techniques and vocabularies. I cannot see how this kind of consistency could emerge in studies as diverse as motivation, HR, organizational structure, economics, psychology, financial analysis and so on.

Second, a discussion on values in research lead me to conclude that research cannot be value-free. What we choose to research, and how it is funded, is fundamentally rooted in our value systems.

Third, another important issue raised from the floor, was about what kind of construction sector we would like to see. Some of the panellists felt that it was not for us to decide upon such things, and to merely observe and analyse. I took the view that we should apply value systems to what we did, and that we should work as part of the construction sector, rather than as an impassive outsider, and that for me the question was what kind of society would I like to see. In that sense, I wanted an industry that did not rely on slave labour and servitude and did not over-exploit natural resources. It would be good see the construction sector lead the way, but that is unlikely to happen give that major contractors seem not to be able to survive without these unsavoury practices, and they are probably are not going to ask us to help them dissociate from such excesses, especially in places like Dubai!

Fourth, the lighter question about the theme and location of the conference 25 years from now prompted me to bring these previous strands together in that I would imagine we might be looking at the interface between the built environment and the natural environment, and that the location would have to be distributed, connected by some kind of brilliant technology, because we would simply not be able to travel such distances for such events.

Overall the conference was an enormous success, and a lot of strong research was reported and commented on. It was great to see old friends and make new ones.

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