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!

Monday, 12 September 2011

Noisy trees?

Reading this week's New Scientist, I came across the phrase "an objective reality that exists independently of our beliefs" in relation to the stupidity of the idea that the world was ever flat (Feedback, New Scientist. 211(2829), 64). It got me thinking. My world used to be flat when I was quite young. That "model" became useless when I learned a bit more, and better explanations made sense as my childish observations and experience grew. It struck me that there may be scientists, particularly in the Natural Sciences, who may claim to believe in an objective reality, even though they themselves contribute to emergent explanations that help to make sense of increasingly contradictory or complex observations. Social scientists seem more ready to acknowledge that there are no objective facts; merely a provisional, negotiated consensus. This reminded me of that old philosophical chestnut, "if a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a noise?" The article made me realize that I now have a view on that. It doesn't; because noise is an experience and a perception. Those who think it does, perhaps, believe in objective reality that exists independently of beliefs.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Twitter

Am I going to regret this? I have singed up for Twitter. As if there weren't enough online services to keep updating...
Find me at @arjibarj

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Construction Management and Economics

There are so many networking tools to choose from these days, it is bewildering. I have been in Facebook for a long time, since very early in its life, and it is best for keeping up with family and friends, I have decided. I tried to set up a Facebook page for the journal, Construction Management and Economics, but the nature of FB interaction seemed to trivialize everything. Too many people simply clicked that they "Liked" it, and moved on. There was no sense of engagement. So now I am trying to disengage gracefully without losing those people who liked that kind of connection.

Episode 2 in trying to get a Social Networking is to set up a WordPress blog kind of forum. This looks very nice and was relatively easy to configure so that it looks professional and enables the kind of content that I had in mind - forthcoming events (including those that do not get published in the list in the journal), free download papers (one per issue), ideas and suggestions for improving the quality of submitted papers and of reviews, and so on. Much of this material has already appeared here in Blogspot, so there is a danger of recycling old stuff. On the other hand, there is a danger that the material is too dissipated across different sites, so I need to collect it in a more focused way.

One interesting thing that worries me is how little people really engage with these things. After a couple of weeks of the WordPress site being live, only a handful of people have signed up to receive updates from the site, despite the number of people looking at the site being in the hundreds. I have received encouraging emails from colleagues who have browsed it and see it as valuable, but they have not signed up to have current content pushed to their email boxes. WordPress will compile a weekly digest, but few people seem to want to make this tiny level of commitment. Also, there is only one post, so far, from someone other than me. What is holding people back? Why so shy?

If you are interested in encouraging sites like the new WordPress site, I think you should take part. Think about it; have a look and see what you can contribute. Even if you simply sign up for email updates, it will make it seem more worthwhile.

I guess, though, that if you are already connected to me through LinkedIn or Facebook, you will already get notifications every time anything is posted there, so perhaps I am worrying too much! LinkedIn, particularly, should help to garner a lot more interest in the journal. Yesterday I passed the threshold of being connected to 1000 contacts in LinkedIn, so that means that everything I post in WordPress is immediately notified to all of those people. Managing these things requires a bit of attention, but hopefully not too much. It is very telling that I could only set all this up in August, when things in the day-job are slightly quieter.

And what are we to make of Google+? Yet another social networking opportunity. Do we really need another one?

Friday, 15 July 2011

Case study research

I was quite pleased to hear about the new edition of The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. In particular, there is a chapter in there by Bent Flyvberg on Case Study research, which should be quite helpful, as it dispels many myths about case study research:

  1. First misunderstanding: General, theoretical knowledge is more valuable than concrete case knowledge.
  2. Second misunderstanding: One cannot generalize on the basis of an individual case; therefore, the case study cannot contribute to scientific development.
  3. Third misunderstanding: The case study is most useful for generating hypotheses; that is, in the first stage of a total research process,
  4. while other methods are more suitable for hypotheses testing and theory building.
  5. Fourth misunderstanding: The case study contains a bias toward verification, that is, a tendency to confirm the researcher’s preconceived notions.
  6. Fifth misunderstanding: It is often difficult to summarize and develop general propositions and theories on the basis of specific case studies.

If you are contemplating research that might benefit from a case study approach, then I recommend this book most strongly. Further details by clicking on the link:
The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Reviewing research papers

There are several posts in this blog about reviewing research papers, and it is a theme that constantly crops up, both in relation to refereeing a journal paper for an editor of a journal, an in relation to building up the elemental parts of a literature review. As I have said before, these are two distinctive activities.

Many students struggle to make critical evaluations of published papers, and there are many reasons why they might find this difficult at first. One way of approaching the task could be to try to focus on whether a paper is making an interesting and useful contribution to our collective understanding. I think that what we are looking for is signs that author of a paper is clever enough to provide a persuasive case. What I mean by this is to look for evidence in a paper that the author is knowledgeable, has a good understanding of the issues, can put together an argument and can make judgements.

In order to be convinced that an author is knowledgeable, I would look for evidence that he/she knows about the generalities and specifics of the topic. To be convinced that the author has an understanding, I would try to find evidence of different views being weighed in the balance and ideas being applied to examples, especially I would look for the use of metaphors and analogies. In thinking about whether the paper has a strong argument, I would look for the use of logic and the sequence of ideas. The language of argument is interesting, and this is closely related to grammar, vocabulary and logic. I do not find the use of jargon or inflated diction particularly compelling. But plain language in straightforward words is often an element of a good argument. It should be clear. Finally, in looking to see whether an author is making judgements, there should be evidence of discrimination in the kind of sources being relied on to form the foundations for the work, and judgement in the nature of the conclusions as well as the all of the choices about what to include and what to exclude in putting the paper together.

Some common errors frequently reveal weak papers and unclear thinking. Papers typically follow this structure:

  • Abstract - summarizing the whole paper including the specific findings
  • Introduction - explaining what the paper is about
  • Literature review - dealing with what we collectively already know, specifically, but not exclusively, in terms of past research
  • Possibly some empirical work - not all papers fit into the category of empirically-based research
  • Analysis and/or discussion - empirically-based papers would separate the analysis from the data, then all papers would include discussion of what all this leads us to
  • Conclusions - explaining what this all means, perhaps with an outline of the parameters of the research and how that restricts the application of the findings, and usually with suggestions about what certain groups of people might do differently as a result of this research, whether these groups are scholars, practitioners or policy-makers

In weak papers authors often get the sections mixed up, probably because a weak paper will not really lead to any conclusions. Thus, I often find that the conclusions only really summarize the paper, the abstract introduces, rather than summarizes, and the introduction jumps straight into a general literature review before the detailed and focused part of the literature. As a result, in my editorial capacity, I often suggest to authors that they should move the introduction section to the literature review, move the abstract to the introduction, move the conclusions to the abstract, and then try to write some proper conclusions that convey something about what all this means. If they cannot do that, then the work is not really good enough to be called research, I would venture to suggest.

It might be an interesting exercise to see if you can find a paper where the sections are mixed up in this way. It would certainly give new researchers the confidence to take a critical stance when it comes to reviewing papers for their literature review!

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Research methods in social sciences

One useful resource for learning about research methods in the social sciences is the Research Methods Knowledge Base. It provides a really helpful introduction to many of the basic concepts that are useful in defining research. Particularly useful is the section on the language of research, providing clear explanations for what is meant by phrases such as "unit of analysis". Have a look and see if you find it helpful.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

What editors look for in referee reports

A recent discussion in orgtheory.net sparked some interest. I was particularly interested in the views from editors of various journals such as Organization Science, Organization Studies, Academy of Management Journal, Management Science, American Sociological Review, and Administrative Science Quarterly.

If you are interested in improving the way that you carry out reviews, there is some excellent guidance there. I added a note, as follows:

This discussion provides an excellent presentation of the diverse and multiple aspects of a good review. In Construction Management and Economics, we have also been dealing with how best to advise referees. One thing of vital importance, as mentioned by several of the editors, is to ensure that the referees deal with the content rather than the presentation/style of the paper. To help focus attention on what matters, I have recently developed a more explicit description of what I mean when I say “scientific content” because in an applied and practical field like construction management, it can be difficult for some people to distinguish research from practice, let alone content from style.

I am increasingly asking referees to consider this definition of the scientific approach when the write their reviews: “The observation of certain specific phenomena within a theoretical framework in order to develop better explanations that improve our collective understanding.”

Specifically, I want to avoid papers that merely report on specific phenomena. I want referees to tell me whether the papers they review are explicit about the extent to which a paper deals with the phenomena being observed, the underlying concepts and theoretical framework being used, the existing explanations being critiqued or found wanting, and the new explanations being proffered that add to our pool of knowledge. And all of this has to be done within the conventions of what a paper in this field looks like.

This is a complicated and difficult issue, and the way we put our requests to referees is constantly developing. What makes a paper acceptable is conformance with the customs and practice of the particular field in terms of: how arguments are presented, how data is used,how research is carried out, formatting of papers. The overriding criterion is clarity. These are the issues that I wish referees to guide me on when I am deciding the fate of a paper.

Crucially, reviewing a paper for a journal is clearly not the same thing as writing a critique for a literature review.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Networking on the web

There is a growing number of tools for networking on the web. Facebook is great for social networking, but it can be very distracting and difficult to manage. There are so many facets to it that it is probably inappropriate for direct communication focused on scientific exchanges. Indeed, there is a group in Facebook for construction management researchers. But it may make you despair of the human condition, because it is filled with trivial requests from people who are not researchers asking questions of an entirely random nature and with no sense of who their questions are directed at. It is pretty hopeless and probably needs to be closed down, yet there are more than 500 members on it from all over the world. Most of them just seem desperate to find someone to talk to, or seek a forum for advertising their wares. It fails where other tools succeed.

In our field, probably the most successful tool to date is the Co-operative Network for Building Researchers (CNBR). This has been going for 21 years and has more than 2500 members globally. It is only an email network, but it is really successful and enables some very useful discussions. It also enables unavoidable chit-chat and distractions, but not too much.

There are plenty of other places where we can develop networks, if we wish to. Academia.edu, for example. I have a profile there at http://reading.academia.edu/WillHughes and this enables me to connect with people who share my research interests. There is not the opportunity for chit-chat like there is on CNBR, and it is less intrusive in the daily diet of emails (if you set it it up right). You can upload papers and books, presentations, CVs, all sorts of academic outputs, and by tagging them with keywords, you become visible to like-minded people around the globe. This is a good way of finding new research contacts.

A new service is Mendeley. This looks like an excellent tool. Primarily it is useful for managing bibliographies. But it also enables the setting up of groups, whether for your own research team, for a department, for a global group of people who share similar interests. One really useful thing about this service is that unlike academia.edu, you don’t need to type in your publications from scratch, because it connects to many bibliographical databases and imports the details of papers that you identify as yours. It is quite quick to set up a profile and although I have only been looking at it for a day, it appears to have some really useful functions.

If networking with a mixture of practitioners and academics, I would recommend LinkedIn, because it has quite a good reach and does not involve all the distracting “fun stuff” that you get in facebook. It is a good way to get connected to all sorts of people, but if you are only looking for academic contacts, it is probably not for you.

Finally, if all you want to do is let off steam every so often and have a rant about something, get yourself a BLOG! I have found this to be useful for more than just the occasional rant. I can use it to collect advice and guidance that I give to students and to authors of papers in the journal. Over the months and years, a collection of guidance notes is accumulating here, and it is very easy to point people to short things that I have already written, which saves me from writing them again. I can return to edit old posts, and also place here contributions that I may have developed for other reasons (this post, for example, started out life as a contribution to an email discussion).

There is a lot to be said for using the appropriate tool for the job. It is highly unlikely that we will find one service that fulfils all aspirations. We need different tools for different tasks. Join me in some of these services, and we can explore these things together and see what we can achieve!

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Unsanctioned authorship

I just sent this email to a scientific editors' email forum. If you are interested in commenting, please add your comments to this blog, and I can include them in a summary of the discussion:

I am interested in the phenomenon of authors adding co-authors to their papers, without first consulting the so-called co-authors. I get the feeling that this is something that is rare, but gradually increasing. I think that people might do it to make their papers look more authoritative, or to drive up citations by adding a highly-cited author. Clearly, it is bad practice and I was wondering what could be done to ensure that it does not happen.

My impression from the publishers is that their aim is to ensure that if it does happen, they are not culpable. They will have had the corresponding author sign a declaration that all of the authors are aware of the paper and are validly listed as co-authors. Yet this does not overcome the problem, it merely moves the liability for the problem, in my own view.

Is this something we should be worried about? Should we seek explicit acknowledgement from each author that they have indeed played an instrumental role in the production of the paper? Or is it sufficient to identify this as the sole responsibility of the corresponding author? I would very much like to hear your thoughts on this issue.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Literature searching

The most essential prerequisite for a successful piece of academic research is the establishment of what is already known about the topic. While it is important to be able to produce a critical review of a research paper (See "Reviewing Research Papers"), it is just as important to be able to string together all the bits of information from the individual readings into a coherent critique of what previous research has shown, and where we are up to, collectively, in our understanding of the issues.

In trying to develop pointers and hints to help students go about this important task, I recently came up the following summary about what is required:

  • Catalogue: Keep track of every item you come across, and make a note of its status in your literature searching process, particularly whether it has been acquired, read, reviewed, critiqued, and so on.
  • Categorize: Figure out for each item what keywords you would use to index it, in such a way that you can connect papers on similar topics. Include keywords about methods and data, not just about ideas, and develop your own view of the definitions of each term, always seeking to use dictionary definitions when they work, but defining terms more specifically where necessary. But dont re-invent the wheel! If some past researcher has a good definition, use it (and cite the source).
  • Characterize: Figure out what each item is like, and explain in your notes what kind of paper it is, and the basic characteristics of the type of research and type of question. Make connections with the literature about research methodology.
  • Conceptualize: Develop a framework of the broad concepts that emerge as being the basic buildings blocks of knowledge in your topic, as represented by the literature you have discovered.
  • Recognize themes, resonances and contradictions: Look for overlaps and clashes, erecting new keywords as you go, and checking each time whether a new keyword should have been used as well for the papers you already looked at. Find out where past researchers are in agreement, and where there is controversy.
  • Identify areas of interest: As you go through these steps, you will inevitably develop a clearer understanding of not only what has already been done, but what remains to be discovered or challenged.

I hope that these notes help researchers to develop their approach to literature searching and to structuring a logical and rational narrative about the research base that they are building on in their work.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

New British Standard - BS 8534 Construction Procurement

After more than a year of work, coordinated by Constructing Excellence, the
draft for public comment is finally available for the new British Standard on Construction Procurement. The full title is "BS 8534 Construction procurement policies, strategies and procedures – Code of practice". This is designed to complement the recently published ISO 10845 on construction procurement, which focuses more on the procedures of tendering and selection. The British Standard is intended to provide an approach for developing a strategic procurement framework, taking advantage of the opportunity to codify and develop the many recipes for good construction practice that have emerged in recent years.

Here is an extract from the foreword: "In May 2006 a strategic workshop was held to establish what drives value in the construction industry. It and a subsequent series of specialist workshops were sponsored by the then Department of Trade and Industry and its successor, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, under the heading “Rethinking Standards in Construction” and organized by BSI and Constructing Excellence in the Built Environment. The main conclusion from the “Infrastructure” workshop was that there was definite potential for a new standard on procurement, provided it used the Office of Government Commerce process as a baseline."

Now is your chance to get involved! The Draft for Public Comment is available for you to download from the BSI website, at http://drafts.bsigroup.com/Home/Details/679. You will need to register on this site and choose a username and password, because the BS secretariat would like to know who is commenting, and they may want to get back to people for clarification.

Please, take the time to engage in this public consultation, because this new standard may soon be shaping the way that construction projects are organized!

Friday, 11 February 2011

Nominating referees

An author asked me if I coud suggest names of referees for him to nominate in the process of submitting a paper to Construction Management and Economics. I replied to him, no need. If I can nominate them I can select them when I am selecting reviewers! The reason for asking authors to nominate is two-fold. First, we may be lucky and get introduced to someone we had not previously come across. Second, it helps to understand better what kind of academic is best for the paper. It is more informative than mere keywords, which are bit uncertain. I don’t want authors to think that we actually use the referees they nominate when we choose reviewers for the paper. It just helps us to think about the kind of person they have directed their paper at. We would use the people they nominate for other papers in the same area. After all, this is a double-blind review process! It is interesting how these processes are interpreted in different ways.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Integrated working

As a response to the Government's Low Carbon Construction report by the Innovation & Growth Team, Constructing Excellence asked its members to answer a few questions. I found the questions thought-provoking, and provided these answers:

Integrated Working survey

1.Why do you think integrated working is not more widely adopted?

Generally, the typical solutions to integrated working in construction seem to address problems connected with trust between the parties, the lack of money in the process, and the structural relationships between the fragmented parts. There are cases where attempts at integrated working have had successes, but the challenges set out so clearly in the full report of the IGT show that we are still not yet addressing the key issues. Perhaps the next thing to look at is not just the relationships between businesses, but how the businesses are structured themselves in relation to investment capital vs cash flow. My feeling is that we need to start looking at trading in a very different way, and challenging the existing business models of major construction businesses in order to take maximum advantage of the opportunities offered by the collaborative working initiative, and the demands of the low carbon agenda. We have a lot to learn from other industry sectors and from construction firms in other countries. There is evidence that some major construction companies are becoming more focused on being an investment-based business, rather than cash-farmers, and this is interesting and useful. How can we cascade this through the different types of construction work? New business models will challenge every aspect of how construction companies get work, how they get paid, and what they guarantee.

2. Why would you recommend or not recommend integrated working?

Integrated working is required for two reasons: to drive out waste and to innovate.

3. Have you worked in an integrated way, if so what did you see as the advantages?

In my research, I have seen examples of integration in different countries and in different industries.

4. What measured results did you obtain from integrated working?

It is hard to measure construction achievements, because construction is an end to so many different means. Worse, it is very difficult to measure anything other than what people actually did. Almost impossible to compare it to what they did not do.

It seems to me, on balance, that one thing that successive government reports have consistently failed to tackle is the actual business of construction. They have pointed the finger at everything else, institutions, low pricing, trust, procurement and so one, but never really focussed on the way that construction companies are financially structured and the deal that they offer. This, surely, must be the next big research agenda?

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Academics vs practitioners?

In discussing the opportunities for involving practitioners as authors in Construction Management and Economic a friend of mine challenged me because he got the impression that I was wanting to work in isolation from industry in case "they contaminated our minds and data"! I felt that he was misunderstanding my motives. Of course it would be disastrous if academics worked in isolation, I agree 100%. Our research is rightly grounded in the construction sector. It certainly is not the case that I think that practitioners contaminate our minds and data. I agreed 100%. "They" ARE our data! They are the source of the problems that we study, they may sometimes be the source of solutions that we seek to understand and, frequently, they are the very people that we study. No, there is no sense of isolation there.

My point was that our data subjects are not authors. It was to do with ensuring that our message is tailored to suit our audience. If the findings of our research are meaningful for industry, then we must, of course, present them to industry. But in the journal, we are academics talking to academics, in a fairly structured way guided by conventions that may not be appropriate for a wider audience. In the journal, we are focusing on theory-testing and/or theory-building, but not on the dissemination of our results to a wider audience. That is the crucial characteristic of an archival research journal like ours - to record advances in research. Other media already exist for recording and disseminating advances in practice. I think that is right, and it is helpful for everyone to have this distinction.

So, yes, it is precisely because practitioners define our field by their practices that I am interested in their contributions. But not because of their ability to carry out research projects with us. Of course, there are people who have a foot in both camps and I do come across practitioners who have done "proper" research that is reportable in our pages. But then they are generally writing as researchers, not as practitioners. So the boundary is blurred. The acid test for a research paper is simply this question: does it test or develop theory? If the answer is "yes", then we are interested. If it is "no", then we are not.

And, I also acknowledge that although this is the editorial policy now, it may not be the editorial policy forever, and it was not the policy many years ago. Everything is open to challenge and change!

Friday, 14 January 2011

Comparing the values of research outputs

Recently, the CNBR network carried a message announcing a conference in Australia, and one of the recipients sent a rejoinder about how this particular conference was one that was selected as an "A" rated conference for the Australian Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) scheme. This scheme involved ranking all journals and conferences and giving them a rating. It provides an administrative route for Australians to decide whether to appoint/promote academics, based on how many research outputs they have got in the top-rated outlets on the list. It also means that Australian universities would probably not fund their staff to go to conferences that are not A-rated. This is symptomatic of a much wider movement in society, generally, to avoid the need for professional judgement at all levels. Some commentators (e.g. O’Neill, O. A Question of Trust: The BBC Reith Lectures 2002. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.) have connected this to the decline of trust in society. Of course, although there is a general feeling that trust is in decline, and that we need more of it, it does not necessarily follow that we do indeed need more trust. It is interesting to read Cook, Hardin and Levi (2007) (Cooperation Without Trust?) who argue that there are better things than trust to account for social order.

When I was working on the Professional Futures study, it was clear that there was a growing difficulty in society in terms of making judgements. I think this is getting worse. People are so frightened of making judgements of any kind that they would prefer to have objective lists of publications, rather than actually look at things and figure out whether they are any good. This prompted me to respond to the list as follows:

I think it flags up the lunacy of the whole process of ranking conferences and journals in this way. Are we to suppose that just because a paper has been published in an A*-rated journal or A-rated conference that it is definitely better than a paper in a B-rated forum? And are we to suppose that anything that was published outside of these A-list things is somehow sub-standard?

I sincerely hope that most of us are clever enough not to accept administrative views of what constitutes quality when it comes to research outputs! I would hope that academics have an eye on their peer groups, and on their own careers beyond their current employer, even if we are told where to publish. What senses do we lack that we cannot detect good conferences, journals and papers for ourselves?

Various colleagues responded privately to me, agreeing and offering observations about how the list was compiled in a very narrow and parochial way. One colleague from the Netherlands observed that although she agreed wholeheartedly with my views, if you find yourself in this situation, there is no much that you can do. And my rejoinder was:

It places you in a difficult position, for sure. If it is not your peers who are deciding which are your most important outputs, what chance have you got?

I think that in such a situation, it may be helpful to acknowledge that there are two different games to be played, and they are somewhat incompatible, but not wholly. First, our bosses want us to perform in a strictly quantifiable way that requires numbers of papers in certain places. Second, we need for our own careers to figure out a publication strategy that places our work where it reaches the peer group we seek to access. Admittedly, these two activities overlap, hopefully by a lot. But we have to acknowledge that sometimes it is necessary to publish outside the manufactured lists. In the long run, it is important that academics keep an independent sense of what their field looks like. Also, I would expect that this whole discussion may look different in other fields.

So, I agree that it is not possible to ignore the lists when you are subjected to that kind of regime. But I also think that we have to keep a sense of perspective, and ensure that our publications help each of us to develop an appropriate publication profile that can be appreciated by our peers not just for quantity, but for quality of the research. And that requires subjective, professional judgement.

It is worrying when intelligent people like academics collude in the erosion of their own judgement.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Which construction procurement method is most popular?

This is a question that I am asked quite frequently. There are some surveys about this, too, but most of the stats are meaningless, because they sample such a very small proportion of the population. Given that there are literally hundreds of thousands of construction projects each year in the UK, sampling a few tens or even hundreds of them is never going to reveal much of a trend. Worse, the terms used to describe procurement routes are confusing and interchangeable. So you cannot even be sure that practitioners are ticking the correct boxes on the poorly-designed surveys that are used to ascertain these things. I do not think that it is a worthwhile exercise trying to figure out what is more or less popular. The reason I say this is that different procurement routes serve different purposes. To put it metaphorically, custard is not the same as gravy; it has a different function, even though both are sauces. Knowing whether custard or gravy is used more frequently is really not interesting or relevant. Construction projects are not all the same as each other, so it is more important to understand how to organize the work than it is to try to figure out what is more popular. It is also important to understand that the way that risks are allocated will vary along with the economic climate. Contractors will turn away risky business if they have plenty of work, but will take on high-risk contracts when they are hungry.

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