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.

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