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Construction Management and Economics (2000) 18, 819–832

Building partnerships: case studies of

client–contractor collaboration in the UK
construction industry
Warwick Business School, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK
Product Systems Innovation Centre (CoPS), Centre for Research in Innovation Management
(CENTRIM), University of Brighton, Brighton BN1 9PH, UK

Received 25 August 1999; accepted 10 December 1999

Despite the enormous groundswell of interest in partnering and alliancing in recent years, there has
been comparatively little research that has set out to investigate systematically the nature, feasibility, beneŽ ts
and limitations of forms of client–contractor collaboration. This is despite the growing recognition that
conditions conducive to partnering may well vary considerably and that partnering may not be the solution
for problems within the industry that many commentators have taken it to be. This paper sets out to
add to the growing literature and empirical database on partnering by reporting the Ž ndings of a research
project designed to explore the economic, organizational and technological factors that encourage or inhibit
collaboration in practice. The paper follows on from an earlier review and critique of the literature on
partnering (Bresnen, M. and Marshall, N. 2000, Construction Management and Economics, 18(2) 229–37). It
includes as its database nine case studies of medium-to-large-scale projects, selected from across the industry,
on which processes of collaboration are examined from the viewpoints of clients, contractors, designers and
subcontractors. In contrast to much of the prescriptive work in this area, the analysis of the data and the
paper’s conclusions stress some of the practical problems, limitations and paradoxes of partnering and
alliancing when the effects of important economic, organizational and psychological factors are taken into

Keywords: Management, partnering, alliancing, clients

Introduction recent years, however, all this is expected to have

changed and considerable attention has been directed
Historically the construction industry has used towards forms of client–contractor relationship that
procurement methods and contractual arrangements move away from traditional ‘arms-length’ contracting
that have encouraged clients and contractors to see and towards relationships based more upon coopera-
themselves as adversaries and that have reinforced any tion and trust. Although such relationships can take
differences in values, goals and orientations that exist a variety of forms (including joint ventures), debate
within the construction project team (e.g. Banwell, has crystallized around the emergence of ‘partnering’
1964; Higgin and Jessop, 1965; Morris, 1973; Cherns as the major vehicle of change within the industry
and Bryant, 1984; Ball, 1988; Latham, 1994). In (Barlow and Cohen, 1996; Holti and Standing, 1996;
Rasmussen and Shove, 1996; Barlow et al., 1997;
* Author for correspondence. e-mail: Bresnen and Marshall, 1998, 1999, 2000a; Thompson

Construction Management and Economics

ISSN 0144–6193 print/ISSN 1466-433X online © 2000 Taylor & Francis Ltd
820 Bresnen and Marshall

and Sanders, 1998). Indeed, many commentators have continuity of work as a commercial incentive (e.g.
argued that partnering can have a substantial positive Green and McDermott, 1996).
impact on project performance, not only with regard There is also considerable uncertainty concerning the
to time, cost and quality objectives, but also with range of practices that partnering encompasses. Thus,
regard to more general outcomes such as greater inno- there are different views not only on the duration of
vation and improved user satisfaction (Construction partnering arrangements but also the precise role of
Industry Institute, CII, 1989, 1991; NEDO, 1991; contracts and incentives, and whether or not formal
CRINE, 1994; Latham, 1994; Bennett and Jayes, teambuilding needs to take place (Barlow et al., 1997;
1995, 1998; ACTIVE, 1996; Bennett et al., 1996). Bresnen and Marshall, 2000a). Many commentators
This paper sets out to add to this growing literature adopt a very pragmatic approach to partnering, empha-
and empirical database by reporting Ž ndings from a sizing the use of appropriate tools and techniques to
research project designed to explore partnering and ‘engineer’ collaboration (in both the short- and long-
related forms of collaboration in the UK construction terms). These include, inter alia, charters and dispute
industry and to investigate the economic, organiza- resolution mechanisms, appropriate formal contracts
tional and technical factors that encourage or inhibit and incentives, teambuilding workshops, continuous
collaboration between contractual partners. The paper improvement programmes and benchmarking (e.g.
follows on from an earlier review and critique of NEDO, 1991; Loraine, 1993; Bennett and Jayes, 1995;
the literature on partnering (Bresnen and Marshall, Evans and Bailey, 1996). However, others stress instead
2000a). It includes as its database a number of case the more informal and developmental aspects of
studies of medium-to-large-scale projects selected from partnering (see Bresnen and Marshall, 1999, 2000a for
a range of sectors within the industry and examines reviews). Either way, partnering is perhaps best con-
processes of collaboration on these projects from the ceptualized as making progress towards collaboration
perspectives of clients, contractors, designers and along a number of technical and organizational fronts
subcontractors. In contrast to much of the prescriptive (Holti and Standing, 1996, p. 5; Barlow et al., 1997;
and anecdotal work in this area, the analysis in this Thompson and Sanders, 1998).
paper sets out to explore any difŽ culties or limitations Despite the amount of interest shown in partnering,
in the use of collaborative approaches, as well as their actual empirical research is rather thin on the ground,
beneŽ ts (see also Bresnen and Marshall, 1998, 1999, and much of the work to date is notable for its prescrip-
2000b). In so doing, the aim is to contribute towards tive tendencies and heavy reliance on anecdotal data.
knowledge about collaborative working in construction Certainly there is much case study evidence and, more
that is more realistically grounded and, therefore, ulti- recently, some survey evidence of the performance
mately more practically relevant. beneŽ ts of partnering (e.g. Cowan et al., 1992; Weston
and Gibson, 1993; Knott, 1996; Larson, 1997).
However, there is also case evidence of the failure of
Partnering in construction partnering to meet performance expectations (e.g.
Rackham et al., 1996; Angelo, 1998). Moreover, there
Partnering is now a well established approach to is very little research that uses comparative case study
contracting in the USA, UK and Australia, and there or survey work to investigate systematically the condi-
exists a substantial literature that sets out to demon- tions under which partnering is more or less appro-
strate its main principles, practices and beneŽ ts (CII, priate, feasible and effective in practice. There is even
1989, 1991, 1994; NEDO, 1991; Loraine, 1993; less research which systematically has sought to analyse
Weston and Gibson, 1993; CRINE, 1994; Latham, partnering from different perspectives within the
1994; Thompson, 1994; Bennett and Jayes, 1995, construction project team. This has not, of course,
1998; Green, 1995; ACTIVE, 1996; Bennett et al., stopped attempts by companies to implement part-
1996; Hinks et al., 1996; Holti and Standing, 1996; nering or to learn from their experiences of partnering.
Rackham et al., 1996; Barlow et al., 1997). Generally Nor has it stopped a proliferation of reports and
speaking, partnering involves a commitment by orga- manuals that purport to provide practitioners with
nizations to cooperate to achieve common business guidelines for best practice (e.g. CII, 1991; NEDO,
objectives (CII, 1991, p. iv; NEDO, 1991, p. 5; 1991; Bennett and Jayes, 1995, 1998). However, it
Bennett and Jayes, 1995, p. 2). The terms partnering does mean that often the guidelines produced by
and alliancing are often used interchangeably, although such reports are based upon assumptions and ideas
alliancing is perhaps more often used to refer to part- that remain largely unstudied and untested in any
nering on single projects (e.g. Green, 1995). However, systematic way.
there is still debate about whether or not single- It has been argued elsewhere that frequently research
project partnering is feasible, given the importance of on client–contractor collaboration in construction is
Client–contractor collaboration in UK construction 821

often insufŽ ciently informed by the many social science which included: (a) identifying the types of collabora-
concepts and theories (relating to motivation, team- tive approach used by clients in practice (in terms of
building, organizational culture and the like) that are tendering, contractual and management arrange-
central to an understanding of cooperation and trust ments); (b) identifying and examining the factors
between organizations (Bresnen and Marshall, 1998, (economic, organizational and technological) pro-
1999, 2000a). First, often there is a lack of attention moting or inhibiting collaboration between contractual
paid to the different forms that partnering can take, partners; and (c) investigating effects on project
re ecting diverse circumstances and varying views performance (in terms of time, cost and quality, as well
about the appropriateness of different formal and as more subjective criteria such as client satisfaction).
informal mechanisms (cf. Barlow et al., 1997). Second, These objectives were used to inform and guide the
the effects of economic and institutional context upon research as a whole, although it should be noted that
forms, processes and outcomes of collaboration are the data and analysis are presented here in a much
rarely systematically examined (cf. Green, 1998, 1999) more thematically structured way, consistent with the
and seldom is the experience of partnering explored type of (qualitative) methodology used and its under-
from different perspectives (cf. Bresnen, 1990, 1991, lying exploratory logic (see below for details). A broad
1996). Third, often existing research fails to grapple framework for the presentation and analysis of the
adequately with the complex relationship between indi- research Ž ndings, which outlines the key issues focused
vidual or group behaviour and organizational culture upon and their inter-relationships, is presented in
(cf. Barlow and Cohen, 1996) which, nevertheless, lies Figure 1. This framework has a number of key implicit
at the heart of many prescriptions for improving collab- features which need highlighting, since they are impor-
oration within the industry (e.g. Bennett and Jayes, tant in guiding the later presentation, analysis and
1995, 1998). If ultimately the intention of research on discussion of the data (see also Bresnen and Marshall,
partnering is to contribute towards the development of 2000a for a more detailed discussion): (i) the impor-
appropriate and useful practical recommendations, tance attached to understanding the effects of context
then clearly it is important that such issues and poten- (economic, institutional) upon inter-Ž rm collaboration;
tial problem areas are addressed adequately (see (ii) the emphasis placed upon examining interrelation-
Bresnen and Marshall, 2000a for a more detailed ships between internal organizational attributes (struc-
discussion). tures, cultures, management practices) and external
forms and processes of collaboration; (iii) an acknowl-
edgement that collaboration is a phenomenon that
Research aims and objectives needs to be studied at different levels of analysis (indi-
vidual, group, organizational); and (iv) the picture is
The aim of this paper is to help bridge this gap between not a static one and developmental dynamics and
existing research and useful practical recommendations processes of feedback and learning are important too.
by exploring the above issues in some empirical
depth. What follows are the Ž ndings from a research
project designed to investigate the use of collaborative Research methodology
approaches, such as partnering and alliancing, across
a range of project circumstances in construction. The research was based upon case studies of medium-
The research had a number of speciŽ c objectives, to-large-scale construction projects undertaken by
experienced clients across a range of sectors within the
industry. A multiple case design was used to allow
comparative analysis and to help assess the transfer-
ability of collaborative practices. No attempt was made
to generate a representative sample, since the aim of
this exploratory type of research is to produce analyt-
ical, rather than statistical, generalizations (Yin, 1984).
Instead, case selection was based upon two criteria that
consistently have been shown to affect organizational
processes (Bresnen, 1990): variation in type of project
(see below); and variation in project size (deŽ ned
according to value). Availability was also an important
practical selection criterion, since the work involved
collaboration with eight industrial companies and the
Figure 1 Model of inter-Ž rm collaboration cases were selected mainly from the companies’ current
822 Bresnen and Marshall

portfolios of projects. Cases were selected also so that relationships’ to develop. In some cases (A and C),
their period of study began roughly at the same point dual or multiple sourcing was purposely retained in
in time (the transition from design to construction order to avoid this problem. In other cases, quasi-
stages) and so that some longitudinal ‘real time’ study market mechanisms (such as Ž nancial incentives,
was possible. continuous improvement and benchmarking) were the
Given the need for in-depth analysis and  exibility principal devices used.
in the Ž eld, qualitative research methods were used In all projects (including the more conventional
(Bryman, 1989). Semi-structured interviews were the ones), collaboration was seen as important, and consid-
main form of data collection, supplemented by direct erable emphasis was placed upon developing a team
observation and the study of relevant documentation. culture and fostering the ‘right attitudes’. However,
Overall, 158 interviews were conducted (on average, there were differences in the ways in which the compa-
about 18 per case). In order to capture a range nies set out to achieve this. It was generally agreed
of perspectives, these included a selection of team across the cases that there were signiŽ cant beneŽ ts to
members from different departments and levels within be gained from the long term, informal development
each main participating organization (client, designers, of trust (cf. Bresnen and Marshall, 1998). However,
main contractor), plus interviews with subcontractors’ most of the cases investigated here were either short
representatives where possible. Although the length term alliances (F and G), or had only started to evolve
and focus of interviews varied, they were all based upon into long term relationships (A, B, C and D).
a nine page ‘master’ interview schedule. The Ž eldwork Admittedly, some of this evolution was quite informal:
was conducted between March 1997 and May 1998. the partnering framework for project C, for example,
Details of the projects are given in Tables 1 and 2 (the was initially a semi-formal agreement consisting of an
latter summarizes some of the main features explored outline document, which was then further developed
in the later analysis and discussion). and reŽ ned. However, it was only on project E that
The projects ranged from £9 million to £400 million the partnering agreement had evolved out of a long
in value and included two oil and gas projects (one standing relationship (and in response to the high costs
offshore, one onshore), two process plants, two civil and legal disputes the client had experienced under
engineering and three building projects. In order of competitive tendering).
level of formal commitment (cf. Barlow et al., 1997, What was common across the projects, however, was
pp. 8–10), case A was a joint venture, cases B–E the view that senior management support was vital in
were partnerships, cases F and G were single project making a collaborative approach both credible and
alliances and cases H and I were more conventional legitimate. In all cases, partnering or alliancing had
projects (a construction management and ‘traditional’ been championed at the highest levels of the organi-
JCT contract, respectively). There was no simple and zation and the general perception was that goal align-
direct relationship between project type or size and ment and good relationships at these levels were crucial
method of procurement. Instead, the method selected (C, D and F). There was also a widespread perception
re ected the particular commercial aims of the project that the necessary culture change needed to extend
and, in some cases (A, C, F and G), broader procure- throughout the organization, being led from and
ment policies or strategies (such as the rationalization supported by senior management. However, whereas
of supply bases or a shift to outsourcing). collaboration did continue to receive strong senior
management support, often there were considerable
difŽ culties reported in diffusing the concept throughout
Developing collaborative relationships the organization and in translating agreement reached
at senior levels into practice (e.g. in case E). Ironically,
The reasons given for using more collaborative part- perhaps, it was the joint venture that was the best
nering and alliance arrangements included, not surpris- example of some of the difŽ culties of attempting to
ingly, the array of factors commonly identiŽ ed in establish an effective joint decision-making structure
the literature. In particular, stress was placed on the when the companies’ cultures were so signiŽ cantly
beneŽ ts of cost and schedule reduction, as well as different. However, there were problems too on other
improved buildability and greater responsiveness to cases and these are explored further below.
user requirements. There was also a clear recognition Another common theme was the perceived beneŽ t
of the beneŽ ts to contractors of collaboration, of being able to build upon long standing relationships
including the prospect of future work (B–E) and the and carry across core teams and workforces from
more indirect marketing advantages of a proven track project to project (e.g. A, D). Project F, for example,
record (B, C and E). At the same time, however, clients was a second-stage project that used a complete
were acutely aware of the danger of allowing ‘cosy roll-over of all companies involved in the Ž rst stage.
Table 1 The case studies
Project Description Value Sector Completion Contractural arrangement Tendering and incentives
A Gas-Ž red £150m Process 1999 Turnkey project (part of 7-year joint Negotiated Ž xed price contract
power station plant (middle phase) venture development scheme)
B AirŽ eld civil £20m Civil Feb 1999 NECC contract under 5-year, £30m Negotiated target cost with risk/reward
engineering work (Ž nal phase) framework agreement element
C Hotel building £27m Building Late 1998 Design/build (under long-term partnering Negotiated Ž xed price contract with target cost
agreement) risk/reward element
D Water treatment £9m Civil April 1998 ModiŽ ed IChemE Green Book contract Competitive tender (suite of projects); target
works under long-term partnering agreement cost with risk/reward element
E Industrial gases £80m Process Mid 1999 Conventional project (but 5-year alliance Various, including risk/reward element for
plant plant with mechanical services contractor) alliance partner
F Oil reŽ nery plant £25m Process Feb 1998 Project alliance (with standard ICE6 works Serial contracting; target cost with risk/reward
upgrade plant contract) element
G Gas production £400m Off-shore 1997 Project alliance (memorandum of Competitive tender; conventional and target
platform (topside understanding) cost with risk/reward contracts
H Corporate £200m Building Early 1998 Construction management Competitive tender; standard lump sum
headquarters package contracts
I OfŽ ce building £24m Building Oct 1999 Conventional JCT80 Competitive tender; Ž xed price contract
Table 2 Formal and informal aspects of collaboration

Project Selection Continuity Teambuilding Design–construct Breadth and depth Performance

processes of relationship processes integration of collaboration (projected)
A High level negotiation, 7 year joint venture; Formal workshops held Some overlap. Limited Appreciation of On time, and over cost
based on technical, some continuity of core throughout, involving early user input into collaboration strongest at (borne by contractor).
commercial and cultural personnel and various client and design; early contractor senior levels. Conven- Substantial claims from
criteria familiarity within team contractor staff (internal feedback on buildability tional approach to subcontractors against
facilitators used) subcontractors contractor
B Very detailed, formal 5 year term agreement; Formal workshop held Some overlap. Early Managers at all levels On time and on cost.
selection procedures; core team membership early on, involving user involvement in involved. Mix of Contractor identiŽ ed
strong emphasis on fairly constant various client and design; early contractor partnering and claims that would have
commitment to contractor staff (external input into design conventional been made on conven-
partnering and con- and internal facilitators approaches to tional contract
tinuous improvement used) subcontractors
C Detailed, formal Open-ended term Formal workshops held Some overlap. User Managers at all levels On time and on cost. £3m
selection procedures; agreement; some early on, involving only needs not fully addressed involved. Back-to-back claim from contractor
emphasis on commit- continuity of key senior client and till late and some partnering with selected avoided due to partnering
ment to partnering personnel contractor staff (no slowness in decision- suppliers arrangement
facilitators used) making; early contractor
input into design
D Detailed, formal 4–5 year term Formal workshops held Some overlap. Limited Appreciation of On time and under cost.
selection procedures; agreement, considerable early on, involving only early user input into collaboration strongest Several claims identiŽ ed
attitudes to partnering changes of project senior client, designer design; early contractor at senior levels. that would have been
assessed personnel and contractor staff input into design Conventional approach pursued on conventional
(external facilitators to subcontractors contract
E High level negotiation 5 year term agreement; Formal workshop held Some overlap. Limited Managers at all levels On time and on cost.
formalizing previous considerable changes of early on, involving only early user input into involved, but failure to Client noted reduction in
long standing project personnel senior client and design; limited early include design team. claims, though some made
relationship contractor staff contractor input Mix of alliancing and by subcontractors
(external and internal into design conventional approaches
facilitators used) to subcontractors
F Detailed, formal Core team membership Formal workshops held Some overlap. Early user Managers at all levels On time and under cost.
selection procedures, fairly constant early on, involving input into design, but involved, but failure to No claims made or
including some assess- various client, designer some late costly design include design team. obviously avoided
ment of attitudes and contractor staff changes; limited early Mix of alliancing and
(external facilitators contractor input into conventional approaches
used) design to subcontractors
Table 2 continued

Project Selection Continuity Teambuilding Design–construct Breadth and depth Performance

processes of relationship processes integration of collaboration (projected)

G Detailed, formal 3–4 year project Formal workshops held Some overlap. Limited Appreciation of Under time and under
selection procedures, relationship; some throughout, involving early user input into collaboration strongest cost. Contractors absorbed
including some assess- continuity of key various client, designer design; early contractor at senior levels. Mix of extra costs instead of
ment of attitudes personnel and contractor staff input into design alliancing and pressing claims
(external and internal conventional approaches
facilitators used) to subcontractors
H Detailed, formal Minimum 2–3 years Formal workshops held Some overlap. Limited Managers at all levels Under time and on cost.
selection procedures, project relationship; early on, involving user input and some involved, including £1m claim against client
including some assess- some continuity of key various client, designer slowness in decision- professional team. by frame contractor; and
ment of attitudes personnel and contractor staff making; early contractor Construction manage- counter-claim against
(external and internal input into design ment approach to structural engineer
facilitators used) subcontractors
I Detailed, formal 2–3 years project Formal workshops held No design–construct Some recognition of the On time and on cost. No
selection procedures, relationship; some early on, involving overlap. No early input need for collaboration claims made or obviously
including some assess- continuity of key various client, designer into design by either at all levels. avoided
ment of attitudes personnel and contractor staff users or contractors Conventional
(internal facilitators approach to
used) subcontractors
826 Bresnen and Marshall

This continuity led to considerable familiarity with the more potent in uences on behaviour. This was espe-
technical speciŽ cation and working environment, cially evident in cases (such as C) where maintaining
encouraged the direct transmission of lessons learned the relationship and winning further work were vital
from the Ž rst stage and helped reinforce the integrated from the contractor’s point of view.
teamworking that had begun to develop. However, this
case was the exception and it was apparent that lack
Contractor selection
of continuity of work or lack of staff availability
were both signiŽ cant constraints (e.g. B, D and E). Contractor selection varied according to the nature of
Efforts were being made to address the availability the relationship. The joint venture (A) was negotiated
issue (in F) and, in case A, the prestige of the project and the two more conventional projects (H and I) were
allowed managers to assign preferred individuals. It based on competitive tendering. In between, there was
was also felt that lack of availability could even have some use of competitive tender (especially on project
a positive effect in helping ‘freshen up’ the team G), although serial contracting (project F) and bidding
(B, F). However, it was apparent that lack of staff for term agreements with project by project negotia-
availability was a problem with potential long term tion (B, C, D, E) were also used.
implications for the development of partnering Intense selection procedures, including interviews
(returned to further below). and presentations, were used in most cases and, in
some (B, C and D), management attitudes often were
seen as important as technical and commercial criteria.
The emphasis, however, did vary, with considerably
Building collaboration: the use of tools
less emphasis being placed on judging attitudes in
and techniques
the closer, longer term relationships (projects A and
E). However, the difŽ culty of measuring attitudes
Frameworks, contracts and incentives
was also acknowledged. The most thorough use of
The joint venture and all of the partnerships and structured selection methods was in case B, where a
alliances were underpinned by relatively standard multi-stage selection process included detailed ques-
forms of contract. However, all of the projects let tionnaires, presentations, interviews and site visits;
under partnering/alliancing arrangements (plus project shortlisted contractors were also asked to sample price
I) included some form of incentive system, commonly four projects (the cost element in selection comprised
based upon an agreed target cost with risk/reward only 40% and, crucially, they were advised not to try
element. The precise details of these arrangements to ‘buy’ the contract). The time and resources spent
differed from case to case in a number of important in selecting a partner could be quite considerable (in
respects (see Bresnen and Marshall, 2000b). However, case B, the entire process took over a year). However,
joint target cost setting was common practice and selecting the right partner was considered critically
generally was regarded as a useful means of accurate important and, given the number of projects carried
project costing because of the contractor’s direct out under any one framework agreement, the savings
input. It also assisted cost or value engineering (e.g. in future tendering outlay could be considerable (B,
C) and helped gain the contractor’s commitment to E, and F).
project objectives (provided that the target was seen
as achievable and the formula equitable). Although
Teambuilding, charters and facilitation
establishing a target cost might be difŽ cult in the
early stages when the project scope was relatively Teambuilding was used in all of the case studies and
undeŽ ned (e.g. C, E and F), it was still regarded tended to be quite formal and intense, with all of
as possible, provided there was a ‘give and take atti- the cases using teambuilding workshops and most
tude’ (C). of them relying upon external facilitators (except A,
On the other hand, although there were some reports C and I). In most cases (except A and I) the process
of positive motivational effects (B, C, D and F), in included the agreement of charters or mission state-
many cases they were much less clear-cut and direct ments. Teambuilding was concentrated in the early
(A, D and E), suggesting that there are limitations to stages, after which on-going interaction (plus more
the use of contract incentives as a motivational tool informal activities, such as awaydays or social events)
(see Bresnen and Marshall, 2000b for a fuller discus- became the main ways of sustaining integration or
sion). It was particularly noticeable that often site staff preventing ‘stagnation’ (B, C, H). Views on formal
found that these incentives did not provide meaningful teambuilding ranged, however, from enthusiasm
personal sources of motivation and reward. Moreover, to scepticism. On the positive side, there was con-
it was clear that often broader organizational goals were siderable evidence that teambuilding had helped
Client–contractor collaboration in UK construction 827

groups through formative early stages, promoting approach was used and there was a strong expressed
group identity and cohesion (D), encouraging feelings commitment to the sharing of information. Indeed,
of ownership in the project (B) and helping avoid the very positive views were expressed overall about the
‘steep learning curve’ where early team availability had quality and openness of relationships and communi-
not been possible (B). cations between clients, contractors and designers. On
However, teambuilding did have its limitations and the partnering/alliancing projects in particular, dealings
problems, and many respondents across the cases were were considered much less formalized than many of
quite sceptical or critical about the process. The most the participants had encountered before and there was
important reason given was that it was no substitute a strong emphasis on direct, personal contact (e.g. C,
for the actual experience of ‘teamwork’ (A, B, D and D). Nevertheless, respondents across the cases did
E). Another source of criticism was that it rarely report that there was still a good deal of formal corre-
involved those at lower hierarchical levels (only in cases spondence and paperwork (especially in the joint
B and G was participation more inclusive). Moreover, venture case).
team members in key positions in other organizations There were also a number of examples given of the
were included rarely (designers and key subcontractors problems of trying to introduce new ways of working.
were really fully involved in only the two alliances It was noted, for example, that site organization and
and, ironically perhaps, the two more conventional management could still be quite traditional, with site
projects). Finally, teambuilding also sometimes failed staff and subcontractors seeing little practical change
to diffuse organizational or professional differences (C, D). Indeed, there were very mixed views on
or to bring around those not considered to have the whether any details of the partnering agreement ought
‘right attitudes’ (A, B, D and F). In such instances, to reach right down to the workface (fears were
it was used instead more as a ‘Ž lter mechanism’ to expressed that it would lead to claims for extra bonuses
deselect staff. Consequently, although teambuilding or beneŽ ts). The difŽ culty of instilling or sustaining
might be valuable in helping promote collaboration, changes was noted also: a very traditional command
it was by no means sufŽ cient, nor a panacea for and control structure was used initially on one case
overcoming team-related problems. (B); and occasional regressions to traditional manage-
ment styles occurred in others (A, E). Moreover, also
there were a number of unintended consequences of
Organizing and managing the some of the more positive aspects of partnering: for
project team example, tensions could emerge between the project
team’s relative autonomy and the parent organization’s
The common conŽ guration of partnering/alliance desire for control, leading to a con ict between
projects was a ‘tiered’ team structure, which allowed project team identity and wider organizational culture
the separation of strategic and operational matters and (e.g. D).
which encouraged the resolution of any con icts and Finally, often information technology is seen as
disputes at the lowest possible levels. Decentralization important in supporting open communications and
was thus an important element, the aim being to information sharing. However, the use of more sophis-
promote self-governing, self-policing teams (C, D, F). ticated technology in these cases was surprisingly
Where joint project ofŽ ces were used to co-locate limited, with 3D CAD being used only on the process
teams (B, E, F and H), the effects were regarded plants (2D CAD was used elsewhere) and electronic
universally as beneŽ cial, due to direct effects on communications being limited mainly to e-mail.
communications and indirect effects in reinforcing Outside the process plant sector, the need for 3D CAD
collaborative behaviour (in case A, a physical distance was seen as minimal, because of the lower levels
between the teams reinforced cultural differences and of complexity which made design clashes easier to
created communication problems, despite the osten- identify. This suggests that more sophisticated infor-
sibly closer joint venture relationship). mation technology may be appropriate only in certain
Fully integrated teams were rare across the cases. circumstances. Moreover, it was apparent that commu-
However, considerable steps had been taken towards nication still relied heavily upon non-electronic means,
eliminating role duplication and levels of specialization especially hard copy drawings and personal contact.
were reduced correspondingly, with an emphasis Indeed, particularly for the partnerships/alliances,
placed upon  exibility in roles at site level (e.g. D). emphasis was placed by all the respondents upon the
Having said that, some reservations were expressed importance of personal forms of communication. A
about the lack of clear demarcations of roles, respon- good example of the limitations of new technology was
sibilities and authority, especially in the early project on project F, where there was an oversight in failing
stages (A, D). In most of the cases, an open book to include sufŽ cient detail on the existing pipework
828 Bresnen and Marshall

layout. This led to a number of design clashes which Managing user and other stakeholder
were recognized only on site and which forced a return relationships
to manual systems and a reliance on the ‘skilled eye’
Although some examples were given of good internal
of the engineer. Other, unintended consequences were
relationships with users and other internal groups,
noted too in the use of new technology to enhance
these were far outweighed by the number of problems
communication. In project C, for example, the archi-
reported that were due to horizontal or vertical differ-
tects noted how the ease of modifying the design elec-
entiation within the client organization (cf. Bresnen
tronically could encourage clients to make design
and Marshall, 1998, 2000a). These problems were in
changes at stages that were far too late for incorpora-
part due to persistent internal structural divisions or
tion into construction plans.
rigidities (e.g. F) or broad cultural constraints, such as
the tortuous internal consultation processes within a
Managing internal and external large, complex client (e.g. H). However, many of the
organizational interfaces problems were due to clear differences in objectives
between project teams and other internal departments
Although generally the level of direct client involve- upon whom the project team depended for resources
ment in project management across the cases was high, (e.g. A, B). In two cases (B and H) there was even a
there were more mixed Ž ndings regarding the incor- need for in uential managers to take action to avoid
poration of users’ needs into the design. There were the project team’s interests being ignored and the
examples given of successful attempts to include end- team being effectively marginalized. Similarly, albeit
users and facilities managers in the early stages of the less dramatically, although dedicated project teams
design (A and H). However, in many cases this proved generally were seen as desirable, matrix organizations
difŽ cult to achieve (in D, for example, the speed of were much more common (B, D, E, F, G and I).
the project and the operations group’s lack of famil- However, these types of structure did pose some prob-
iarity with partnering were major inhibiting factors). lems for project teams, where functional department
What was also noticeable across the cases was the goals and perspectives predominated and, especially,
continued difŽ culty in trying to avoid late design where a range of design groups were involved (B, D
changes (especially where speed was a key objective). and E).
In some of the partnerships and alliances (e.g. D and
F), a ‘no changes’ culture was explicitly promoted. Managing relationships with subcontractors
However, on other projects (e.g. C), there was still
some slowness in client decision-making and some Although supply chain management was not a main
clients (e.g. H) still insisted on their right to make deci- focus of the research (see e.g. CPN, 1997), neverthe-
sions late if necessary. less some attempt was made to examine collaboration
In most cases the contractor’s input into the design with subcontractors as well. Across the cases, respon-
was high. However, in two of the collaborative projects dents felt that it was important to try to spread collab-
it was limited due to staff not being available (F) and oration further down the supply chain. However, the
due to the reluctance of the client’s engineers to accept evidence of this actually happening was very limited
any contractor input (E). In contrast, even on one of and piecemeal. Sometimes strategic or high value
the more conventional projects (H), trade contractors subcontractors were included in partnering or alliance
were encouraged to help develop the speciŽ cation. agreements (e.g. B, E, F). Moreover, a number of
As expected, where contractors were involved early, it efforts had been made, by both clients (e.g. H) and
was seen as particularly important in promoting value contractors (e.g. C), to develop more co-operative rela-
engineering and risk management, and a number of tionships with particular companies. However, concern
examples were given where signiŽ cant savings were was still expressed about subcontractors’ tendencies to
made (A, B, C, D and F). However, there were also revert to adversarial attitudes and behaviour (F, H).
some reports of no gains being made. Moreover, From the point of view of subcontractors, although
although virtually all of the cases made use of ‘front- some were enthusiastic, others expressed strong misgiv-
end’ initiatives, such as risk management and value ings about contractors’ underlying intentions and
engineering, the processes varied widely according to concern about the effects of pressure for continuous
their intensity and formality. In one case (C), the improvement on their margins (e.g. C). A Ž nal point
formal risk management system being used was even worth noting is that subcontractors not actually
abandoned, because it was felt to be too time- included in agreements perceived client–contractor
consuming (although risks continued to be monitored collaboration as having very little, if any, effect on their
and assessed informally). own work (e.g. A, C).
Client–contractor collaboration in UK construction 829

Performance outcomes and learning from Concluding discussion

The above Ž ndings offer some general support for
There was generally a very high level of satisfaction the contention that there are many potential positive
expressed by clients, contractors and designers with beneŽ ts for clients developing more collaborative
the quality of relations found on more collabora- approaches, not only with regard to key project
tive projects, particularly with regard to information processes (especially design-construct integration) but
 ows, communications and decision-making (although also with regard to ‘hard’ performance outcomes
this was true of the more conventional projects (notably time and cost, but also quality). The research
too). Moreover, although there were still problems does suggest that conventional projects can yield such
experienced in integrating design and construction, beneŽ ts too and that a partnership or alliance does not
there was considerable satisfaction expressed at the guarantee them (cf. Green and McDermott, 1996).
way in which any problems were approached and Moreover, the performance gains may be due to
resolved. more indirect factors, such as more accurate costing
With regard to performance outcomes, all of the or the willingness of contractors to absorb extra costs.
projects had come in or were expected to come in Furthermore, it was also noticeable from the research
within price and schedule. Client satisfaction at these that collaborative approaches did not necessarily
outcomes and also other key project performance remove con icts at source and that there was still the
indicators (notably quality, but also safety and lack persistence of major problems in integrating design and
of disruption) was also generally high. These projects construction. Indeed, some of these problems might
were by no means trouble free and virtually all of them even have been exacerbated due to the greater pres-
did encounter some quite signiŽ cant performance sure for improved time and cost performance that are
problems. However, what was telling was that these two of the main espoused aims of collaboration.
problems were solved without recourse to claims and However, there is also clear evidence from the research
litigation, as would have occurred (and, in fact, did of the avoidance of potential claims and disputes (due,
occur in case H) under more conventional arrange- for example, to unrealistically low tenders) and of the
ments. Having said that, there was also evidence, in added beneŽ ts of early and repeat contractor involve-
some of the cases, of problems effectively being solved ment (namely, reduced tendering costs and greater
by extra costs being absorbed by the contractor, in the contractor front-end input into costing, design and
interests of maintaining good relationships with the value/risk management).
client and increasing chances of gaining future work Having said that, the picture is complicated some-
(this occurred on projects C, D and G). what when one considers a number of subtle but
Across the cases there was considerable emphasis important in uences on processes of collaboration.
placed on continuous improvement and benchmarking, First, fully  edged collaborative approaches do not
as ways of promoting long term performance improve- always appear to be necessary, desirable or feasible.
ment (e.g. B, C, H). In some cases, continuous There did appear to be a number of signiŽ cant tangible
improvement programmes had been developed fully beneŽ ts to be gained from the development of long
and were linked in systematically with other initiatives, term relationships between clients, contractors and
especially benchmarking (A, B, C). In other cases designers. However, a number of practical constraints
(D, E, F, G), there was less coherence between may need to be overcome, including difŽ culties in
initiatives and, in the two more conventional projects, providing continuity of work (important for contractor
any initiatives were informal. The use of internal commitment) and overcoming misgivings about long
and/or external benchmarking was common to all term relationships being too ‘cosy’ and uncompetitive.
cases (except I), although some difŽ culties in applying Clients might be able to deal with the continuity
it were noted, due to lack of comparable projects problem by ‘smoothing’ peaks and troughs in work-
or frequent changes in preferred methods (E). load; and any scepticism might be overcome by using
However, other more signiŽ cant potential problems quasi-market mechanisms to ensure that performance
were noted: in particular, a concern that constant pres- remains competitive (including benchmarking and
sures to improve performance might cause rifts continuous improvement). Also it may still be possible
between the parties. It was therefore seen as vital that to ‘engineer’ collaboration in the short term, using
expectations of performance gains were clear, realistic formal mechanisms such as incentives and team-
and equitable (B, C) and that, although it was impor- building. However, these strategies are most likely to
tant to make continuous improvement a ‘way of life’, be successful where clients already have appropriate
clients had to accept the possibility of diminishing experience and capabilities, and there are always likely
returns. to be some clients and/or projects (smaller, one-off,
830 Bresnen and Marshall

less complex, of less strategic importance) for whom Ž ndings are consistent with the view that there needs
the direct and indirect set-up costs simply do not justify to be continued senior management support for collab-
a collaborative approach. oration, they suggest also a need for attention to be
Second, the research suggests that there are limita- paid to the more effective diffusion of appropriate
tions in the efŽ cacy of many of the formal mechanisms norms and values throughout the wider project orga-
commonly used to develop partnering. Limitations in nization. Moreover, although there is a potentially
the use of Ž nancial incentives as a tool for generating important symbiotic relationship between internal and
motivation and commitment have been mentioned external processes of collaboration (cf. Bresnen, 1990),
brie y above and are discussed in more detail else- clearly problems can be caused if project team cultures
where (see Bresnen and Marshall, 2000b). With regard clash with wider organizational values and norms.
to contractor selection, the research suggested that Finally, this emphasis on the informal does highlight
well developed systems, where attitudes are assessed some important problems and limitations in the long
and selection criteria extend beyond a narrow concern term development and diffusion of collaborative
with price, can produce signiŽ cant tangible returns. approaches. It was clear from the research that people
However, this requires an investment of time and and relationships were considered to be the heart of
resources and the difŽ culties of accurately judging collaboration, but that lack of continuity of relation-
likely future behaviour in the context of a selection ships (at company, team and individual levels)
process should not be underestimated. Teambuilding frequently undermined attempts to secure the full
consistently emerges as a desirable and often necessary beneŽ ts of collaboration and to transfer experience
way of helping align teams behind project goals and across projects. In the short term, therefore, lack of
objectives (even with long term partnering, since staff availability poses a problem. However, in the
collaboration depends so much on individual behav- long term, the problems are potentially much greater,
iour). However, one obvious limitation is the danger since this reliance upon individuals and their tacit
of not setting aside enough time or resources for effec- knowledge (Nonaka, 1994) leaves the organization at
tive teambuilding, because of the need to ‘get on with a disadvantage if those individuals should leave or
the real work’. It is also important to realize that formal be unavailable. Furthermore, it tends to emphasize
teambuilding by no means guarantees collaboration, secondment and recruitment practices, rather than
and that teams can suffer from the dysfunctional training and development, as the main means of
effects of over-cohesion (e.g. Arnold et al., 1998, pp. diffusing knowledge about innovative ways of working.
304–310). Although direct personal contact and related social-
Third, these limitations of formal systems stress the ization processes may be the most direct and intense
importance of emphasizing the informal in under- ways of transferring knowledge, they are highly inefŽ -
standing processes of collaboration. Here also the cient, since knowledge is retained by the individual and
research highlighted a number of limitations in both diffusion can be piecemeal and haphazard (Nonaka
the breadth and depth of penetration of new ways of and Takeuchi, 1995). Consequently, relying on having
working across the wider project team (cf. Schein, the appropriate staff with the right skills restricts the
1985). It was particularly noticeable how relationships codiŽ cation of knowledge and, through this, potentially
at site level sometimes were relatively unchanged and inhibits organizational learning processes.
how relationships with internal client groups often were
still a cause for concern. A similar point can be made
with regard to subcontractors and the obvious lack of Acknowledgement
diffusion of collaborative norms down the supply chain
(despite clear evidence that it was feasible and that The research on which this paper is based was
some clients and contractors had taken positive initia- supported by EPSRC Grant reference GR/L01206.
tives). Certainly, new methods of working within the The authors would like to thank Professor Geoffrey
project team did appear to make problems easier to Trimble and the participating companies for their
resolve, and there were consistent beneŽ ts shown in important contribution to this work.
the use of shared ofŽ ces and the encouragement of
more open and informal ways of working (although
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