Demanding Construction Sector Drives Project Management Innovation

Dale Potts
Demand for project management expertise within the construction sector is growing fast, with ever more complex developments presenting numerous new challenges to the industry.

Demand for project management expertise within the construction sector is growing fast, with ever more complex developments presenting numerous new challenges to the industry. The resultant drive further to enhance services and processes is fuelling innovation in areas that may well have implications for other project management markets.

An increase in major developments requiring high levels of management expertise is to be found across the education, regeneration and airports sectors in particular. The Building Schools for the Future programme has some £3 billion allocated for 2005 - 2006, whilst interest in re-vitalising our cities is creating huge regeneration schemes involving residential, mixed-use and infrastructure elements. Whilst the ramifications of the 9/11disaster were felt by airports around the world, investment here, too, is fast recovering.

The relative complexity of such schemes has important implications for project management consultants' recruitment policies, for the way clients and consultants interact, as well as for information technology and collaboration tools. It also points to the need to find ever better aids to decision making that can cut through complexity to achieve clarity, reveal priorities, and identify best investment options.

In theory a good project manager should be able to manage any type of project – inside or outside the construction industry. Once the time has been taken to understand what a client does and what he wants to achieve, it is possible to implement a process that will deliver against those objectives.

However, certainly in construction markets simply being a good project manager is no longer sufficient to win business. Clients increasingly buy people rather than companies and the people they want working on their developments will be those with specific expertise in their sector. This clearly assists in reducing learning curves and helps ensure that each new development can benefit from the lessons learnt from those previously undertaken and be benchmarked against sector best practice.

Reflecting this, establishment of specialist units within project management consultancies is becoming more common, with teams dedicated to education, health, aviation, rail and so on.

In terms of recruitment policies, this scenario is leading companies like Faithful+Gould to seek skilled individuals with a broad range of private and public sector, commercial and industrial backgrounds and also encouraging those with transferable skills to consider careers in project management. Among those who have ‘made the leap’ are quantity surveyors, building surveyors, architects and engineers, to name a few.

At the same time as attracting executives from other areas of industry, forward thinking companies are placing greater emphasis on providing life-time learning, recognising that continuous development is vital to providing leading edge services in a fast moving environment. At Faithful+Gould, for example, every team member, whether an undergraduate recruit or a senior manager, has a personal development programme, with appropriately allocated time and financial resource to allow delivery of the relevant training.

The ways in which project managers and clients work together is changing, too. The desire to achieve close-knit units has resulted in a trend towards greater levels of consultant secondment. With executives ‘moving in’ to client companies for the duration of a development and working either in a traditional project management role, or supporting in-house managers in an employer’s agent function.

For such arrangements to achieve optimum benefit it remains necessary to maintain a balance so that the client at once has the advantage of an on-site team but also remains 'plugged in' to the wider resource of the consultancy to ensure effective knowledge transfer and ready access to additional skills which may be called for as work, progresses.

A further significant trend is recognition of the value of involving professional project management at the earliest possible point in a development. This emphasis on pre-planning as a means of optimising cost-efficiency and delivery timescales, increasingly means the project manager is brought on board almost from the point at which an initial idea is conceived. This allows for high levels of integration and pays real dividends in ensuring that every element with the potential to impact on a development programme is considered. The implication is a broader base of activities coming within the project manager’s remit – from those aspects traditionally associated with the process to others, such as integrating the work undertaken by legal teams into project programmes, which might previously have been regarded as separate functions.

As the focus on integration grows so too does the reliance on computer software packages to provide an effective interface between the different parties. With construction schemes frequently involving 20, 30 or more different organisations the need to find further improved ways for them to communicate, store and work on concepts, plans and scheduling documents is paramount.

The emergence of sophisticated collaboration tools now makes it possible for users with different hardware and software configurations to ‘talk to each other’ with relative ease, irrespective of whether they have the software used to create the documents in question loaded on their own machines. The only ‘entry requirement’ is a Web browser.

In simple terms, these systems create a central data resource which can readily be accessed by all relevant parties. As well as allowing multiple users to review and modify documents, it makes it simple to track changes and notify interested parties as and when adjustments are made.

In the pre-construction and construction phases, such systems are invaluable. They enable commissioning organisations to work with their consultants in developing specification documents and facilitate easy access to key data for bidders. They also allow bid teams (which now typically involve a number of companies working together) to prepare their submissions in a highly efficient manner, without the need constantly to email different drafts back and forth between parties – with all the attendant tracking issues.

During a build or refurbishment programme they subsequently make it simple to distribute drawings and design modifications, track progress and record changes.

Such systems have become progressively more sophisticated over the last decade and have certainly been in common use over the last five years for major construction projects. They are now also being used well beyond the construction phase and into day-to-day building operation.

The potential for using such systems to help manage large individual buildings or complete property portfolios is clear.

Whilst these tools focus on providing a route through project complexities, others centre on simplifying highly complex scenarios to provide a better view of progress or aid the decision making process.

Work is now underway on modelling systems which translate progress data into a visual representation of how a building should actually look at different stages in the construction schedule.

Faithful+Gould is also developing programmes that can help clients make critical investment decisions and set priorities utilising simple to use tools. Such tools allow clients to 'answer' key questions about investment options by completing around 20 questions in a process that takes about 15 minutes. They are made possible precisely because they draw upon vast amounts of knowledge and data built into the systems.

One such programme is focused on schools. Designed as an investment tool for the DfES, it draws on a body of knowledge of how buildings constructed at different periods, such as Victorian, pre-war, inter-war, post-war (system built) and 1980s, perform over time. This data is complemented by adjustments for type of school – primary or secondary – and a range of other factors, such as location and topography, as well as expected maintenance levels and known asset failure modes.

These are inputted to the model to allow a decision making tool that can assist in confirming building investment options and, perhaps most importantly, will clearly identify borderline projects and so highlight the need for further investigations in such circumstances.

Among the drivers for all construction related developments in the 21st Century must be sustainability and no review of the industry would be complete without passing comment on this. Until quite recently many paid lip service to sustainability but relatively few made it truly integral to their developments. The situation is now changing rapidly. This is driven partly by specifiers – particularly in the public sector – and partly by the realisation that adopting a more sustainable approach does not always mean greater expenditure. The rise of PFI projects (currently worth around £50 billion a year) has encouraged a longer term view and brought the importance of whole life costing to the fore. More and more developments in both the private and public sectors require calculations and assessments to consider not only build costs but maintenance, running, and refurbishment expenditure throughout the design life. Whilst, at one time the task of the project manager might have been considered complete when a structure was handed over, it is now much more frequently a 'cradle to grave' role.

With the industry developing at this pace, and with a longer term view being taken on everything from the smallest individual building to massive regeneration developments the future for project management looks buoyant.

Increasing specialism will undoubtedly be fundamental to success, so too will be the ability to think outside the box. The last five years have seen huge strides forward in approaches, processes and technology. The next five will see greater levels of innovation still – fuelled by the combination of project management expertise, in-depth sector knowledge and technological advances.

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