Digital contracts: changing conduct

My talk at the 2017 CoMIT Conference drew parallels between banking and construction because banking was based on trust (hence the term ‘rich as Croesus’ as he mastered the art of trustworthy coins as tools to stimulate commerce in Lydia). The former chair of JCT said we cannot move to simpler contracts because there is not enough trust in construction… so which comes first: collaborative conduct or collaborative contracts?

65% of the audience said that the biggest barrier to digital contracts was people (21%  technology and 14% language). We acknowledged that every member of the supply network should get a fair reward for the value they create and only be asked to accept a fair share of the risk of the project. Collaboration was a theme across many of the speakers and rather than focus on my narrow interest of collaboration in contracts, I want to draw out the themes from the rest of the speakers.

Dr Ravi Margasahaya from NASA said that humans do two things well: transporting ourselves and communicating. To survive we’ve had to learn to be innovative. He said that innovation requires both creativity and a willingness to take risks. This is a behavioural change we need in construction – a willingness to take risks to reap the rewards of innovation.

Space exploration and construction is so complex that collaboration across specialisms and across industries is critical. Tolerances may be as small as a hair-breadth and when delivering products to space, there are no second chances. For construction to have the same success as space construction, we need to

  • Go beyond ‘on time and on budget’
  • Learn from experience and change the culture of blame
  • Create high performance organisations which innovate
  • Collaborate beyond boundaries with other industries
  • Take calculated risks – no risks, no rewards

He said the biggest barrier to innovation in earth construction is mindset and culture i.e. our conduct. We need a culture of excellence where people are empowered to think and work as a team [an integrated project team].

Jennifer Macdonald, from Mott MacDonald looked at how Project 13 can help construction move to a collaborative integrated enterprise team which rewards output and deliverables (not inputs).  She echoed Ravi when she said that owner risks are not transferred to the supply network – who would offer to work for NASA if the costs of an aborted mission were passed directly to them? Project 13 has created a huge amount of learning on the issues for genuine collaborative integrated working and their report is due in July 2018.

Felicity Heathcote-Márcz, a cyborg ethnographer from Atkins is deeply involved in understanding how and why people work the way they do. This understanding will be critical to avoid the silo-mentality and to move towards an industry that puts not just users/occupiers of our products, but also the teams that design, construct and maintain them, at the centre of change. As cultural change was a theme of the conference (ie a move from adversarial to collaborative) we may need to study why we have this deeply-ingrained and intransigent culture before we can decide on an approach which will help it shift. Because ethnography helps with behavioural, technology, transition, future-proofing and economic challenges it might even help construction to change its behaviours to future-proof the industry and create a sustainable model of value exchange!

Terry Stocks, from the Department of Business Innovation and Skills said he used PPC2000, a collaborative contract, to improve efficiencies.

Stephen Kennedy from Stantec said the visualisation leads to collaboration and innovation (an interesting link to contracts, where Stefania Passera has said that visualisation leads to better understanding, which would drive more collaborative contracts). He also said digital tools allow people to rehearse and therefore creates a less reactive atmosphere. Proactive behaviours are key to less adversarial projects and to higher profit margins.

Max Mallia-Parfitt of Fulcro said we are the only industry which constantly kicks the little guy (ie the tier 2 subcontractors and their suppliers) and tries to make money out of each other. We cannot digitise construction unless we start working collaboratively (back to the chicken and egg conundrum?)

At the CoMIT panel discussion, an audience member asked which of the technologies mentioned offered the most potential benefit to humankind. Max said “any technology that breaks down the walls that stop people from working together will solve this. Construction is too litigious, too adversarial – we need to work together to benefit clients and users.”

What should we do?

Contracts can both promote, encourage, require and reward collaborative behaviours, and they can also undermine attempts to work as a team. We need contracts that support the new behaviours that are essential for innovation in construction. And we can’t wait for technology, language or conduct to change before we write collaborative contracts. We need to create collaborative contracts now.

Thank you to all the speakers who provided ideas for this series of posts, as well as Su Butcher and Paul Wilkinson for live blogging the conference to jog my memory.

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