Collaboration or just Team-Work

  • Building Design Expert
  • 6 years ago

If you check the dictionary definition of collaboration, it simply offers “the action of one party working with another to produce something”. Simple enough definition, on which basis we have been collaborating in the construction industry since time began, as very very few construction projects have been designed, processed and built by an individual. Even if you have two joiners; the sheer act of each cutting a piece of timber that will ultimately be fixed together is indeed a collaboration.

I was recently invited to be a judge on a panel assessing, amongst other categories, “Collaborative Working”. So how does one assess collaborative working without actually being there? to witness the “How, When and Why”? So there must be something more to the contemporary version of working together!!?

If you listen to all the rhetoric on BIM, you might be forgiven for surmising that the filling in that particular cake is a collaborative jam. But just where is the silent ‘C’ in Building Information Modelling?

In assessing the competition entries I felt it essential to isolate a definition that I could work with and apply as a gauge. So I came up with the concept that ‘collaboration’, at least in the sense that we were judging, provided ‘added value’, that the collaborative whole was greater than the sum of it’s parts.

To an extent this was still wading in grey water. After all one could argue that a brickie working with a joiner could produce a building, or an Architect or Technologist working with a structural engineer can design a building; and each may be argued that the end result is greater than the sum of the parts. So I was looking for something more than the accepted and traditional norm. That something had to be special. It had to be unique to make a combination of parts that meld to make a greater whole. It needed to be the Eric and Ernie, or the Torvill and Dean of construction. An odd analogy perhaps, as it is almost trying to compare ‘arts’ with ‘science’, but down at base level the principles are very comparable.

As a race we humans are often accused, and indeed found guilty of working in ‘silos’. It’s an odd expression, but not new. Our silos are of course metaphoric, or perhaps virtual; but the resulting MO is very real. The question is does it work, and is it the best considered solution, or is it what almost has become a magnetic default to current thinking on workplace production?

What’s in a silo?
In these silos are one or more individuals engaged upon a task or project. More than one person implies the presence of a team. So if we can build a team in a silo we have collaborative working – right? No, chances are we simply have team work. After all those workers could be on shifts doing the same task, or at best completing their organisations contribution to a larger whole.

What does your mind conjure when thinking ‘Silo’? Something walled, tall and deep, with it’s contents supplied from the top on a gravitational route to a controlled bottom exit, but only when the operator says so. Remind you of anything?

While you answer that question, think Call Centre, or Construction Site – a team of individuals working together to resolve multiple problems. One has an end in sight, the other is potentially on an endless loop. But both, arguably, are only part of a greater whole. The management and trades on the construction site, and the myriad departmental hierarchy that contrive to be a call centre. Each are multi-compartment silos – No? But do not reflect true collaborative working beyond what is ‘Silo-ed team work’. True collaborative working?

The Call Centre is only one of many such silos, and is only part of the organisation that earns it’s money providing a linked product or service. The Construction Site is only part of the process of providing something new within our built environment. So whilst it may be the ultimate ‘joiner / bricky’ scenario; it represents only one cog (or maybe several) in the gear box. The client still has the gear shift. There is the design team, and what has become known as the ‘Supply Chain’, contractor and sub-contractors.

Importantly, what has been introduced to help our collaborative lives is an arc in the traditional linear work flow. Get it right and that arc turns into a circle, with the circle encompassing the the entire whole. There, done it. Collaborative working involves the linking of silos (we will always have silos) in such a way that ensures that there are operational and communications links between all players. A traceable thread that is spun out to form that circle and describe a work-flow Not from inception to completion, but from inception to re-inception. Where the client, building owner and users are involved from that very start, and have a tangible link to design and operational choices made, and a knowledgeable link to construction form, materials and procurement methods and choices made at every stage.

This is going to seem a Big Ask in smaller organisations where operational roles are less clear cut, and the chief, cook and bottle washer syndrome is prevalent. Collaboration at micro-enterprise level, in particular, will present a jaw dropping cliff face to the construction team – contractor, supply chain et al; and it will remain a long drive around that mountain, with the order for ropes and pitons on hold.