Conflict Management Design: Effects of partnering in building projects

af Gösta Thommesen

This study is based on a curiosity raised during the two-year mediation and conflict resolution study: What would be the most important elements of the prevention of a conflict escalation?

Preventive action might be making third party contribution obsolete, and in addition relieving the parties of the burden of handling the conflict. More specificly: What kind of measures or organizational changes in a workplace environment or a business project could reduce the need for resources involved in conflict management?

The task of this study has been to look into a specific type of project organization – the construction project. In the construction business, during the last two decades a new co-operation form has emerged under the name of partnering. In several countries around the world, the partnering concept has received considerable attention and apparently has had a considerable success. The partnering construction model has been reported to reduce the conflict level between the parties in the project substantially. The aim of this thesis then, has been to try to verify this initial impression, as well as looking into the probable causes and mechanisms behind such results.

Initial research revealed that no universally accepted definitions of ‘partnering’ exist. Some attention has therefore been given to the substance of the expression, as well as the major differences to traditional construction projects.

The question whether all kinds of construction projects are suitable partnering projects or not, has been asked. The author also has looked into the paradox of interests: In traditional construction projects, the parties have different and mostly incompatible interest in the sense that both parties strive to increase their margins, which in the traditional way of thinking cannot happen simultaneously – there is a competition and one party’s gain is the other party’s loss. In the partnering project, this is supposed to have been given an new angle – but how? Some conclusions are drawn:
• Compared to the traditional construction model, the partnering concept is based on a substantially different financial model, with shared risk, open calculations and a target-pricing model as the most important elements.
• Combined with this is a new approach to the day-to-day co-operation between the parties – team-based and comprehensive, based on mutual trust. This is not a simple process to establish; it is requiring special leadership skills.
• These two basic elements in combination have the effect that the interests of the parties mostly will be shared, common interests, thereby enhancing co-operation.
• The level of conflict clearly seems to be lower in partnering projects, mostly due to these two elements. Conflict management routines designed for the partnering projects are therefore actually not being used in most cases.
• It seems that finishing within budget and time frames is a prevalent result in partnering projects as opposed to traditional projects.
• The parties themselves are mostly satisfied with the process, when asked after its conclusion.
• It seems that the small or technically simple projects do not benefit much from the partnering model. As to the very large or technically advanced projects, opinions and experience vary.
• Reviewers have raised substantial methodological questions connected with some of the existing research on partnering projects. In any case, a lot of important issues seem to need clarification through further research on partnering.