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Putting management into construction

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How do you transform a school of 110 students into one with 3,000 applicants a year? Be focused, be relevant, and communicate, says Professor Peter Morris.

Putting management into construction

Morris's PhD in 1972 showed that the integration required on a project should vary in response to project size, speed and complexity.

Credit: Samuel Zeller

Professor Peter Morris led the spectacular growth of The Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management (CPM) from when he became its head in 2002 to now, some 16 years later (he handed over the Head of School role in 2014) – a growth from 4-8 staff and 110 students to around 350 students and 35 staff, with over 3,000 applicants a year.

He puts this phenomenal growth down to the school adopting a three-pronged strategy: be focused, be relevant, and communicate. Each supports the other two. It started with his PhD.

The basis to Morris’s work was the 1966 book by Professor Marion Bowley, The British Building Industry. This showed that many of the industry’s problems were due to ineffective integration between design and production. Morris followed Bowley in seeing integration between design and construction as the key intellectual issue. His PhD, in 1972, showed that the integration required on a project should vary in response to project size, speed and complexity.

We were constantly asking the ‘so what?’ question.

Professor Peter Morris

Project management but bigger

In 1987, he extended this argument, developing a perspective that was much broader than the view of project management that was common in the 1960s and 70s (and which is still pervasive today). Traditionally, construction projects were organised under standard contractual arrangements which kept the contractor at arms length from ‘the client’s representative’, usually the architect or the engineer.

As a result, problems, as they inevitably arose, were poorly managed; claims were the norm and overruns were common. There was no active overall management of the project. Morris’s research called for a more holistic approach; the focus being to build the project as it develops through a series of stages. He called it ‘The Management of Projects’ (Thomas Telford, 1994). It was project management but bigger. “The Front End is key,” says Morris.

Project management prior to this research was seen as largely normative and deterministic – the ‘out-of-the-box’ application of techniques and tools, processes and practices, where the job is to deliver the project ‘on time, in budget, to scope’. But Morris says that this begs the question: who sets these targets? Who ensures the emerging project best fits its needs?

“It is pre-eminently the owner of the project – the sponsor – supported by such project expertise as may be required,” he explains. “This is essentially what managing the ‘Front End’ is all about and why it is so important.”

Managing the Front End, applying a systems framework, and adopting a contingency approach to designing management practices and organisational structures were the thrusts of CPM’s research strategy. Sexy but relevant, is how Morris describes it. “Add to this a high regard for critical review and you have the intellectual bedrock of the school’s project management research,” he says.

Writing helps clarify the message and we addressed a great variety of topics. We kept reflecting on the philosophical basis of the discipline as we saw it.

Professor Peter Morris

Collaboration and critical thinking

Relevance was, and is, crucial: “We were constantly asking the ‘so what?’ question.” Staff were encouraged to spend time with practitioner organisations, consulting and researching. The school became one of UCL’s most frequent users of KTPs or Knowledge Transfer Partnerships.

“We had several PhD students sponsored by industry and at least two Master’s programmes specially designed for industry, one being exclusively for Network Rail,” says Morris. “Our aim was – and still is – to help people think critically. The scope of our work was clearly large. Not fearing to address them helped us come out top in our Unit of Assessment in the 2008 RAE.”

The school set great store on communicating. While Head of School Morris wrote five books. “Writing helps clarify the message and we addressed a great variety of topics. We kept reflecting on the philosophical basis of the discipline as we saw it,” he says.

Some dealt with specific issues, both domestic and international; some were historical, others forward-looking. “It is still a dynamic, crucial area of research and practice,” says Morris. “While the track record of projects has certainly improved, they are still often late and over budget and, while this may reflect the real-life complexity and difficulty of managing projects, there is an ongoing need for research and teaching to help address this performance gap.”

The School of Construction and Project Management is an international centre of excellence in the teaching and research of project management and economics. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more:

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