A Grounded Theory exploration of the role of relationships beyond the formal contract in public sector construction management

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Theses / Dissertations
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Doctor of Philosophy
University of Canterbury
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Cotter Tait, S. K.

This research explores the differing understandings of the concept of relationships and the associated approaches used by construction managers in delivering public sector projects. Relationship-based social processes typically receive little acknowledgement in the construction industry, and are often absent from formal guidelines and processes. The public sector contract setting extends this trend, with regulatory frameworks and protocols proscribing connections that could potentially compromise impartiality. Research into construction management confirms the persistence of systemic issues that prevent collaborative working and partnering in the industry, globally and locally. Despite this, a group of contract managers experience relationships as a vital element in their own ways of working and the functioning of projects. This sets them in a position of navigating a tension between these opposing drivers in their work settings.

The thesis draws on a broad range of literature streams, including construction management, public policy, organisational behaviour, social psychology, and leadership. Working from the experiences of industry participants, the thesis builds a conceptual theory of relationship capital development between contract counterparts, and proposes a new lens to understand how construction managers navigate their complex environment. As a research setting, the Christchurch post-disaster context provides a rich source of data in two key ways. First, as a smaller community experiencing a concentrated period of construction activity led by the public sector, the concentration and small size of the locality lends itself to close social and professional network ties, and has drawn in experienced construction managers from outside the region. Secondly, the rebuild activity has been the catalyst for a stream of research which includes topics of construction management, inter-organisational collaboration, and resilience.

This research proposes a model of ‘preserving-exploiting’ as the key activity that construction managers engage in when pursuing the complex business of construction management in pursuit of their goals of project fulfilment. The findings suggest that at the heart of construction management in this type of setting there are construction managers with behaviours and worldviews that enable them to skilfully navigate both the formal legal and compliance requirements of a public sector contract, whilst also managing the little recognised but pivotal informal relational elements that underly every public sector project. The model developed in this research presents the process of synthesising individual characteristics and abilities, via the activity of preserving-exploiting, and a resulting process of developing relationship capital over time. This research inverts the traditional perspectives of the industry culture and previous research by instead privileging human narratives over explicit legal and technical perspectives. It shifts the focus away from measured, descriptive project outcomes to the people involved in the process, and sheds new light on the understanding of relationships playing out within a post-disaster reconstruction context. Using a grounded theory approach, this research has produced a new addition to the existing literature on construction management and engineering, with implications for industry practice and future research. It provides an opening for the contribution of different cultural perspectives into a field traditionally dominated by Western perspectives.

These findings connect with the existing research models of relational contracting in the construction management literature, by recognising and affirming previous work on relationship quality (Kumaraswamy, Rahman, et al., 2005; Yeung et al., 2012) and social capital (Suseno & Ratten, 2007) and extending this previous work by capturing the social processes underpinning relational contracting in construction. The model of preserving-exploiting and relationship capital development invites a widening of focus by the industry and researchers, away from the processes and procedures that characterise relational contracting, and towards the role that construction managers themselves play as people.

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