A lot of folk are fed up with talk of collaborative working. And no wonder. Too often it’s just another name for risk dumping

I was buttonholed twice this week. First, by an engineer at a drinks and canapés do, courtesy of the Association for Consultancy and Engineering. “You seem to be against collaborative working,” said my inquisitor. The second was also an engineer, this time at a posh lunch courtesy of the National Specialist Contractors Council. “You seem to be against collaborative working,” said my second inquisitor. “Oh,” said I on both occasions, “you mean risk dumping!”

Look, my job is to decide disputes. Parties quarrel about events, facts, evidence; fine. Then they argue about rules: JCT, NEC, the law and more. Hardly anyone understands the rules they sign up to – fine, again. In truth, a big part of the way our industry works is getting the other bloke to agree to daft rules – the sort that are deliberately overlooked during the red-mist enthusiasm for “winning the bloody order!” My job is to apply the rules.

In all this talk about collaborative working, I hear enthusiasm to pass the risk parcel to the bloke at the bottom scrabbling to win an order to keep him and his lads going.

In truth, a big part of the way our industry works is getting the other bloke to agree to daft rules – the sort that are overlooked during the red-mist enthusiasm for ‘winning the bloody order!’

Integrated teams were Sir John Egan’s big idea. He boobed. Egan’s experience isn’t in heavy construction. He never took into account that integrated working would put a glint in the eye of strategic pass-the-parcel enthusiasts. Strategic? Oh, yes. Something goes to pot every day on a building site. Egan’s experience is all about the production line – identical Jaguars gliding down the computer-controlled assembly track. He ironed out all the snags so as to quality assure the next one.

Nothing of real construction is a repeat activity. You can make houses in a factory, but not office blocks, hospitals, roads, heating and ventilating. Every day means an unexpected, unforeseen snag, and blame, and claim, and dispute, and “not my fault pal”. We know each day brings more fighting, so we prepare for each one months before we know what it’ll be.

So, when I read that “our vision is clients procuring construction projects, products and services in a collaborative way that enables all in the integrated team to maximise the added value their expertise can deliver”, I start to drum my fingers. And when I hear about integrated teams “created at the earliest opportunity to fully release the contribution of each, and share risk and reward in a non-adversarial way,” I know whoever makes those remarks doesn’t know this sector. There is not the slightest interest in sharing risk – the culture is to dump it.

Integrated teams were Sir John Egan’ s big idea. He boobed. He didn’t do heavy construction. Something goes to pot every day on a building site

And the awful thing about risk dumping when things are tight is that dumpers will meet more enthusiasm from dumpees to take on the risk. Go back to my inquisitor at the drinks and nibbles evening. Reflect for a moment on who these folk are in the consultant engineering end of the industry – these are the boys and girls with all the qualifications and letters that stream out behind their names like wake trails behind the Red Arrows. And do you know, I thought this engineer was going to have a go at me, but he didn’t want collaborative working either. He wanted to earn his fee by completely designing the works in his sphere, and did not want any of it passed to the contractor’s sub-sub-contractors who happened to install or erect his design.

Moreover, he wants to earn his fee monitoring the work on site to see it is done properly. Hurrah. I agree. All you have to do is pay him the right price. Now come with me to the posh lunch put on by the NSCC, specialist subcontractor end of the industry. These folk are fed up with collaborative working, too. What happens is that some smart-alec bullies the subby or puts one over on him, to obtain a contractual promise about the performance of a product or co-ordination with other elements. Horror of horrors, when working out a price and tendering for the actual work, it is frequently the case that only “look-sniff” attention is given by the estimator to all the work on top of installing, erecting, laying or cladding. But when it leaks, warps, wobbles or smells, the integrated team and the collaboration work at their best. The real experts were not paid to take the risk or design the solution and so they walk away. Collaborative working is another name for risk dumping. So, no thanks.