Much like any relationship, partnering is more about mutual understanding and commitment than subscribing to a given definition
Earlier this year, the JCT issued Practice Note 4 with the intention of reducing confusion over partnering and to provide a standard form of non-binding partnering charter. It said: "Partnering can mean different things to different people. Consequently, much confusion, as well as benefit, has arisen from the promotion of this concept." I echo that sentiment.

It is well established that partnering is a process that enables parties to work together to complete a project efficiently, to a high quality and without any serious disputes. It is not simply a touchy-feely relationship between the parties; it's about achieving better business performance – that is, a better product for a more realistic price, in a more predictable and reliable contracting environment. It should not be confused with other good project management practices, as these do not have the same structure or commitment to mutual objectives that enable partnering to work.

It can also be a long-term relationship. The NEDC report, "Partnering without conflict", published in June 1991, described the practice as "a long-term commitment between two or more organisations for the purpose of achieving specific business objectives by maximising the effectiveness of each participant's resources". The report went on to say that it is "a contractual arrangement between a client and his chosen contractor, which is either open-ended or has term of a given number of years rather than the duration of a specific project".

Other models have followed this line in describing long-term strategic relationships. But partnering does not have to involve a long-term commitment, it can also be project-specific. The CIC Guide to Project Team Partnering uses the term to describe project-specific relationships, whereas it uses "alliancing" to describe long-term relationships that may evolve over a number of projects or be part of a framework.

In practice, there seems to be two distinct approaches to partnering: focusing on a single project (project-specific partnering); or a long-term relationship (strategic partnering). Unfortunately, the same terminology is often used to described both relationships, which can lead to confusion because the concepts, the legal and the practical issues that arise are quite different.

Perhaps even more confusingly, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive. A project-specific partnering relationship may develop into a longer-term arrangement. Conversely, a long-term strategic relationship may provide the framework for a series of project-specific arrangements.

I would suggest that partnering does not have a fixed definition because it is essentially a generic term that embraces a range of business practices, such as quality management, value engineering and methods of collaborative working. Although the aim of partners may differ in each relationship, all projects depend on the commitment of the partners making the relationship work. It is a means to an end, not a solution, and does not magically banish the problems encountered in a given construction project. The participants' attitude is critical to the project's success and must be accepted at all levels of the participating organisations, from senior management to the project team.

As long as it is understood that "partnering" is not just a name for a quick-fix solution that guarantees instant success, the fact that it means different things to different people makes no difference. What is important is that all parties involved share a common understanding of what partnering means in their own particular context; beyond that, an industry-wide definition would add little. The key is to ensure that whatever definition or model is agreed is properly and accurately reflected in the contract by careful drafting.

I do not believe it is anti-partnering to focus on the fine print of the contract. Indeed, it is particularly important to prescribe a framework and a mechanism for identifying the mutual objectives and benefits agreed in relation to the project and how they will be realised. This goes to the very heart of successful partnering and should not be overlooked in the enthusiasm surrounding the procurement process.