The ambience of infrastructure construction project alliances in Australia
The challenge of delivering construction projects that serve their intended purpose, while meeting value for money criteria, has confronted the construction industry in many countries. The call for a change in culture in project delivery organisations and their clients has been well documented. The response has been a shift from traditional project delivery towards a relational approach that has been gaining momentum for highly complex and/or highly time-constrained infrastructure construction projects. An especially interesting and instructive development in this trend has been the growth in project alliancing in Australasia. Literature on project alliancing and related comparable forms of project delivery indicates that this way of performing project business requires an entirely new set of project management behaviours.
Traditional project management has been carried out in a highly competitive environment, with little or no communication at a sharing level occurring between the various professions and trades involved in delivery of the project. Alliance projects, in the form used in Australasia, rely on close relationships between all stakeholders and participants in the project, from concept through delivery. The depth of this relationship and the sharing of risk and gain are best demonstrated through the alliancing principles and alliance code of practice developed at the initial project team formation stage.
The approach we take in this paper in our attempts to describe the development of the ambience of alliance projects is based on research into the experiences of those who have worked in alliance projects. This is supported by a review of the literature from traditional project management to various forms of relationship-based project management, arriving at project alliancing as practised in Australasia in 2011. This extends our knowledge of project alliancing, the behaviours expected of project team members, and the motivations that drive alliance managers. The value of the paper lies in its currency and the capturing of rich insights of the lived experience of project alliance managers.
Our results reveal the nature of this ambience. The implications for the results are that they highlight key skills and attributes required of alliance team members that are in stark contrast to the skills and attributes required for traditional ‘business as usual’ projects.
Keywords: project alliances; ambience; uncertainty; project management
Acknowledgement: We wish to thanks the Alliancing Association of Australasia http://www.alliancingassociation.org/ for their cooperation and support in this research.
A meta study of UK government-commissioned reports spanning the second half of the 20th century, highlighted poor performance of the construction industry in delivering value for money and revealed unsatisfactory business relationships throughout the supply chain between contractors, suppliers, design consultants, and clients (Murray & Langford, 2003). Two of the reports cited (Latham, 1994; Egan, 1998) were particularly influential, not only in the United Kingdom but elsewhere in pinpointing the litigious and strife-torn relationships across the supply chain that all too often result in inefficiencies, ineffectiveness, and wasted opportunities for innovation. In Australia, a similar disturbing culture was described and the need for this to change established by the National Building and Construction Council (NBCC) (No Dispute, (NBCC, 1989). The NBCC represented the members of the construction supply chain and so presented a united position that the culture of the construction industry and relationships across the entire supply chain needed to change. The reports, (NBCC, 1989; Latham, 1994; Egan 1998), demonstrated a united call for cultural change, openness to innovation, and collaboration that would trigger improved value for money in delivering construction projects. One significant outcome of that determination for change was the trend to adopting a project alliance (PA) approach for complex and/or highly time-constrained projects.
Project alliancing has developed as a growing procurement form for Australasian infrastructure and construction projects. Working within these types of arrangements is quite different than other forms of project delivery and demands a new set of skills as well as unlearning (or putting to one side) of highly tuned commercial behaviours and skills. The purpose of this paper is to focus on how the infrastructure project sector in Australasia has developed its own culture. We then concentrate on how this new industry-wide culture has led to a way of working that differs from that in other more commercially attuned forms of project delivery. We are establishing this as the ambience that develops as a result of the new sector culture, within each alliance entity and strongly influenced by the alliance entity charter. A conceptual map of this paper is presented in Figure 1, which illustrates the aims and logic of this paper.
Figure 1 briefly outlines the dynamic we are reporting on, which indicates that the current situation is a result of industry-wide dissatisfaction with the status quo leading to the emergence of a sector-wide culture supportive of experimentation to bring about change, from which project alliancing began. This new culture supported the creation of the alliance entity, which based on the principles of shared objectives, trust, and transparency developed through the alliance entity charter and has led to the creation of a specific alliance entity ambience. Although there are similarities in the ambience that exists in each alliance entity there are also subtle differences. While this ambience is evolving, our research suggests that its basic tenets are reasonably stable. The perceived ambience is informed by the identification of pathogens and problems documented in many government reports (Murray & Langford, 2003) and the required willingness of many projects owners and their supply chain to embrace change. The triggering event was the acknowledgement of the need for change and the willingness to experiment with adopting ways to address and minimise identified problems that had beset the construction industry. This is an understandable sequence of events that can be expected in any change process (Kotter, 1996). Experimentation has mainly been applied to projects where there are intense complexity, uncertainty, and risk surrounding project design and delivery methods, and/or where extraordinary time constraints are placed upon project delivery that make other approaches highly unattractive by adopting a new project delivery form that will eliminate or at least reduce the problems identified as besetting the construction industry.
This paper draws upon results of a recent study of alliancing in Australasia. Two studies took place during late 2010; one studied the current state of alliancing in Australasia (predominantly on Australian examples) (Mills & Harley, 2010) and another study of the same sample pool that investigated the attraction, recruitment, development, and retention of alliance managers (AMs) in Australia (Walker & Lloyd-Walker, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c). We focus upon the ambience of the project alliance (PA). We use the term ambience because it represents the mood, feeling, and sense of atmosphere generated by this form of project delivery within a specific alliance entity. If we used terms such as ‘culture’ it would imply hidden values (Schein, 2004) and we wanted to illustrate a more tangible and accessible sense of what we observed and what our research project respondents described through their interviews.
We focus on the ambience and not the organisational structure or contractual arrangements in any depth. This focus has been established in other publications; interested readers may refer to Walker and Lloyd-Walker (2011a, 2011b, 2011c). We also do not discuss the range of project procurement options in any depth here; for discussion, on these options, interested readers should refer to Masterman (2002), Rowlinson and McDermott (1999), or Walker and Hampson (2003b). We take as our point of departure the reality of PAs as a project procurement option. We argue that the nature of this project ambience phenomenon is interesting, and so our unit of analysis is the ambience experience in the organisations that our research respondents have revealed through the interview transcript data.
The subject of alliancing has been well researched and written about; differences in project alliances and other relationship-based procurement options for project delivery have been dealt with elsewhere (Walker & Lloyd-Walker, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c). According to Wood and Duffield, “Public and private sector expenditure on infrastructure projects in the Australian road, rail and water sectors has grown significantly from 2003 to 2009, increasing from US$12 billion per annum in the 2003 to 2004 financial year to US$32 billion per annum in the 2008 to 2009 financial year” (2009, p 7). This alliancing scale is corroborated by two recent reports (Blismas & Harley, 2008; Mills & Harley, 2010). However, although all these studies provide statistics of scope and scale of alliances and explain their nature and characteristics, they do not explain the ambience, the culture, or character created by those managing these types of alliances, although the work of Rowlinson does centre on cultural aspects, for example in Rowlinson, Walker and Cheung (2008).
The ambience of a PA is the individual atmosphere created in an alliance entity as a result of the agreed-on alliancing principles. Each alliance creates a unique character, or culture, quite separate from that of the base organisations coming together to form the alliance. To a large extent, this felt ambience or atmosphere is derived from the espoused alliance principles. These principles are agreed on up front and as all project team members agree to the principles, they shape the character of the distinct entity created to deliver the project. A critical principle is that alliance participants share the pain or gain from the project and they hold a more holistic view of project success: one that incorporates more than financial bottom line measures and short term impact results to embrace measured social and environmental benefits.
Our focus is restricted to Australasian infrastructure and construction projects, so findings cannot be automatically extrapolated to other industry sectors or countries, but it does suggest that other industry sectors deploying alliancing may benefit from the insights presented here.
Two research questions are identified and answered in this paper:
Q1 What characterises the project ambience experienced by alliance managers engaged in Australasian infrastructure project alliances?
Q2 What implications does this ambience have for selecting, recruiting, and managing project alliance managers in Australia?
The remainder of this paper is structured as follows. Next, we outline some of the salient literature on alliancing, then provide a section that explains the research approach adopted in the study partially reported upon in this paper. We then present findings followed by discussion of the findings and their implications for the project management discipline. The paper concludes with a summary and we include an appendix of themed quotes.
A traditional approach to project procurement assumes the logic of value for money for an anticipated project benefit achieved through a competitive process. Put simply, this requires a project owner (PO) or its representative (POR) to be sufficiently aware of what is required of the project deliverables to be able to communicate via the project brief requirements that allow a design team to develop that brief into a project design upon, to which a delivery team can submit a tender proposal to deliver the project. For most construction projects in much of the developed world this requires the project to be outsourced, because the PO rarely has all the necessary available resources to deliver the project internally. This traditional procurement approach is usually described as a design, bid, build (DBB) approach. A common variant of this DBB approach occurs when the delivery team takes over the role of designing the project from the PO/POR from the project brief stage to both the design and construct (D&C) of the project (Masterman, 2002).
The value for the money for both DBB and D&C are predicated upon (1) a well-developed and stable brief, (2) the bidder fully understanding the brief in all its intricate subtleties, and (3) a perfect market with sufficient bidders to provide the anticipated level of competition and having the requisite competencies to effectively undertake the work. As the various enquiries and government reports cited above (NBCC, 1989; Latham, 1994; Egan, 1998) acknowledge, these three conditions are rarely satisfied. Often the project brief is not complete enough for a realistic bid to be prepared and so this triggers a series of contract variations that need to be managed to facilitate what is needed for the project. This, in turn, imposes a significant transaction cost burden upon the project (Winch, 2001). Thus, the brief is rarely stable or well developed; projects frequently have many unknown challenges to face that cannot be described, understood, or specified at the project bid stage. This uncertainty is often combined with insufficient time to grapple with project design and specifications documents. This is further exacerbated by the POR being generally unclear about exactly what the PO really wants and, as a consequence, the bidder is unsure about the questions he or she should ask of the POR. These factors all conspire to undermine the bidders’ understanding the brief, leading to conditions for conflict and gamesmanship in pursuing claims for the inevitable contract variations that lead to high transaction costs (Winch, 2003; Hughes, 2006). Finally, although there may well be available experienced bidders capable of undertaking the project delivery work, the traditional procurement approach does not require the contractor (project delivery entity) to supply their ‘A’ team. Thus, the POR is completely restricted in its ability to demand the best (or even reasonably competent available) talent to deliver the project.
Latham (1994) and Egan (1998) highlighted the above shortcomings in the traditional construction project delivery approach and called for geater collaboration, communication, cooperative effort, and innovation similar to those found in other industries where a greater focus is placed on supply chain management. The approach in these other industries is one in which relationships and collaboration are valued and joint problem solving leads to innovation and process and deliverable improvements over time. Lessons to be learned from the NBCC (1989) report relate to improved dispute resolution processes and a culture that determines the way that teams in the construction supply chain (including the PO/POR) interact and collaborate to solve the many issues and challenges that uncertainty typically imposes on construction projects.
An alternative to this approach was experimented with by POs from the oil and gas sector. This approach involved an integration of the PO/POR, project design team specialists, and project delivery contractors in a collaborative form that came to be known as project alliancing. Examples of this early temporary organisational form in the private sector have been well documented (KPMG, 1998; Lendrum, 1998). The public sector has enthusiastically embraced this approach in Australia, with examples provided from the construction infrastructure sector (Cheung, Rowlinson, Jefferies, & Lau, 2005; Davis, 2006; Love, Mistry, & Davis, 2010; Davis & Love, 2011; MacDonald, 2011) and for institutional projects such as the National Museum of Australia (Walker & Hampson, 2003a). Project alliancing, therefore, has entered the lexicon of project procurement approaches as an alternative and expected antithesis to the traditional DBB and D&C approaches.
At this point, we need to clarify what we mean by alliancing so that we can better understand any nuances in behaviours required of participants. An alliance agreement is usually made between two or more entities who, in good faith, commit to working cooperatively, sharing the risk and rewards of the project in order to achieve the stated outcomes (Jefferies, Brewer, Rowlinson, Cheung, & Satchell, 2006). Trust and transparency are important components so ensuring that the best possible partners are chosen is important for success (Jeffries et al., 2006). Another definition of project alliancing that begins to describe the ambience is:
“…a method of procuring…[where] All parties are required to work together in good faith, acting with integrity and making best-for-project decisions. Working as an integrated, collaborative team, they make unanimous decisions on all key project delivery issues.
Alliance agreements are premised on joint management of risk for project delivery. All parties jointly manage that risk within the terms of an ‘alliance agreement’, and share the outcomes of the project” (Department of Finance and Treasury Victoria 2010, p 9)
Key terms in the above quote suggest that the expected ambience of an alliance can be characterised as collaboration, best-for-project values, integrity, and shared joint management of risk. It is focused upon a public sector PO but it can be more broadly applied to private sector POs.
Previous work on project alliances suggests that PAs are best suited for situations of great complexity and/or uncertainty about the goals, methods, timing, or level of stakeholder engagement required to deliver the project (Walker & Hampson, 2003c; Walker & Lloyd-Walker, 2011a). Wood and Duffield (2009, p XVIII) recommend that:
“The alliance delivery method be retained and developed further as one of the mature procurement strategies for the delivery of government's infrastructure projects that are complex with significant risks that cannot be dimensioned in the business case or soon thereafter.”
Projects suitable for this procurement choice are therefore likely to be intellectually and professionally challenging and stimulating. We now discuss the literature relating to the key terms alluded to above and focus these on project alliances rather than the varied range of general project procurement forms.
Substantial scholarly work has been undertaken on delivering projects in Australia through project alliances. Davis (2006), for example, undertook a PhD thesis on relationship-based procurement that involved interviews with 49 alliancing participants with Australia. Wood and Duffield (2009) surveyed 82 alliance participants from 46 alliances in Australia and also undertook case studies on 14 alliances. Walker and Hampson (2003b) undertook a longitudinal study of the National Museum of Australia. MacDonald (2011) gathered detailed data from 39 subject matter experts and reflected upon his own extensive experience on alliance projects. In each of these and other studies, the defining nature of collaboration in alliances can be summarised as joint responsibility for decision-making so that both the PO or POR and NOPs work together by sharing relevant information and knowledge so that the Alliance Leadership Team (ALT) and Alliance Management Team (AMT) form a consensus on decisions to be made on a best-for-project basis. The Australian experience appears similar to other PAs reported upon in the United Kingdom (Smyth, Pryke, & Ebooks Corporation, 2009), The Netherlands (Laan, Voordijk, & Dewulf, 2011) and China, for example (Xu, Bower, & Smith, 2005).
PAs involve a very different decision-making process from those of other forms of collaboration in which parties contribute relevant information and knowledge to formation of a position by the various POR and NOP team leaders about their own input into the project delivery process. The subtle difference is one of alliances requiring commitment to forming a consensus position rather than contribution to decision-making. In this respect, the difference can be explained as the difference between a hen and a pig in providing a bacon and eggs breakfast. The hen makes a contribution while the pig makes a commitment.
Mills and Harley (2010, p 14) undertook a survey of 18 PA organisations gathering data about the extent to which the PA met the PA agreement performance statement and found a generally positive response. No PA was rated poorly, two met expectations, seven were rated as exceeding expectations, and two were rated outstanding; the remaining five recorded ‘no comment.’
Collaboration in alliances is geared toward best-for-project outcomes in which there is an expectation of integrity being demonstrated by all parties toward each other and this is reinforced by the joint risk sharing arrangements agreed upon in the project alliance agreement (PAA) (Department of Finance and Treasury Victoria, 2010, p. 9). Joint risk taking and decision-making based on the PAA means that all alliance parties sink or swim together, so there is a built-in governance measure that encourages and guides this behaviour, contributing to the creation of an ambience where each party takes responsibility for and is committed to a best-for-project outcome.
Another salient issue that affects a project alliance ambience is the nature of risk and uncertainty faced by parties to an alliance; different than other types of relationship-based procurement forms, this is a major contributing factor to the creation of a the PA ambience. Wood and Duffield (2009, p XVIII) state that alliances are best where there are significant complexity and uncertainty. Walker and Hampson (2003b, p 84), in their study on the National Museum of Australia, also found this to be so. The main motivation for adopting a PA form for the museum project was in order to complete the project by a fixed date and the belief of the PO and POR that there was no other form of procurement that could achieve that goal. The uncertainty present in this project related to fast-tracking of design detailing to encourage and deliver innovation, to accommodate uncertainty about the final configuration of exhibits and exhibit space allocation and other operational issues. The aim was that, at the opening of the Museum, the public would follow the Prime Minister's entourage immediately after the opening ceremony to enjoy the Museum and that all restaurant and café facilities and other operational aspects would be working on opening day. In other projects, where alliancing is adopted, other levels of uncertainty in both definition and refinement of the brief may be undertaken as design and delivery continue. An alliance arrangement ensures that all parties can accommodate uncertainty and temporary or even more permanent switches in direction and focus. The alliance arrangement is also better at coping with other ambiguities in the project context without the need to expend vast amounts of management energy in re-negotiating contract terms or conditions or in negotiating compensation for disruption to plans. This agreement to be flexible and adopt a best-for-project mentality dominates the project alliance ambience and becomes engrained in its working culture.
Our data strongly indicate that PAs are a vehicle suited to delivering projects through their superior potential for managing uncertainty. In a previous paper, we identified differences between PAs and other forms of relationship-based procurement (Lloyd-Walker & Walker, 2011). We suggested that the key to an effective PA ambience is one that supports effective uncertainty management. This implies that AMs need to emphasise planning and control in conjunction with an agile, resilient, and flexible paradigm as and when the context demands this in what is described as a muddling through (Hällgren & Wilson, 2007) mode while being open to emergent strategy as suggested by Andersen (2008). This is one of the reasons the ambience of PAs is different from the prevailing culture when more traditional project procurement approaches are used.
The Research Study Approach
This paper focuses upon the alliance ambience, but the study it is based upon had a more expansive aim. In this study, ten AMs and two managers to whom alliance managers directly report were interviewed. One of the AMs was also a unit manager and thus able to comment from two perspectives. Each interview was recorded and transcribed. Interviews took on average just over one hour, so over 13 hours of recording were gathered and over 200 pages of transcript analysed. In addition, an additional intensive half-day workshop with two unit managers who had been ALT members was undertaken in Melbourne in January 2011 and an additional half-day workshop was undertaken in Auckland, New Zealand with seven PA team members, including two AMs and two ALT members. Therefore, over 17 hours of recording were gathered and over 250 pages of transcript analysed. Table 1 illustrates the profiles of interviewees.
|Alliance project managers, ALT members interviewed and other PA members||11 AMs, 6 unit managers/ALT members, 5 PA team members|
|Experience in alliancing||1.5–5 years|
|Unit managers interviewed||3|
|Number of employing PA organisations||6|
|Organisations’ level of involvement in alliancing||Varied, up to 75% of income generated through alliances. Alliancing had become the dominant procurement method for all participant organisations.|
|Nature of alliances||1 Building construction project alliance (PA), 9 infrastructure development and maintenance services PAs.|
We used a grounded theory approach to analyse the data gathered following a process in which we ‘coded’ data, to make sense of the responses to questions asked, using the transcripts and sound files as our reference, along with our knowledge of the literature from the literature review. Both researchers coded the data separately, then discussed and agreed on the codes arrived at using the approach prescribed by Glaser and Strauss (1967). We used NVivo, a sophisticated tool for managing qualitative research data. We were able to access the sound files, transcriptions, other relevant data such as project reports, web-based information and sundry, less formal correspondence such as emails. NVivo can be used as a form of document copier and tagging facility. The researcher reads transcripts and listens to the interview records and codes for meaning of emerging category themes and sub-category, sub-themes. These are then built into more encompassing category entities in a continuous sensemaking exercise.
The process is akin to factor analysis in quantitative data analysis. The number of interviews chosen is based on achieving data saturation, so that each new interview reveals fewer ‘new’ categories/themes with further interviewing achieving significantly diminishing returns for effort involved. Two researchers undertook separate thematic analyses and compared notes to agree and explore disagreed interpretations. This is a well-established approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) and requires an open-minded researcher, with sense being made using triangulation through referring to other data such as documents, websites, or by presenting findings to respondents or others who could have been respondents. This approach is highly opinion based, so there is always a danger of bias through ‘group think’ or taking short cuts in analysing large amounts of data. Because the long interviews led to a large number of pages of transcription, care was taken to rigorously test emerging assumptions and findings and to seek confirmation or challenge from the literature. Although this is a time-consuming and absorbing approach, it has the advantage of deeply immersing researchers into the subject matter content. Sound files reveal tone and expression, and being the interviewer allows researchers to read body language and take contextual notes that would be absent from merely studying transcripts.
The backgrounds of researchers are also a factor in the research process. In this case, one researcher was an experienced professional with direct project management experience in similar projects and had studied both alliance and more traditional construction projects over a period of several decades. The second researcher is considered a highly expert professional in human resource management (HRM), having a sound knowledge of organisational behaviour and general management, and has been involved with this professional area for several decades. In this way, we were able to better understand the nuances and jargon that respondents provided and we were able to seek clarification of ambiguous or unexpected comments and to closely engage with respondents at their comfort level. We guarded against the possibility of bias through our assumptions dominating threads of discussion and by encouraging free rein on the discussion within a broad interview, semi-structured protocol that could allow us to prompt where necessary. We asked questions about what it felt like to be in the alliance so that we could gain insights from bursts of enthusiastic voice levels, evasion or reticence, or other forms of emotions.
The data from the study provided us with valuable insights into differences and commonalities expressed by participant project managers of their experience of PAs. We also gained intriguing insights into what attracted facilitated recruitment to alliances, and what measures were used to support development and retention of participants working within alliances. In terms of this paper, we were able to develop an understanding of the ambience of the alliance through the honest and detailed descriptions participants provided of their experience of alliances, especially in relation to their comparisons with experiences of other project procurement forms. Access to numerous articles and documents about alliances provided further in-depth information.
Discussion of Data and Results
After carefully coding the data, three main categories emerged. Table 2 provides these and their sub-categories. These help explain the often difficult to describe attributes of a PA that led to the development of its ambience and are further explained by using supporting quotations from the interview transcripts. For example, the espoused culture demonstrates how the parties will interact and behave through their PAA obligations. The culture in use exposes the lived experience; what it is like to be involved in the PA with a focus on what drives the PA and what enables it to function as designed. A third category of themes that emerged from the data related to how the PA was affected by the base NOP organisations, and how over time the PA ambience changed those base organisations.
1 Espoused culture demonstrated through rules, expectations of alliance (PAA)
1.1. PA culture
2 Culture in use
2.1. Drivers of culture
3 PA and changes to base organisations
3.1. Changes in organisation strategy
Each category is further analysed into sub-categories that are presented in a detailed tree node structure. To illustrate our findings we present a small sample of the quotes gathered and where we consider these, illuminate the meanings extracted from the transcripts that support the three categories in Table 2 and they are included in an appendix at the end of this paper.
Data falling into the first high-level category ‘Espoused culture demonstrated through rules, expectations of alliance (PAA)’ were further segregated into sub-categories. These five sub-categories are: the PA culture; the PA Governance; PA Game breaking innovation; PA trust capacity; and PA triple bottom line (3BL) aspirations. The second category, ‘Culture in use,’ was coded into two main sub-categories: drivers of culture and enablers of culture. The third category, ‘PA and changes to base organisations,’ was themed into: changes in business mix; changes in relationship management, and changes in general business performance.
The report that this paper is drawn from is far too detailed to fully discuss here. We therefore adopt the strategy of concentrating on the three categories and on illustrating with representative participant interviewee quotes selected from the transcripts representative examples that illuminate the ambience of the PAs that these AMs were embedded in. Readers may refer to Appendix 1 for actual quotes that support our model of the key to understanding the PA ambience presented in Figure 2. Space limitations restrict the number of quotations presented here and required us to edit and abbreviate quotations, indicated by ‘…’ to represent deleted text, however, we provide a flavour of the ambience.
Uncertainty management requires effort from both a design issue and project implementation and delivery issue perspective. AMs are involved with other NOPs and the POR in helping to translate the project business case into an acceptable design solution. This process is continuous because the situation is often ‘messy’ and non-linear and iterative in nature. Similarly, there is a strong expectation of innovation occurring in PAs with an innovative project design being developed as well as further innovations throughout the delivery phase. Many PAs have a triple bottom line (3BL) focus. 3BL means that value in terms of cost is balanced with a desire for social and environmental benefits (Elkington, 1997). The 3BL focus is now incorporated within social responsibility and sustainability initiatives within organisations; those considerations that are not measurable in bottom line terms but that will provide benefits to a range of stakeholders, including society in general or the environment over time. Some have advocated a Sustainable Balanced Scorecard approach be taken (Hubbard, 2009) and corporate social responsibility (CSR) is now used to indicate the need for organisations, including PAs, to consider the total impact of their actions on society, going beyond the interests of the firm alone (Dahlsrud, 2008). The AM also is concerned with maintaining the POR and NOP teams with a best-for-project focus and this requires aligning values to that end. Additionally, there are paradoxes to be resolved around stakeholder engagement in PAs as best-for-project needs to include 3BL, sustainability, and CSR demands. An overarching requirement is the way that each team, POR and NOPs, interpret and re-interpret their common and shared expectations as active stakeholders in the project. The literature suggests that viewing a PA in this light helps us better understand the realities and ambience of a PA.
The data strongly suggest that the literature presented earlier was shown to provide a reasonable match between theory and practice. Successful alliances in terms of their having provided (from the PO and POR points of view) ‘value for money’ and demonstrated a strong collaborative relationship between POR and NOPs were chosen for the study. The Mills and Harley (2010, p 14) survey of 18 PA organisations gathered data on the extent to which the PA met the performance statement in the PA agreement and results indicate that PAs are mainly successful. This finding was used to guide our choice of successful PAs to study, because the majority of PA experiences for POs have been found to be positive. It is not our aim to prove superiority of a PA over other procurement forms; our aim is to provide a credible and accurate portrayal of the ambience of PAs. Most PAs appear to deliver positive results so we do not feel that we are privileging any specific quotes to provide a biased impression of the results.
We summarise our analysis of the data by indicating: first, what we found that was expected according to the literature; second, what we consider to be unexpected; and third, how the results provide implications for general project management practice.
Expected and Confirming Results about the PA Ambience
PAs are designed to engage clients together with NOPs into a collaborative arrangement so that innovation can be encouraged; CSR, sustainability, and 3BL outcomes can be delivered, and better stakeholder engagement can be realised. The PAA requires certain behaviours and the selection process reinforces this aim, as does the legal agreement for no disputes or litigation between parties. The whole system not only encourages collegiality but also structurally locks it in through the PAA and the selection process. The expectation that collaborative behaviours follow into the delivery of these projects is confirmed.
PA ambience is one of low information and power asymmetries and this provides a milieu in which trust and confidence are nurtured and enhanced compared with many other procurement forms. Decision-making becomes more informed; risk can be better managed by those able and prepared to bear it, and participants feel more inclined to expend energy positively and constructively in making best-for-project decisions than in many other procurement forms.
The prevailing ambience includes high trust, confidence, and feelings of uniformity in affective commitment to agreed goals, aims, and project vision. Meyer and Allen (1991) present a three-level model of commitment, with continuous being a ‘need-to’ level in order to maintain a status quo (pay, support, etc), a normative level ‘ought-to’ level, which relies on loyalty and obligation, and affective commitment representing a ‘want-to’ level. Therefore, the prevailing ambience appears to generate a positive environment that is anchored-in by the PAA through the agreement to ‘sink or swim’ together through the gain sharing and pain sharing provisions. Additionally, the selection process that chooses NOPs and AMs with technical competence, sound PM competence, and very good ‘soft’ people management skills reinforces this. Both NOPs and PO/POR teams expressed an appreciation of and recognised the value of what each party brings to the project in terms of skills, experience, and knowledge creating an ambience of an appreciative society. AMs demonstrated they were supportive of developing team members’ skills and experience.
Innovation is expected and valued in PAs, providing intellectual and professional challenge and stimulation. There is evidence of a focus on continuous improvement, with the associated stress and stimulation that generate excitement. Innovation thrives in an environment where it is ‘safe’ to experiment, openly and honestly evaluate results, and to access both internal and external organisational knowledge and experience repositories. Research into innovation and knowledge management by Maqsood (2006) found that the development of an organisational learning culture was important. This was also discussed in terms of relationship-based procurement systems (Walker & Maqsood, 2008). The atmosphere within studied alliances indicates a readiness to challenge the status quo, an environment in which it is felt safe to do so, and an expectation that innovation is part of the alliancing culture.
A focus on performance through agreed-on and well-defined key performance indicators (KPIs) and key results areas (KRAs) has become a standard approach used and was mentioned throughout the interview transcripts. This demonstrates a high level of client sophistication in developing up front expectations of what constitutes success and what is valued, as well as what indicates key performance requirements. This removes a lot of uncertainty about the project outcome and values, while it leaves precise methods, techniques, and approaches as something to be negotiated and worked out in a pragmatic way by parties that are committed to the values expressed by KRAs and monitored through KPIs. Although this adds some structure and rigour that may appear to increase bureaucracy, it actually increases flexibility and responsiveness because it has a focus on the outcomes and outputs rather than the tasks and things to be done as per specifications and schedules—these details about the ‘what to do’ plans are not overlooked; rather, they are the means to an end that can be adjusted to accommodate innovation, improved approaches and so forth. This mindset is consistent with a value management culture of managing uncertainty and ambiguity creatively (Thiry, 2002)
A principal feature of alliancing is that there is a focus on managing uncertainty rather than strictly managing risk. Risk management takes place in terms of those best to deal with and cope with risk taking in that responsibility and is concerned with known-knowns and known unknowns. Uncertainty management relates to ways of dealing with the contextual surprises and unforeseen events or circumstances that impact upon the project and these are usually within the realm of unknown-unknowns. The way to deal with this kind of complexity, according to Snowden and Boone (2007), is to probe the situation, make sense of it, and respond accordingly. Complex situations are often ‘messy’ and unordered but do fall within arrays of interwoven systems. Sensemaking helps in understanding the interconnectedness of interacting systems and enables some order to be made out of apparent lack of order or disorder. Uncertainty can also lead to apparent chaos, especially with recursive situations where gaining certain information leads to an action that requires the situation to be re-evaluated for further action. This probe, sense, and respond set of actions requires a great deal of flexibility and negotiation between involved parties and a governance framework that allows open, transparent, and clear communication, low asymmetry of information and power and the ability to openly discuss the ‘undiscussables’ (see quotes 6, 7, and 14 in the Appendix). The evidence presented from the interviews confirmed time and again that openness, collegiality, and the joint affective commitment of all parties to a best-for-project (as opposed to individual or NOP organisation-specific interest) explain the need for an environment within which the PA ambience we have identified can prevail.
Unexpected PA Ambience Results
Often, unintended consequences arise out of actions. This discussion refers to findings that suggest that the lived reality of alliancing may generate features that we did not expect. We also include in this section observations from the data we gathered that we did not anticipate.
One positive feature that we encountered with PAs is that they seem to be projects that provide the opportunity for team members to develop professionally, managerially, and to grow through being challenged by complexity and having to deal with uncertainty in solving everyday problems. Team members also become involved partners in developing innovative ways to deliver project outcomes or in making design decisions. However, the PA structure can nevertheless inhibit team members’ development and positions within their base organisations. Quote 17 in the Appendix suggests problems of transience of team members moving between alliance and base organisation roles, or alliance-to-alliance, with minimal contact with their base organisation. Söderlund et al. (2010, p 3) uses the term liminality as being betwixt and between; it is a state denoting a transition from one social status to another. Söderlund et al. (2010, p 3) studied 20 consultants in Sweden to explore their experience of moving in and out of assignments with clients in much the same way that PA team members moved between projects in our study. In Söderlund et al.'s study, they voice interviewees’ anxiety and concerns about timing issues, such as how long they should stay on an assignment; when to move on; and how to move on in terms of maintaining interesting and challenging work that develops them. Another concern is the possibility of missing other career development opportunities Söderlund et al. (2010, p 3). Baruch and Altman (2002, p 240) state that “expatriation poses the intricate task of recruiting, preparing, relocating, placement, integration, rewarding, appraising, promoting, and repeating the process for repatriation thereafter.” PAs can be viewed in a similar way to international organisations attracting talent but the cultural adaptation and creation or recreation involved occur intra-organisation, rather than in a national, cultural context. We saw little evidence of HRM involvement in these alliances, in identification and selection of AP team staff, or in assisting employees to adjust or return to, for instance, head office roles. This was surprising, as several of the AMs interviewed stated that their original discipline was HRM. When questioned, responses suggested that many of the PO organisations, as well as NOP organisations, operate on an operational rather than strategic level. The paradox is that for PAs, the highest level people (talent) are needed to deal with complexity, uncertainty, and requiring excellent communications skills to create the ambience we have been describing. Quotes 20 and 21 illustrate this expatriate cultural HRM issue of people entering a PA and then leaving it for another or to return to the base organisation. This appeared to us a definite ‘room for improvement’ issue.
A related issue is the ‘war for talent’; that is, attracting the best people to an alliance. It is possible that POs and PORs are missing an opportunity to present themselves as a ‘brand’ or to ‘provide opportunities’ in the same way that some international companies do to attract expatriate specialists. These companies do this through adopting strategies, ranging from being a ‘global’ firm with a strong and desirable reputation of offering opportunities on a global scale or being an ‘emissary,’ in which the company is established internationally “with a long-term view as to its international positioning; however, it is firmly rooted in a particular “home” culture and this serves as its repository ideology, power base, and expatriate source” (Baruch & Altman, 2002, p 243). We saw evidence of some AMs consciously attempting to brand the PA as a desirable space to work. Quotes 19 through 21show how branding the alliance and making what it stands for visible are viewed as important. We did not expect this competition for talent to be as crucial as the quotes and the remaining content of the transcripts suggest. POs/PORs who have consciously thought about using a PA approach for strategic reasons may need to consider the ‘talent’ attraction, development, and retention issues more fully if they are to create a pool of available AMs with the basic technical skills, the excellence in project management skills, as well as the higher level project management skills for stakeholder engagement and dealing with uncertainty and complexity. Using the unique ambience of an alliance entity as an attraction and retention mechanism may be possible.
Another important unexpected finding was that the PA concept has taken such a profound grip on the engineering construction infrastructure industry that it now comprises the majority of the work undertaken by NOPs and is their preferred business model. Also from Quote 22 (which was echoed in the study's quotes not presented here), it is evident that the PA spirit and ambience is being attempted, at least, to be recreated in some more limited form for other procurement options such as D&C and in PPPs, so that lessons are being learned and transferred by base organisations of NOPs.
The purpose of this paper was to reveal the ambience of PAs. We built upon previous work that defined differences between a PA and other relationship-based procurement systems and we also built upon several cited recent studies of alliancing, including the study into the attraction, development, and retention of AMs in Australia. Our report is based on a comprehensive survey of AMs yielding over 250 pages of transcript from which we selected 23 representative quotes from AMs to support our findings.
We summarise the ambience of a PA as being a work space where complexity, at times chaos, but always high levels of uncertainty prevail. It is an environment in which trust and transparency dominate. PA teams seek to cope with uncertainty triggered by refining and improving the project design through innovation and responding to a best-for-project mentality that often encompasses CSR, sustainability, and 3BL issues. They do so by developing an open, collegial, and appreciative work environment that allows alliance teams to jointly accept responsibility for project outcomes and make decisions based on low information and power asymmetries. This allows ‘undiscussables’ to be raised, discussed, and considered so that uncertainty and risk management are more effectively pursued.
Finally, we found that the experience of over a decade of PAs in Australia and experience for about a decade of many NOPs interviewed, that this ambience is valued and is being adapted within the limits of other procurement forms that do not carry the structural strength of the PAA to enforce and through its selection process, to encourage collegiality and trust and commitment.
This study was restricted to Australasia, including only one project alliance from New Zealand. We acknowledge that, although we have cited literature of the use of PAs in the United Kingdom and elsewhere that the experiences of those we interviewed are confined to Australasia. Further research could test whether our findings can be more generalised. The industry using this procurement approach needs to transition through a maturity process to develop in staff the behaviours required of PAs.
The principal implications emerging from this study are that the ambience that we describe here has a distinctly collaborative and knowledge sharing favour requiring team members to behave in quite a different way when working in the traditional highly competitive and claims-oriented DBB or D&C procurement approaches. We stress that this requires a lot of front-end work in designing a contract form and institutional framework to support the alliance concept and behavioural charter and it needs a set of AM skills, attributes, and experience, which require nurturing. Project alliancing is not a concept that can be acquired ‘off the shelf’ and installed; it will take time to develop and evolve.
PAs need to recruit people who can function and thrive in the ambience described in this paper in the manner that HR practitioners describe as ‘person-organisational culture fit’ (De Cooman, De Gieter, Pepermans, Hermans, Du Bois, Caers, & Jegers, 2009; Ng & Sarris, 2009). For a PA, that means people who can operate within an open, sharing, and non-competitive environment. Results also suggest that continual staff development is needed to maintain effective PA team member behaviours but sometimes there is a conflict between the PA and home-base organisation of those engaged on PAs about who should fund and support that development.
An important implication from our findings is that the staff of project alliances, particularly AMs and others in leadership roles, is a rare breed of talent that often need to unlearn the combative skills developed in the traditional project management environment. Although those skills may be seen to be commercially valuable in the rough-and-tumble of traditional construction projects (where being able to extract profits from contract variation claims is often valued) they are counter-productive in the context of PAs. Indeed, such former project management skills would not fit within the ambience that we have identified exists in PAs.
|Ambience Principle Driver||Summary Notes on Ambience Theme Defining Issues |
Selected Illustrative Quotes (Note IV-nn = Interview number; SCn = Sub-category listed in order of relevance)
Espoused culture of PORs, NOPs expressed in the PAA
Vision and aspiration Alliance selection PA Governance Risk and reward balance, 3BL aspirations
Scene setting, the PA selection process, with best-for-project selection co-location,
Quote 1 - IV02 – SC 1.1, 1.2, 2.1, 2.2
The basic assumption for alliancing is that you're all on the same team and if you can keep everybody on an even keel, then you'll end up with an excellent project.…the agreements [PA] are reached before you even start doing any work.…that's the important part…. We had an alliance PAA. We were all signatories to it. A lot of the development of that alliance agreement came out of workshops with the contractor and the client [which they] were prepared to develop and agree to. So a lot of the problems that are normally associated with uncertainties within the contract have been thrashed out.
Quote 2 - IV-01 – SC 1.1, 1.2
In Alliancing we've got a capped budget here and…a client who has put on the table an objective that said we absolutely have to open the doors in two years. So in some ways we've got some very tight constraints in this environment that we can manage the risk and we can manage the delivery of those objectives in a collaborative way, knowing that we're sharing the risk to some extent and we can use – we've been able to actually inform the client, what are the consequences of delivering very quickly; what are the consequences of having a capped budget because the client actually doesn't have any capacity to fund an overrun and therefore we have to treat the project like it's got a capped budget a bit like we've got a commercial constraint around our neck…the idea of the co-location and bringing that all together, and that certainly does make all the difference. We're co-located with the people initiating the projects too, who are just a floor apart, and that's been a huge part of improving that, generating the outcomes that everybody agrees on, we're not dependent on a couple of meetings each month to talk about that, but people are just popping up and down and sorting out issues all the time.…The power of the team is the best for project outcome, whatever model of contract. You've got most probably more opportunity to do that in alliance contracts because you've got a more diverse team with a diverse culture and a broader agenda.”
Quote 3 - IV-06 - SC 1.1, 1.2
…the request for proposal (RFP) going out to industry, them coming back in…short listing…each consortium had about a 3.5 hour interview session with their team. Prior to that we had guidance sessions, so if people were thinking of putting in an application, they could turn up and just ask us general questions about the RFP. Then they were interviewed…we did a short listing process from the interviews…in most cases two were short listed. Then each of those short-listees went through a two-day selection workshop,…doing various activities over two days, including dinner overnight…following that selection workshop process, and that was largely about working together, understanding the alliance, those kinds of things…each of the short-listees went through in two days, commercial negotiations, which was just negotiating the margins, what was direct costs, what wasn't inclusive direct costs. And then out of all that, we did the number crunch to get the winner…The commercial negotiation was less about a fixed project, and more about the principles of what we'd be including, direct costs, and those kinds of things
Quote 4 - IV-11 - SC 1.1, 1.2
We've now got in-house capabilities for Alliance trainers, to facilitate workshops where we make sure that we're focused on the client's objectives; the clichéd hot buttons and what are they. In those workshops, that's where the Alliance manager and some of the construction team and the design team really get the focus on the project, and behind the team you've got others that can worry about let's close off on all the contractual issues and let's close off on making sure we've got an agreement in place, all the legal things that you need to have when you go into these bids, particularly with our organisation and then another consultant, and then you might have sub consultants. Someone needs to be tying up the loose ends and making sure there are agreements in place so that everyone can get paid, for one, and where their liability sits, and all those usual things.”
Quote 5 - IV-07 SC 1.3
…we were up to about 250 innovations so far I think on this project and we've been really pleased the way we've been able to innovate during the bid stage and we've continued that innovation through the TOC process [Target Outturn Cost which is the ‘budget’ equivalent term]. That innovation has continued on after the TOC process. Obviously the more you innovate, the less opportunity later on to innovate because you're sort of getting into the building phase. So some of the size of those innovations may have changed but the whole process continues on and the net effect of them is very promising.
Quote 6 - IV-09 SC 1.3, 1.4
They [AMs] need to be a good team member…able to challenge assumptions with constructive type language, be willing to take feedback and learn from those experiences.
Quote 7 - IV-10 SC 1.3, 1.4
…in a three-month period in close collaboration with all the players, without fear of failure, and arguments about bugger you, and the contractual debate, and all this sort of stuff, we manufactured a complete new valve, we manufactured two bodies for the valve, we re-changed the logical controls in the system, we actually ran a large part of that project in a three month period and had it back in action.
Quote 8 - IV-1- SC 1.4
…if a client was really being alliance-minded, would [say] “Well this is just not right, this isn't fair,” as we would do inside an alliance. It's all about just taking your mind away from saying “Well we did a contract and that's it.” It's all about how do we get the best result.
Quote 9 - IV-05 - SC 1.2, 1.5
We, our XXX collaborative agreement that was set, one of the five key result areas is sustainability so we have a number of KPIs [key performance indicators] under that and that's around everything from water to power to education of people; those sorts of things…we've taken on two youths in the last two years from detention centres and given them employment and one took on an apprenticeship with us so we continue to do that and we've partnered with XXX Water to do that so that's been very good for us; we're doing the same thing around indigenous employment. How drivers and enablers are embedded in action. Degree of openness and discussion Collegiality, decisiveness, and credibility
Culture in use
|How drivers and enablers are embedded in action. |
Degree of openness and discussion
Collegiality, decisiveness, and credibility Unity of decision-making at ALT level to inform and assist the ALM level
POR and NOPs skills, attributes, experience
Rhetoric versus reality
World view of ALT
World view of AMT
Ease of respect and linkage of ALT/AMT
Quote 10 - IV-06 SC 2.1, 1.1, 1.4
…if there's an issue with design when you're coming through the process, then that working together and negotiating thing is a different environment, to if you have an external design that's coming in, then you get part way through construction and then you're arguing about variances and those kinds of things. So it's probably that no blame, no disputes kind of atmosphere is quite different. And I guess with alliances, it's less hard-nosed, it's that kind of firm but fair…environment.
Quote 11 - IV06- 2.2, 2.1
…the big issue with alliances is the idea of the co-location and bringing that all together, and that certainly does make all the difference. We're co-located with the people initiating the projects too, who are just a floor apart, and that's been a huge part of improving that, generating the outcomes that everybody agrees on, we're not dependent on a couple of meetings each month to talk about that, but people are just popping up and down and sorting out issues all the time.
Quote 11 - IV06-2.2, 1.3
…within the alliance it [feedback transfer and innovation] happens a few different ways, it happens through pre-meetings and things like that, where we get people to talk about the ideas they've come up with and what they've learnt from projects. We have a project manager's forum once a month, where we encourage people to bring that kind of information. We have an innovations register, where that gets documented, and once again we've got to get a bit better at how we distribute that information, so less of it falls through cracks.
Quote 12 - IV-08 SC 2.1, 2.2
It's your manner, and your approach, and your ability to relate and demonstrate cohesiveness as a team, so that requires an extreme amount of personal commitment.
Quote 13 - IV-02 SC 2.1, 1.1
The element of competition is still there.…competition against time and against cost. I've found with experience that…the guys are working with you rather than against you in some instances. Provided you take them into your confidence and work with them and come up with solutions that suit you both, you end up with a much better relationship and a much better job.
Quote 14 - IV-05 SC 2.1, 2.2, 1.1
Here our commercial model is its cost-reimbursable with our profit at risk. With that as the basis and with us having this alliancing style arrangement by having no undiscussables it does give you that freedom of thought and speech. Not so much though I suppose, but speech. Being able to talk about the difficult issues, which you might be a little bit more guarded about in a different environment.
Quote 15 - IV-07 SC2.2, 2.1, 1.4
…[on trust and commitment] precisely the values and behaviour, the natural values and behaviours that we're trying to drive through to the team. So that's the really pleasant thing to be aligned on that as well, not just the commercial side.
Quote 16 - IV-09 SC2.2, 1.4
I'll take the time to speak all my direct reports and I've been in teams generally between 15 and 20 people below me, I've had situations where I've had 70 but I still get out in the field and talk to the people. I talk a bit about myself and what my background is and why I'm here and I explain to them I'm no genius I'm not here to provide the solutions I'm here as a coach to get the best out of the team and make sure we communicate so I'm not suggesting that I have all the solutions.
Changes to/from base organisation Business approach
|Legacy of base organisation's culture and history of relationships, etc. Between organisational relationship changes. Degree of openness by people to transition (ex-pat syndrome) to change and adapt. Feelings of ‘home’ base etc. Permeability of organisations. Trust, authentic leadership, affective commitment, ethical values, team and collegial action, forms of stakeholder engagement|
Quote 17 - IV-08 SC3.1
There's no commercial option for people to pull their staff out of those alliances on a regular basis to maintain that connectivity. In fact they're commercially penalised if they do so because it becomes a home company cost. So I see there's a real tension between incentivising the individual to maintain linkage and incentivising the home company to make the linkage, otherwise there are, as you say, a bit of a…transient workforce that moves around. And I think it's less problematic in the construction only environment because people transition from one slot to another, and that's traditionally how the industry has been, I just think the envelope of the people that are now influenced is much greater than it's ever been, and we never had the estimators tendering people off site, but they'd do all their work from the home company, they'd use the home company's systems.
Quote 18 - IV-11 SC3.1
Alliancing has almost become part of our business now. So we don't necessarily have a different approach to it. Five years ago, I think it was a bit different where we did almost quarantine the people that were working on this Alliance and they were solely focused on that, but business is so diverse in terms of the types of projects we do that we have a formula, and as you say, whether it's PPP or whether it's an alliance, or whether it's the D & C [design and construct], we try and stick to that formula as we go through…. Alliances have been the making of this business; it's really opened up possibilities to work more closely with the clients, work more closely with our consulting partners, and just other members of our industry sector. Before alliancing came along, we all stuck to our little silos and didn't interact; it's really opened it up.
Quote 19 - IV-09 SC3.2
…I think the people that struggle in going back find the pace of the project, the culture and when I say culture the freedom, the interaction with the number of different disciplines, all that type of thing, is difficult then to return and be very narrow in your work.
Quote 20 - IV-12 SC3.2
We make the deliberate attempt to go out of our way to extensively communicate with all of our people in the alliances such that they have the same level of information as the persons sitting in the, you know, in the workstation outside my door. Because, if you don't, if you don't, they get totally detached, and as you rightly say, they don't feel part of a family, they feel part of the alliance, and when the alliance is finished, they are lost.
Quote 21 - IV-08 SC3.2, 3.3
…organisations, especially over the last probably five to ten years, have been faced with this new challenge where their people that normally collaborated within their space are being asked to constantly move into client environments, collocate with other organisations. And I know from our organisation, we've got a lovely big office but there's no one there, because everyone has moved out into these various alliance spaces. So the challenge for all organisations, not just our own, is how do you stay in touch with these people, how do you track their career development, how do you grow their sense of wellbeing to your organisation when they're constantly transitioning through different alliances and working with different people.
Quote 22 IV-12 SC3.3, 3.1
…in fact, in my business, probably 75% or our revenue is generated out of alliances, so you could then correlate that 75% of the people are in alliances, or have been in alliances so when you obviously put them [AMs] on another job, that isn't an alliance, they all have that sort of experience, and it just becomes quite natural, regardless of the type of delivery model.
Quote 23 IV-06, SC 3.3
…we just try and keep on top of keeping people challenged and developed within the alliance, and then looking for those areas where they might need to pop out, but maybe they can pop back in again, that kind of re-retention kind of question.
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