Improving construction communications
University of Texas at Austin
This paper reviews communication literature and previous behavioral science studies to develop a better understanding of information flow as it relates to construction project management. Initially, the communication process is defined and significant characteristics such as content, barriers, communication nets, mutual trust and communication systems are explained in terms of their importance to information flow in construction.
A review of communication recommendations from previous construction organizational behavior studies offers suggestions to improve information flow. However, these recommendations are examined in light of results achieved in previous communications and behavioral science studies to provide the project manager and superintendent with alternative means of communicating.
Definition and Characteristics of Communication
A. Baveles and B. Dermont, well-known organizational communication investigators, give the following description of the process of information flow and its effect on an organization’s performance.
It is entirely possible to view an organization as an elaborate system for gathering, evaluating, recombining, and disseminating information. It is not surprising, in these terms, that the effectiveness of an organization with respect to the achievement of its goals should be so closely related to its effectiveness in handling information. In an enterprise whose success hinges upon the coordination of the efforts of all its members, the managers depend completely upon the quality, the amount, and the rate at which relevant information reaches them. The rest of the organization, in turn, depends upon the efficiency with which the managers can deal with this information, reach conclusions and make decisions (2).
The communication process is not merely the transfer of information, but according to many investigators conducting research in this field, it can better be defined as the transfer of commonly meaningful information from one participant to another (11) (13). Information must be commonly meaningful, for the participant receiving it must be able to interpret the message correctly, or have the opportunity to ask questions or give some kind of a response. The participant sending the information also has the obligation to insure that the receiver correctly interpreted the message.
Communication of information is often associated with the facts or tangible information that is transmitted from the sender to receiver. However, it is also important to recognize intangible information, the feelings, that result when information is exchanged. These two aspects of communication, facts and feelings, are essential ingredients of information flow, and one is not necessarily more important than the other.
The information or message being transmitted is considered the content of a communication. This content can consist of facts and/or feelings (11).
C. Argyris, in a study of management information systems, mentions that openness requires a particular combination of rational and emotional communication (1). This serves to point out that feelings cannot be excluded from communications, because emotional problems may develop if mutual trust is not accompanied with the information transmitted.
According to H. J. Leavitt, communication is the channel of influence and the mechanism of change for personal relationships (11). In an organization individuals use various means of communication to influence behavior and work relationships in order to accomplish organizational and/or personal goals. For example, it is important to recognize that a manager can motivate his workers only to the extent that he can effectively communicate with them (15).
In any communication process between two persons or within an organization, anything that interferes or disrupts the flow of information is a barrier.
The most significant barriers are the following:
1. Status barrier: the subordinates’ fear of disapproval or the superiors’ fear of loss of prestige limit communications between them.
2. Interpersonal hostility barriers: any kind of hostility between individuals will disrupt the information flow process.
3. Parliamentary methods barrier: the simple fact of establishing rules and methods of communicating can also be a barrier. For example, in a meeting a participant may have useful information but he will not be able to give it until he is recognized by the chairman of the meeting (11).
4. Organizational barriers: omitting someone from the communication chain or sending incomplete or over simplified information.
5. Human barriers: failure to listen, or preoccupation with one’s own situation (15).
The fact of knowing what the barriers to adequate communication are should help an individual or an organization in overcoming such barriers.
A communication net is a structural aspect of a group. It shows how the members of a group relate to each other (2).
Figure 1 shows A. Bavelas and B. Dermott’s summary of S. Smith and H. J. Leavitts’s experiments with three different nets. The basic structure of a construction project is the Type 3 net in Figure 1 where the project manager or job superintendent is in the central position communicating with his home office, the owner, the architect/engineer, the subcontractors and his own foremen.
W. V. Haney’s studies show that high trust stimulates high performance of subordinates, and that there is a mutual dependency between a trusting relationship and effective communication performance (9). When an organizational climate is trusting and supportive, communication practice is generally good, but when a climate is hostile and threatening, communication suffers. These findings point out the fact that trust is usually required for effective communications.
On the other hand, a barrier to communications exists when the role of information is considered a currency. That is, information has a great value and whether a person possesses information or not indicates his status and role. This feeling, if stressed, can obstruct communications, as wel as reduce the mutual trust that may be developed between individuals.
F. Luthans states that in an organization there are three systems of communication:
1. The downward system of communication
2. The upward system of communication
3. The horizontal system of communication (13).
In classical organizations, the structure provides for formal vertical communications, that is, downward and upward communications, but no formal provision is made for horizontal communications. It is also necessary to point out that according to the definition of communication, the downward system alone cannot be considered communication if it obstructs or if it does not generate the upward flow of information. According to B. K. Scanlan the initiative for effective communications must come from the top of the organization. He also states that, most frequently, communication patterns in a group reflect the communication behavior of the supervisor (15).
The Downward System of Communication
This system has dominated communications and, according to Luthans, Katz and Kahn see it as having five general goals:
1. To give specific task directions about job instructions.
2. To give information about organizational procedures and practices.
3. To provide information about the rationale of a job.
4. To tell subordinates about their performance.
5. To provide ideological-type information to facilitate the indoctrination of goals (13).
Most organizations accomplish only the first two goals, thus creating an authoritative atmosphere which tends to block the upward and horizontal system of communication.
To disseminate information, systems utilize all kinds of media such as organizational handbooks, newspapers, letters, bulletin boards, reports, memos, verbal orders, meetings, telephones and computer print-outs.
The Upward System of Communication
Basically, the upward system should provide two types of information:
1. Personal information about ideas, attitudes and performance, and feelings.
2. Technical feedback information for control purposes (13).
Except for the technical feedback controls, such as providing cost information, the downward system in formal organizations has dominated the upward system. However, at this time, there are many large companies establishing special programs to obtain feedback from their employees such that the upward flow of information has become a major concern in large companies. For example, industrial organizations are trying to get workers to mention problems and possible solutions through informal procedures such as lunch meetings. Other organizations rely upon formal procedures of upward communication by grievance procedures, which permits an employee to make an appeal upward beyond his immediate superior; the superior’s open door policy; counseling, attitude questionnaires, and exit interviews; and suggestion methods.
The Horizontal System of Communication
In an organization horizontal communication is required to coordinate the different phases of the work to achieve the overall organizational goals. Communication with peers provides needed social support for an individual and it will have positive results for the organization if this support is in terms of task coordination. If there are no problems of task coordination, the horizontal communication of peers may have negative results for the organization by obstructing vertical communication such that the content is often irrelevant or even destructive.
New organizational structures such as the matrix organization, which is a project structure superimposed on a functional structure, formally incorporate horizontal communication in their system. For example, a construction organization may have an accountant in the field office under the superintendent but also he would report to the head of the company’s accounting department. In classical organizations where this integration has not affected the horizontal flow of information, communication depends upon:
1. Informal contacts of individuals at the same level of the organization.
2. Interdepartment committee meetings to let everyone know what everyone else is doing and to coordinate their activities.
3. Horizontal distribution of written reports.
Communication Recommendations from Construction Studies
In the review of previous organizational behavior studies conducted in construction organizations, good communication was often mentioned as a key factor for a successful project (3, 7, 8, 10, 12). If you speculate that planning is the most important function of construction management, then communication would rank a close second (12). However, the following comments from journeymen and foremen emphasize the difficulty of achieving effective communications on construction projects.
• “There are many frustrations working on this size of project which make it unbearable —
‘Can’t find anybody for an answer.’
‘Your problems are always urgent — holding up crews for an answer.’
‘The individual you go to doesn’t know, doesn’t care, is too busy.’
‘You want to accomplish something, you try everything, but you become frustrated.’
‘Crews become frustrated as they wait for information,”
• “Craftsmen know they can go to their foremen for an answer, but this befuddled as it goes up the line.”
• “Somebody should catch interferences. Less supervision would be required if engineers preparing blueprints would conduct constructibility reviews and communicate directly with the people doing construction.”
The following recommendations from the previous studies referenced above are presented in a summary format under tangible and intangible information. However, the reader is encouraged to examine a particular reference if he wishes to understand the basis for the recommendation.
Tangible Information Recommendations
Most of the recommendations of previous construction management studies refer to what can be considered tangible aspects of communication which are specific types of information that can be measures.
Previous studies conducted by the author provided the following recommendations:
1. Standards for workmanship: owners, project managers and superintendents should have, communicate, and enforce minimum standards for workmanship.
2. Cost information: owners and project managers should provide and share accurate cost or production data with field supervisors. Superintendents should be involved in setting cost goals as well as obtaining proper cost information from foremen. Providing cost, quantities, or man-hour information to challenge crews or shifts is a potentially significant motivator on a project.
3. Profitability figures: exact figures should not be given to foremen or workers because they do not have ways of interpreting them; however, relative profitability figures such as comparing a project’s current profit position (i.e., first, third, sixth, etc.) with other company projects could be given and could be used to motivate workers.
4. Engineering information: owners and project managers should insure that the necessary engineering information is available to the field. Superintendents and foremen should preplan as far ahead as possible to determine engineering design problems before they affect job progress, and then they must often push management for timely answers to design questions.
5. Drawings and details: the office should be responsible for reviewing drawings and developing details to assist field supervisors plus insuring that all revisions are immediately forwarded to the field.
6. Paperwork: owners and project managers should explain all paperwork requirements to superintendents and foremen. Field paperwork should be reduced or simplified as much as possible.
7. Duties of office service groups: the field personnel should be informed of the duties of the support groups in the office and how these service groups benefit the field.
8. Weekly project scheduling meetings: new methods of construction, integration of work among trades, and job policy may be discussed.
9. Monthly or quarterly company supervisory meetings: ideas for solving difficult project problems are shared while company policy is communicated. The accompanying social or informal interchange supports the team effort.
10. Organizational structure: since the growth of a company usually hinders upward and downward communication, attempt to reduce hierarchical levels.
Intangible Information Recommendations
Intangible information is the type of information which cannot be measured in a very precise way. As will be seen in the types of information listed in this category, it is often related to tangible information yet there is an intangible aspect of the communication process. For example, owners and project managers can provide cost information to field superintendents to create a feeling of mutual trust. It is very difficult to measure trust, but the superintendent and foreman receiving the cost information could probably state if he has or has not that feeling of trust.
This intangible aspect of communications will have an effect on the results obtained from the information flow process. For example, if two persons give the same tangible information, one will get better results due to the intangible aspects which depend on the personalities of the individuals, their leadership styles, and on the way things are said, or in a more general way, they depend on human factors.
Previous studies conducted by the author provided the following information:
1. Contact with foremen: superintendents should try to maintain a close personal contact with foremen, try to avoid confrontations between foremen, and promote understanding and cooperation through weekly scheduling meetings.
2. Mutual trust: management should create feelings of mutual trust by providing accurate feedback on project status and field supervisors’ performance.
3. Superior accessibility: field supervisors should provide accurate information to management as required by the company’s control systems, but they should feel free to ask questions when the need for certain paperwork is not clear.
4. Praise: a few appropriate words of approval can make significant improvements in a workman’s performance.
5. Conflict: management should create a non-threatening environment with supervisors to allow healthy conflict that leads to creative problem solving and team development.
Integrating Communication and Construction Research
The previous subsection on content implies that understanding between the sender and the receiver is often dependent upon some type of feedback from the receiver to the sender to insure the message is producing the results desired. This principal is particularly important when communicating with subcontracting firms that perform specialized work. Even though members of a subcontracting firm should not have trouble understanding the content of a message within their own area of expertise, general contractors should be cautious when giving or receiving information to a group specialized in a different area. Feedback between the general contractor and subcontractor or between two subcontractors should insure the content is understood by either party regardless of their area of specialization.
Planning and scheduling meetings for facilitating better integration of the trades of the project level is a valuable communications vehicle to obtain feedback, yet many construction companies fail to use this technique. (3). Discussion of each crew’s work for the next week so all the subcontractors know what is expected of them provides better coordination and also gives supervisors an opportunity to explore ideas with management that could improve construction methods.
Tangible Recommendations 1, 2, 3, 6, 7 and Intangible Recommendations 2, 3, 4 and 5 are other examples recognizing the significance of feedback on the content of the message transmitted.
Barriers are elements which obstruct the adequate flow of information. They can be caused by the organization itself or by the individual personalities of the persons involved. For example, small construction firms have a shallow hierarchy that results in mutual trust and informal communication. But, as in large industrial or bureaucratic organizations, companies with deep hierarchies frequently become rigid in their growth so that knowledge of serious problems does not reach top management. Since the seriousness of the situation is not known, little if any action is taken. Then when it is too late to do anything constructively, the bottom falls out.
Personalities can also be a communication barrier for a superintendent who explained how quickly job problems came to his attention, yet one general foreman went to the company psychologist asking for help in developing the skills necessary to communicate problems with this supervisor. Another superintendent on the same project was eventually replaced because he wanted to keep all the information to himself. If the foremen had a question, this superintendent’s usual answer was “Wait till I run back to the office and check the plans, specs, or shop drawings”. Often the crews were waiting because he felt that everything had to go through him.
Also, when firms do not take advantage of Tangible Recommendations 2, 4, 6 and 9 and Intangible Recommendations 2, 4 and 5, barriers to communication may reduce its organizational effectiveness.
The organizational structure of a group establishes a communication net; and in turn, the network affects the efficiency of the group to process information and perform tasks. The Type 3 Net in Figure 1 indicates a stable organization with accurate and fast processing of information, but these advantages may be offset by poor morale of everyone except the individual at the hub of the wheel.
In construction, the Type 3 Net would also increase the morale of the group, because information is quickly and accurately transmitted so group members are productive. This is supported by one of the author’s major findings from a previous study in which well organized and productive construction projects lead to high job satisfaction for each level of the hierarchy (3). In other words, the sense of accomplishment that is developed from productive projects is a prime motivator, and the individual that serves in the pivotal communication role is inconsequential to morale of the group.
In addition to the explanation of the Type 3 Net’s influence on productivity and job satisfaction, Tangible Recommendation 7 and 10 and Intangible Recommendations 2 and 5 are related to the functioning of the communications structure of an organization.
Mutual trust is Intangible Recommendation 2 and is usually a requirement for the most effective communication in construction, as well as other organizations. To illustrate, there is a sort of camaraderie at each hierarchical level in all but the largest construction organizations that allows bad as well as good information to be transmitted to superiors. For example, even the owner of a contracting firm will frequently be chewed-out by a superintendent or foreman if the company isn’t providing the necessary support on his project.
This attitude of trust also makes possible healthy and constructive conflicts which is almost a prerequisite for creative problem solving and the development of a team effort in place of a one-man show. Thus, both management and field supervision then feel free to ask the question, “Is this the best method?” without a threat being felt in either direction.
All the Tangible Recommendations 1—10 and the remaining Intangible Recommendations 1, 3 and 4 are somewhat dependent upon developing an atmosphere of trust that will gain the confidence of managers, field supervisors and workmen in order to fully open the channels of communication.
In an organization there is vertical and horizontal flow of information. The vertical flow is composed of a downward flow which should generate an upward flow. Thus, when comparing construction organizations with industrial organizations, the former organization usually has shallower structures and this improves the vertical communications process since the number of information exchanges are reduced.
On the other hand, project organization in building and industrial construction requires considerable task coordination between the general contractor and the different subcontractors, so special emphasis should be placed on horizontal communication. This is complicated because the flow of information on a project is coordinated by different companies; whereas, in most industrial organizations the groups belong to the same company and horizontal information flow would appear to occur with less effort.
The Tangible Recommendations 4, 5 and 8 and Intangible Recommendations 1 and 5 are particularly significant since they relate to horizontal communications that will probably require the most effort by subcontractors, and the general contractor in particular, to insure adequate information flow.
The findings from behavioral science communications research are particularly applicable to the construction industry when adapted to the project environment. The importance of the process of information flow, especially horizontal communication, cannot be denied nor can the process be considered as a secondary interest for a construction organization in that a great deal of the organization’s success depends upon it.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate tangible and intangible information for they are both essential to the process of information flow. Also, one is not necessarily more important than the other. The tangible recommendation of transmitting cost information — communicating the cost of concrete work — could be accompanied with an intangible recommendation — praising the supervisor for attaining the budgeted cost for concrete. The supervisor receives not only the information but also the accompanying feeling of management trust.
The wheel type communication net usually places the project manager or superintendent in the critical communication position to give and receive information (general contractor’s office, subcontractor’s home office and in the field, his own field supervisors, plus the architect, engineer and client). When selecting an individual for a position which requires collecting and disseminating information to many parties, the intangible communicating ability that is a result of personality characteristics and leadership styles is a critical consideration.
1. Argyris, Chris, “Management Information Systems: The Challenge to Rationality and Emotionality”, Management Science, Vol. 17, No. 6, (February 1976), pp. B275-B292.
2. Bavelas, Alex and Derriot, Barret, “An Experimental Approach to Organizational Communication”, Personnel, Vol. 27, No. 5, (March 1951), pp. 366-371.
3. Borcherding, John D., An Exploratory Study of Attitudes That Affect Human Resources in Building and Industrial Construction, Stanford, California, Dept. of Civil Engineering, Stanford University, 1972.
4. Borcherding, John D., “Applying Behavioral Research Findings On Construction Projects”, Vol. VII, No. 3, Project Management Quarterly, Sept. 1976.
5. Borcherding, John D., “Improving Productivity in Industrial Construction By Effective Management of Human Resources”, Proceedings of the Project Management Institute, Eight Annual Seminar/Symposium, Montreal, Canada, October 6-8, 1976.
6. Foster, Charles, Building with Men: An Analysis of Group Behavior and Organization in a Building Firm, London, Tavistock Publications, 1969.
7. Forero, Jaime, “Information Flow Within Construction Organizations”, unpublished M. S. Thesis, Dept. of Civil Engineering, University of Texas at Austin, Dec. 1976.
8. Hahn, De Wayne E. and Borcherding, John D., “Study of Superintendent and Management Views to Improve Construction Work Relationships”, Dept. of Civil Engineering, University of Texas at Austin, 1975.
9. Haney, William V., Communication and Organizational Behavior, Chapter 2, Homewood, 111., Richard D. Irwin, Inc., 1967.
10. Jones, Lloyd W., Human Factors As They Affect Methods Improvement, Stanford, California, Dept. of Civil Engineering, Stanford University, 1964.
11. Leavitt, Harold J., Managerial Psychology, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, Second Edition, 1964.
12. Lott, Wayne H., Jr. and Borcherding, John D., Managerial Techniques Influencing Successful Construction Project Management, Dept. of Civil Engineering, University of Texas at Austin, 1975.
13. Luthans, Fred, Organizational Behavior, New York, McGraw-Hill Series in Management, 1973.
14. Rush, M. F. (Ed.), Behavioral Science Concepts and Management Applications, Studies in Personnel Policy, No. 216, New York, National Industrial Conference Board.
15. Scanlon, Bart K., Management 18: A Short Course for Managers, The Univ. of Oklahoma, New York, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1974.
The author wishes to acknowledge Jaime Forero for his assistance in reviewing the communications and construction management literature.