Construction clients: who are they? What do they actually do, where do they fit into the organisational structure and how do they emerge? These are some of the questions currently engaging those of us who believe the current drive for better construction performance will only be achieved if the client gets better at being a “client”.
Although the “client” is often taken to mean the senior levels of the organisation, in practice, many managers delegate important decisions to specialists. These are in effect the true clients. Unless they are helped to fire on all cylinders with the full range of skills and fully reflecting the organisation’s strategic goals, then the construction industry’s skills and knowledge will not be maximised and clients will still be unclear why they have not got the results they had anticipated or how they could have contributed more to avoiding this. A key element that is lacking is taking account of maintenance issues right across the life of the asset.
Construction is a massive industry with its output accounting for 6 per cent of the nation’s economy, according to recent Office of National Statistic figures. But a durable solution requires better management of the asset base – repairs and maintenance are a key requirement for the life of the asset.
If one accepts the analysis of the Royal Academy of Engineers, it represents at least five times more in value than the capital cost: 1:5:200 is the ratio between capital, maintenance and performance costs over the life of the asset. It is irrelevant as to whether one believes these proportions to be precisely true or accurate, the important point is that there is a ratio between maintenance and the quality of construction.
Clearly there are significant drivers to remove waste from the construction process; between 30 and 50 per cent is available if one accepts the findings of Egan and others. Similarly, the cost of asset ownership must be better controlled if overall performance is to be achieved.
To deliver this the “client” now has two roles to perform: the first is to understand the construction industry and deliver, as a client, what is required to get the best from it; the second is to understand the business of their organisation and to be able to recognise what “value” really means to the business and not to see construction as a separate and isolated element.
They must be commercially astute enough to be able to articulate and drive the strategic direction of the business, see the contribution the asset in their charge can and does make, and ensure that it performs at its optimum performance level. This second dimension brings with it the need to understand how the asset performs and what is needed to maintain optimum condition.
In reality, many of those who become the actual clients of the construction industry are traditionally trained in construction related subjects, including architects, engineers and cost management (quantity surveyors). Although highly technically skilled, they are often not tied in to the overall vision for the future direction of the organisation. And whilst some of these professional skills have been quite rightly emphasised, some elements of what makes a good client have not previously been included in professional training.
Fit for purpose
This has meant the construction solution is successful technically rather than a ‘fit for purpose’ solution, which reflects the wider corporate values and needs. The results of this are that organisations which do not perform well as clients lose out because they do not see how their assets can add value now or in the future, or which parts of the asset need to be the priority for investment in -order to ensure the most robust and enduring solutions.
A business which operated over several floors of a building and had to move people around quickly, efficiently and with as little stress as possible, would make it a significant priority to have a high quality lift or escalator service, which was highly dependable, pleasant to use and easy and inexpensive to maintain.
There is still much resistance on the part of the industry to enter into fit for purpose solutions. The reasoning behind this is mixed, but it is in part due to the lack of confidence in the client being able to articulate its real needs to the supply chain. Life cycle performance is the current objective of most clients. But the skills associated with asset management are not part of the “professional” training studied by many.
The construction client of the future must be a different beast than that of the past, where skill and knowledge has often substituted by enthusiasm and the energetic clerk of works. The successful future construction client will be heavily engaged with the repair and maintenance of the asset over its life, and will therefore be better equipped to deal with the whole life costing issues introduced at the pre-construction phase.
Unless the client understands the issues around maintaining the asset, they cannot understand what whole life costing is really about and how to use it to its full benefit. This is where the Construction Client Group (CCG) needs to support client organisations, professional bodies and academic institutions to promote the necessary training and behaviours.