All the aspects of a project

Mounir Ajam, chief executive officer of project management and training consultancy, Sukad, explains the concept of project environment.

COMMENT, Projects

In my previous articles about project management and the construction industry in the Middle East, we posed many questions. The most recent article closed with the following: "Delays, quality challenges and fires are not the problems, rather they are the symptoms of deep-rooted issues. So what are the root causes of these challenges?"

The last article also discussed understanding the project environment as one of the five areas of expertise required to effectively manage a project.

One major environmetal factor that is having a significant impact on our projects today is the ‘market factor.

To simply explain the project environment, we can consider building a house or four houses. Let us assume that our four houses will all be the same size, internal layout, number of rooms, size of rooms, etc. One house will be built in a desert, another on a mountain, the third in a crowded town or city, and the fourth on a beach area.

Could these be designed and built the same way? Obviously, no. The beach house must consider the salt-water environment and should include features to resist salt-water corrosion. The mountain house should have a roof that could carry the weight of potential snow and should have good insulation for cold weather, whereas the desert house should have good insulation for cooling.

If we build all four houses to the same standard, they would not last for a long time without significant maintenance. If we do not consider the environment of each house then the outcome will not meet the objectives, and hence the project will be ‘challenged' and might even fail. In this case, we have defined the project environment as it relates to the ‘physical environment'.

Other factors related to the project environment deal with culture and politics or the political situation in a given area. Implementing a project in an area where there is a risk of war is a major concern and should be considered. For example, many oil and gas projects suffered during the recent regional war in Iraq because much of the equipment used in these projects were purchased globally and due to war concerns many vendors refused to send support staff to help in the installation or testing of equipment.

This fact led to many project delays and cost impact, not to mention possible quality impact as well. It is the same scenario as in the previous point: those in project management who understand the region we are in and the challenges posed are better equipped to handle those projects. On the other hand, international consultants or contractors working in the region and not fully understanding the culture or political environment, will possibly have their projects negatively impacted.

One major environmental factor that is having significant impact on our projects today is the ‘market factor'. What we have seen in recent years is a large number of projects being pursued or implemented - one only needs to look at the news from the recent Cityscape exhibition to be amazed and see the market ‘hype'.

The challenge is that organisations, management and project management professionals have planned many of the currently ongoing projects, or recently completed ones, using ‘traditional thinking'. Such thinking has traditionally been along the lines of: ‘We want to build a tower, and in the past such a tower would take 30 months to be completed. So, now we are going to build 20 towers, and to be safe we will set a 34-month completion schedule."

Maybe this would work, but what we have failed to understand is the project environment. We did not realise that there might be 20 projects each with one to 40 towers taking place. What we did not realise is that we're not building a hospital, we're building a medical city. What we missed is that we are not building a road, rather a huge city with a major transportation system.

Why is this an issue? Because all of these projects are happening in a small area and are all competing for the same resources whether the resource is material, equipment or people. We are seeing severe shortages in highly qualified people at all levels, from the labour in the field to professionals, project managers, and even senior management. The infrastructure cannot catch up with the speed of development and we hear about completed projects that cannot be opened for residents because there is no permanent power connected. We see and hear about fires, mostly due to the lack of proper procedures and lack of oversight by the contractors, programme managers, consultants and the authorities, because every one is stretched thin.

The reality we discussed above is nothing new to many readers, so we hope that at least it should serve us to remember the project environment in all aspects as we plan our multi -billion dollar projects.

Before I close, I will raise another environmental factor that will have more and more impact in the future, at least in the UAE for now, and that is the environment; here we are talking about sustainable development, energy efficiency, cleaner building, waste reduction, etc. In the past we have ignored these factors, we will not be able to do so in the future.

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