Partnering: a regional panacea?

In a culture of unbalanced risk allocation, is the region ready for more of an equal approach?

A short answer to this rhetorical question is 'no'. But a longer answer is worth debating, as so many people are talking about 'the P-word', and we are all desperate to find a quick fix for our combined problems of insufficient quality resources, near-impossible programs, and satisfying the region's insatiable demand for the next mega-project.

Like so many other fashionable issues, there is a real risk that in our search for a perfect and immediate solution, we will miss out on the step-by-step progress needed to reach a regional model that fits with the existing state of play and the underlying culture in our industry.

There are many international experts who understand and preach the benefits of a collaborative project approach. Indeed, there is little doubt in the minds of those who have really 'walked the talk' that partnering, alliancing or collaborative working - whatever you want to call it - really can lead to that mythical 'win-win' outcome we all aspire to. There is also good evidence that some of these enlightened experts are successfully introducing their ideas into the region - Aldar at Al Raha Beach, Macquarie Bank at ICAD, and Arcapita at Bahrain Bay - are three examples of regional clients who have had sufficient global exposure to understand what has been achieved elsewhere.

I wish them well, and sincerely hope that this regional trend will grow. However, I feel I also have to draw a breath and ask the awkward question - is the region mature enough to truly embrace everything that is implied with partnering?

Some of the more prominent features linked with this method of procurement include:

l A communication mechanism that identifies common goals, and allows transparent measurement and achievement of them.

l An understanding and articulation of benefits, rather than features, for a supplier-customer relationship, followed by alignment of business processes to achieve these.

l A consideration and concern for the impact on the full supply chain, in all risk allocation.

l A recognition of maximum value rather than lowest price.

l Opportunities for early contractor or supplier involvement in the design process.

Underlying all of these is a culture of mutual trust - one that recognises that each party must lower its guard and openly embrace the other in order to succeed.

The history and concept of partnering started with the US Army Corp of Engineers in the late 1980s, was adapted by Sir Michael Latham and Sir John Egan in the UK in the mid-1990s, and has continued to be refined through the current decade. So there has been almost 30 years of experience built up of the benefits and barriers to partnering. Some of those benefits include innovation, predictable financial and programme outcomes, better value, reduced interface problems, less wasted effort, more standardisation and higher productivity.

Some of the barriers which have not been completely overcome, globally, include a public sector approach which cannot accept anything other than lowest price as a measure of best value, a traditional and confrontational approach of avoiding rather than sharing risk, and an underlying level of mistrust, 'short-termism' and selfishness in the industry.

If I am honest, it is these latter characteristics which still bother me when I hear of partnering being talked about in the Gulf. It is only when we have a more open culture and trust in others exhibited by all parties in the industry that we can truly unleash the fully shared benefits associated with this approach.

A good place to start, however, would be a more proactive approach to supply chain management by clients, as well as earlier contractor involvement. There should be a more open recognition of qualities other than price, which govern selection, and we need a more open approach to sharing knowledge between competing developers, where a common approach would help establish a much better planned infrastructure.

There are some signs of this happening in the region, but we must remain patient to achieve the widespread changes that are really needed.

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