The importance of effective communication in the construction industry
‘Examine the ways that typical construction professionals organise their businesses and the methods by which they communicate with others when involved in a construction/civil engineering project’
This report provides an examination of how communication plays an integral role in the organisation of businesses and focuses on the practices of construction professionals. The first section of the report covers the background and definition of communication within the construction industry. The report then moves onto sections covering the importance of communication in construction and the key communication methods that exist in the industry.
Communication forms an integral component within almost all businesses and industries and requires a significant level of attention and organisation in order for it to be successful. Cherry (1978) refers to communication as a process that involves interaction between people through which meaning can be developed and distributed. Cumming (1989) builds upon this by describing the word ‘communication’ as:
“ … the process of conveying messages (facts, ideas, attitudes, opinions) from one person to another so that they are understood.”
The construction industry provides a typical example of an environment in which communication plays a significant role and, moreover, is considered to be an invaluable requirement in order for businesses and professionals to function properly. The key reason that communication is pivotal in the construction industry is because the industry is dependent upon large amounts of information being transmitted, especially at a rate of intensity and efficiency to meet the demands that many construction businesses require in a highly competitive market (Tam, 1999; Chen and Kamara, 2008).
As well as this, the sheer range of roles and professions that exist within numerous areas of the industry, which are frequently required to combine their knowledge while working together on certain projects requires good communication. For instance, important communication on a construction project would require contractors, employees, colleagues and clients to consistently communicate in order to work towards achieving the objectives of the project (Sommerville et al. 2004; Heyecan and Sima, 2010). More specifically, this would include a range of professionals from project inception, right through to completion, which may include designers, planners, architects, builders, engineers and various others (Heyecan and Sima, 2010; Aladeloba et al. 2010). Considering this vast range of professionals, the need for good and timely communication becomes yet more important, as different professions, each dealing with certain aspects of a project, overlap in terms of understanding and levels of competence.
This point is emphasised by Spada:
“Communication in construction is a complex business due to the sheer multiplicity of potential stakeholders: government, investors, joint venture parties, local authorities and residents to name a few.” (Spada Website, n.d.)
What makes communication at this level even more difficult is the fact that these numerous professionals are often required to collaborate over a very short period of time, which may make it harder to convey information (Chen and Kamara, 2008).
3.0 The Importance of Communication
Good communication is an essential component of any profession or business, but given all its complexities, communication within the construction industry is yet more important. One reason for this is the requirements of and the need for compliance with health and safety legislation and regulations, such as the Construction Design and Management Regulations 2007, among others. Communication here, for instance, may be conveyed through on site health and safety information such as signage and through general instructions or briefings (CITB Construction Federation). Poor communication in such instances could have devastating consequences whereby people could be seriously or fatally injured. Generally, the construction industry has a poor reputation for the way in which professionals and organisations communicate this sort of information (Emitt and Gorse, 2003). An example of such an occurrence was in the case of Alex Wright who died in a trench collapse on a construction site in 2008 because of the poor communication of information regarding the entry into deep trial pits by his employers, Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd (BBC Website, 2011; C&G Safety Consultants, 2011).
However, it is not only for health and safety reasons that communication is important in the construction industry. It is also a matter of efficiency and effectiveness in producing the final product which can be attributed to careful communication at a number of levels, in order to avoid poor production or dissatisfying results (Aladeloba et al., 2010; Heyecan and Sima, 2010; Zulch, 2010). A publication in 2003 by BSI Group highlighted such issues, stating that many of the defects in the UK construction industry were due to information not being efficiently communicated or utilised, and that these errors cost the industry an estimated £20 billion annually (BSI, 2003).
4.0 Methods of Communication
There are numerous methods and processes through which professionals in the construction industry communicate effectively. Usually, during the course of a project, the project manager takes responsibility for the organisation and provision of information for all other professionals associated with the project (Kotze et al. 2007). As part of these responsibilities, there is a requirement to develop a communication plan so that it is clear to all what channels must be used and which professionals can be contacted, and at what times (Burke, 2003).
Figure 1. Communication between professionals within a construction project
Source: Dainty et al. (2006, p.32)
Once this structure is put into place, there are generally three forms of communication that take effect during, for instance, a project. These include:
- Oral communication – spoken messages (face-to-face, telephone, presentations, meetings)
- Written Communication – (emails, letters, fax, memos, plans, legal documents, reports, manuals)
- Nonverbal Communication
(Heyecan and Sima, 2010, p.12)
Burke (2003), who provides a similar categorisation of the forms of communication, refers to non-verbal communication as “ … the conveyance of powerful messages in the business world by means of gestures, appearance or attitudes” (p.5). Furthermore, an additional category ‘Electronic Communication’ is added as another form of communication.
In order for the forms of communication to be successful, ‘communication instruments’ are required (Knipe, 2002). These instruments are essential to providing the relevant information in order to clearly transmit messages and understanding across the range of professionals working on a project. For example, at the tendering stage of a project, the key communication instruments would likely involve formal letters, calculations, telephone calls, reports, presentations and contracts in order for the contractor to win a bid to work on a certain project. Another example would be through the everyday workings on a construction site, such as non-verbal communication of health and safety information through letters, and signage and, verbally, through word of mouth. Verbal communication through mediums such as two way radios would facilitate the movement of materials using heavy machinery. The presentation and explanation of certain construction details would be given via drawings and reports (Chen and Kamara, 2008; CITB Construction Skills; Bowden et al., 2004). In the case of a designer or architect, communication is predominantly carried out through the process of visual representations via drawings; however other forms of communication are necessary to fully convey such messages to others (The American Institute of Architects, 2008).
4.1 Electronic Communication
Traditional means such as paper-based communication, phone calls and face-to-face meetings seem to be the cornerstone of communication in the construction industry, especially as permanent records are usually in paper-based form (Sommerville et al. 2004; Bowden et al., 2004). However as Chen and Kamara (2008) point out, such methods can have major constraints, possibly because of the burdens of storage and keeping documents in good condition in situations (poor weather) which can compromise this. This could lead to poor communication of information and delays on a project. For such reasons, many companies based in the construction industry have adopted the use of more technological methods such as electronic communication and Information Technology (IT) (Sommerville et al., 2004). The introduction of technology is seen as a tool which can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of communication and the rates at which it can be stored and transmitted (Mohamed and Stewart, 2003).
With the implementation of innovative technology for communication, comes the adoption of methods of managing such information so that it can be communicated more easily. The adoption of Electronic Document Management Systems (EDMS) in some organisations has enabled this by providing a system of structured information which can be easily accessed from anywhere. This means that communication can be clearly distributed through a far wider geographical area instantly (Sommerville and Craig, 2006). An example of this is the internal online communication portals, such as those used by universities. A typical example in the construction industry would be that of the Planning Portal which enables construction professionals and the general public to view details of planning applications, for instance, as well as communication links to local authorities.
Another way in which construction professionals are able to more easily communicate with each other is through the practice of standardisation. This refers to the process of applying uniformity through a number of areas of practice in order to achieve a level playing field in terms of interpretation and understanding (Burke, 2003; Harris and McAffer, 2006). This can be implemented through certain guidelines of practice, for instance, British Standards/International Standards and Codes of Practice or the use of dimensional scales; for example, the consistent use of metric or imperial scales for the interpretation of construction drawings. Such uniformity can improve the communication of information and can minimise misinterpretation. Burke (2003) lists some further benefits:
- Less variation in documents
- The easier handling of records
- Simpler training
- Easier communication planning and control
- Better utilisation of documents (Burke, 2003, p.2)
Overall it is clear that construction professionals must organise their businesses with significant attention and consideration to the methods they adopt to communicate with others. There are numerous methods available, both traditional and the more modern innovative forms. However; it is imperative that communication is of a high quality because the information conveyed needs to be transmitted to a large audience. Different professionals from various areas of construction often need to combine their skills and knowledge when working together on projects. It is also important that such information is carefully communicated, to potential clients, partners or other contractors, because it could make the difference between the success or failure of a project or business venture.
American Institute of Architects, 2008, The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, 4th Edition
Aladeloba, A. Onukwube, H. and Raheem, A. (2010) The effect of communication practice of construction companies on project performance, The Construction, Building and Real Estate Research Conference of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors Held at Dauphine Université, Paris, 2-3 September 2010
BBC Website (2011) Company guilty of Cheltenham geologist’s murder, [Online]: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-gloucestershire-12468535, Accessed: 15.05.2011
Bowden, S. Dorr, A. Thorpe, A. and Anumba, C. (2004) Mapping site processes for the introduction of mobile IT, Proceedings of the 5th European Conference on Product and Process Modelling in the Building and Construction Industry
Burke, R. 2003. Project Management Planning and Control Techniques. 4th Edition. Tokai, RSA: Burke Publishing
British Standards Institute (BSI) (2003) Poor Communication Costing UK Construction Industry, Press Release, [Online]: http://www.bsigroup.com/en/About-BSI/News-Room/BSI-News-Content/Sectors/Construction–Building/Poor-Communication-Costing-UK-Construction-Industry/, Accessed: 14.05.2011
C&G Safety Consultants (2011) Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd convicted of first Corporate Manslaughter charge under new Act, [Online]: http://www.outsource-safety.co.uk/blog/?p=108, Accessed: 03-05-2011
Chen, Y. and Kamara, J. (2008) The Mechanisms of Information Communication on Construction Sites, Newcastle University, FORUM Ejournal 8 (June 2008): 1-32
Cherry, C. (1978) On human communication: A review, a survey, and a criticism. Cambridge and London, 3rd Edition
CITB Construction Skills, Two way conversation. A simple Guide to clearer communication, Construction Confederation and CITB(NI) as the Sector Skills Council for Construction
Cummings, M.W. (1989) The theory and practice of personnel management, Heinemann Professional, 6th Edition.
Dainty, A. Moore D. and Murray, M. (2006) Communication in Construction: Theory and Practice, Taylor and Francis.
Emitt and Gorse, 2003, Consturction Communication, Blackwell Publishing
Harris, F. and McCaffer, R. (2006) Modern Construction Management, Blackwell Publishing, 6th Edition
Heyecan, G. And Sima K.Y. (2010) Behavioral Aspects of Communication in Construction, The Construction, Building and Real Estate Research Conference of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors Held at Dauphine Université, Paris, 2-3 September 2010
Knipe, A. (ed.) (2002) Project Management for Success, Sandown: Heinemann Publishers.
Kotze, B.G. Verster, J.J. and Berry, F.H. (2007) Construction Industry Standardisation and Effective Communication.
Mohamed, S. and Stewart, R.A. (2003) An empirical investigation of users perceptions of we-based communication on a construction project, Journal of Automation in Construction, Vol 12, pp 43-53
Sommerville, J. and Craig, N. (2006) Implementing IT in Construction, Taylor and Francis
Sommerville, J. Craig, N. and McCarney, M. (2004) Document Transfer and Communication between distinct Construction Professionals, COBRA 2004, The international construction research conference of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors 7-8 September 2004 Leeds Metropolitan University
Spada Website, Consturction Communication, [Online]: http://www.spada.co.uk/property/construction-communication/, Accessed: 16.05.2011
Tam, C.M. (1999) Use of the internet to enhance construction communication: Total Information Transfer System, International Journal of Project Management, Vol 17, No. 2, pp 107-111.
Zulch, B.G. Berry, F.H. and Verster, J.J.P. (2010) Communication maturity: dimensions and instruments for construction professions, The Construction, Building and Real Estate Research Conference of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors Held at Dauphine Université, Paris, 2-3 September 2010