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Constructing Teams

Contemporary commercial buildings are large, complex systems that require an equally complex array of teams to design and build them. Design and construction processes are rooted in layers of historical work practices that enable temporary teams of experts to come together quickly to work together. Over the past five years, I, along with Carrie Sturts Dossick of the University of Washington, have studied three different building project teams who have used new computer software, Building Information Modeling (BIM), which is capable of integrating design and construction databases to foster collaborative work among these teams. In essence, a BIM is a virtual prototype of the building. As such, it enables designers and constructors to test their ideas before they break ground at a physical construction site. This virtual prototype enhances some existing work practices but conflicts with many others. In the case of coordination of a building’s mechanical systems, BIM enables teams to quickly detect where these systems might conflict with one another.

The success of BIM is mixed. In the case of the coordination of a building’s mechanical systems, BIM aligns well with existing coordination practices and enables teams to quickly detect where these systems might conflict with one another. However, promised closer and earlier collaboration between designers and builders is not often happening. We argue in this book that the story of how BIM is (and isn’t) used in practice teaches us as much about teams and communication as it does failed technology adoption. Our argument presumes that tools are often introduced to solve social and organizational problems, not merely technological ones, as was the case for BIM. In this arises a gap between what a tool is capable of, has affordances for, or is marketed as, and the ways in which teams and organizations work, and the context for and cultures around that work. We call these gaps misalignments. Industry experts and BIM proponents suggest that misalignments can be resolved if design and construction work practices and contracting structures change, in some cases significantly, to take full advantage of the virtual prototyping affordances and efficiencies of BIM. What we have found most interesting in our study is how successful teams, (teams who collaborate well), have adapted technologies or their work practices in support of team collaboration.  They sometimes go against long standing industry standards; while at other times, they modify technologies to meet their current practices.

When organizational practices align with the new technology, the technology can be quickly and somewhat quietly absorbed into practice. This was the case for how general contractors use BIM across their teams of subcontractors. More often it is the case that the technology is misaligned with organizational contexts, routines, and practices. For example, the contexts of professional standards, building codes, and legal environments have shaped the very formalized ways, (e.g., Drawings, Specifications, Requests for Information, Submittals) of sharing information among architects, engineers and general contractors. BIM is misaligned with these formalized document processes in that it affords the exchange of informal working documents and does not yet allow for electronic signatures or other legal stamps.

This book focuses on the ways in which teams react when faced with misalignments. We found that teams who successfully adopted and adapted technologies and new ways of communicating were flexible and creative. In some cases they creatively adjusted technology and work practices and at other times they simply “broke the rules”, exchanging informal documents that were eventually followed by the formal copies.  They adapted all sorts of tools (spreadsheets or drawings, whiteboards and smart phones, and computer models) to serve the organizational needs for conversation, documentation and information exchange.

In this book, we focus on several key aspects of our ethnography. 1) First, we provide background on the industry and on the introduction of BIM through the idea of “Conflicting Obligations” to companies, scopes of work, and to the building project, which must be coordinated in design and construction teams.  Teams using BIM for MEP coordination were able to identify problems in the plans more readily, but resolving those problems proved challenging given these teams’ organizational separation within the larger design process.  2) Next we use the theory of “Swift Trust” to talk about how teams coordinate without shared personal histories of working together and to illustrate why the introduction of new technologies or new ways of working are so disruptive. We use this chapter to help provide context on design and construction teams for social scientists who are not familiar with them and introduce the social science theories we ground our research in. 3) The goal of the third chapter is to spend time focusing on the technology of BIM itself and argue that the centralizing affordances of BIM do not map on to the decentralized ways of working within the industry. We do this through thinking about the organizational boundaries that models and plans must cross among the many different firms working on a single project. 4) The fourth chapter develops our work on “Messy Talk”—mutual discovery for joint problem solving—and the misalignment between flexible tools for sketch ideas and the more formalized practices of documenting in construction. 5) The fifth chapter covers how and why teams innovate, starting with the “bootleg submittal” created by one of our teams. 6) In chapter six we look at how teams innovate on the process around technology, and we focus on these innovations at the local team level. Comparing five different teams from three different projects, we see that the process of technology adoption occurs quite locally, in the practices of the tools and integration into ways of working, and we outline what the teams we studied needed to achieve successful collaboration. 7) Finally, we conclude the book by arguing that the best collaborations did not rely on the most sophisticated technologies alone, but they were able to innovate around a wide array of tools. We also point to promising emerging practices in the industry that offer hope for better collaboration by addressing organizational routines and practices concurrently with technology affordances.

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