Thursday, August 28, 2003

The Social Construction of... Construction

The construction environment can be hostile... or at least highly competitive. Given the bid nature of contracts and the tight inspection processes required to maintain quality, it becomes very difficult to establish any sort of knowledge sharing process. Indeed, construction typically demonstrates adversarial confrontations. In most construction projects there is little incentive for the interacting agents --be they workers or companies-- to exchange knowledge. The only reason that they win contracts is because they have knowledge that their competitors don't and they operationalize it as a lower bid price.

An an owner or a client, why would you want contractors to exchange knowledge? You want them to compete head-on and drive down prices.

There are exceptions to this paradigm of warring parties. In the case of *large* projects, sharing knowledge can be beneficial. In this case a very large general contractor acts as a centralized agency to manage much of this knowledge largely because they act as the go-between for the various parties. Unfortunately, even large general contractors tend to hoard knowledge or try to gouge their subs for better margins. Large projects like Boston's Big Dig are hardly great examples of knowledge exchange.

In analyzing knowledge in construction it's important to recognize that a job site is a group of individuals and distinct agents. Knowledge exchange takes place at the interface between these agents. The sociologist Susan Star refers to artifacts that pass between these epistemic communities as "boundary objects"; Construction is loaded with them: plans, prints, progress reports, RFIs, specs, contracts, progress draws, assessments and reports, meeting minutes, etc. Even the classification schemas (CSI masterformat, WHMIS, etc.) and the specialized trade languages we use in construction become important objects with shared meaning. Through these objects the various agents can interact sufficiently to actually build something.

The problem with these objects is that they are used for another reason: litigation. In creating artifacts we are constructing some sort of "truth" that can be subpoened into the court of law. But are the documents true? Most engineers will admit that the as-built drawings are only _mostly_ true (regardless of their opinion of postmodern discourse). In attempting to create true documents we strip all the "modalities" from them e.g., in making a set of building plans as authoritative as possible we omit all of our design rational and calculations; they're relagated to our notebooks, only to be revealed if there's legal action! The socio-philosopher Bruno Latour refers to these stripped down objects as "immutable mobiles." Unfortunately, it's the sort of tacit details that get omitted from these black-box artifacts that is promised by KM.

All is not lost. As a site engineer I always had my own set of drawings that were very distinct from both the pristine office copies and the contrived as-builts (immutable mobiles). My own plans were covered with various scribbles, coffee stains, and notes from inspectors, surveyors, and contractors. In real life, I had reintroduced the modalities that had been stripped from the official drawings. Mine contained scribbles of joint details from the rebar-tier or perhaps I put notes from the geotech report on the subgrade detail. As Brown and Duguid point out in "The Social Life of Documents", we negotiate meaning with the actual physical artifact of the document and not just the information it represents. This meaning is missing from an XML schema or online database.

My final thoughts come from someone who is better known for the "construction of discourse" than the "construction of buildings." Karl Marx provides us with some insight into the capitalist microcosm that typifies the construction industry. In particular, Marx draws our attention to the wage relation and the importance of power and control. In looking at information exchange in construction, we must recognize what agents have the power, ability, and motivation to navigate between various communities... it's probably not going to be a journeyman pipe-fitter! Instead look to the site engineers, architects, senior tradesman, and inspectors that inhabit the upper reaches of the construction industry's wage echelon. Only these agents have the ability and opportunity to develop knowledge assets. Drawing on Marx we can even extend our analysis to the true capitalists of construction --the suppliers and vendors. How many of our best practices and methodologies are actually drawn from marketing material? How often is our "expert" on a particular method or a material also a merchant?

I know that someone is going to respond to my comment about the journeyman with Orr's study of photocopy repairmen. Since repairmen are not at the top of Xerox's wage scale my point must be moot! Repairmen, however, are a group of individuals who span a wide range of epistemic communities (customers, sales, service, etc.).

In short- in overcoming construction's confrontation look directly to those elements unaffected by the confrontation like the artifacts that people _actually_ use and the individuals at the top of the wage echelon.


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