Challenges, threats and opportunities

Peter Zammit, iAS Ltd director, explains his view on a number of issues in relation to project management in the local construction industry on the Times of Malta

The terms ‘project management’, ‘project manager’, and ‘construction management’ are frequently used in the construction industry. Is there a clear definition of the term ‘project management’ that is agreed across the industry?

Various definitions of project management exist. If one had to group the commonalities between the different definitions, it would be the coming together of a group of people for a fixed period of time to deliver a project from its concept to its realisation, through a change process, within an agreed timeframe, to an agreed cost and to agreed level of quality within a safe working environment.

Companies generally have their own definitions, which are generally a spin off from this generic definition and serve as a sort of mission statement.

For iAS the definition of project management has evolved over the last 10 years and strongly focuses on the early recognition of risk. We strongly believe that in undertaking the role of steering the project, that project manager should be in a position to pre-empt risk, be it threat or opportunity, as early as possible in order to allow sufficient time for proper avoidance, mitigation or acceptance.

Has the role of the project manager always been part of the local construction industry?

Yes. In the past, the role of the project manager was mainly a shared responsibility between the architect in charge and the developer. We have to appreciate that until 20 to 25 years ago, the majority of buildings in Malta where still relatively simple in nature – there were no complications in building services, few health and safety laws and simple client requirements. The solution adopted by the industry in those times was suitable for the task at hand.

As projects got larger and more complex, with tighter timeframes and more budgetary constraints, it became evident that the level of management had to be shifted a notch up and a structured way of managing projects started being introduced.

As with any change process, the local industry, including iAS, had to adapt to new ways. We focused on the project requirements and adapted to the change, taking on board all the challenges that came with it.

What is the biggest challenge you face when undertaking the role of project manager?

Challenges vary depending on a number of factors. First, they vary depending on whether you are managing the project on behalf of the developer or contractor. At iAS, we have been exposed to both scenarios on a range of different projects across a host of industries – the approach in these two roles requires a complete different mental attitude and rationale.

Project challenges also vary depending on the stage of the project. Work practices divide projects into a number of stages, which allow the team to focus on clearer deliverables within a foreseeable timeframe. In the initial stages the first challenges are assisting the client to attain the necessary financing. Permits pose their own set of challenges in managing stakeholders and having an agile team to adapt the project depending on the outcome of discussions with authorities.

Execution of the works poses a completely different set of challenges. There are however other challenges which are common throughout the stages such as ensuring clear and open communication channels between different team members as required as well as with interested stakeholders, maintaining a happy balance between time, cost and quality, and so on.

Has project management been a positive contribution to the industry?

It depends a lot on what yard stick one decides to use. I have worked in the construction industry for the last 20 years after completing my architectural studies at the University of Malta, and gradually transitioned into project management 10 years ago. At iAS, we have worked in different fields, and I can confirm that when looking at the industry as a whole, the industry has had a positive evolution. It might be difficult to pinpoint how much of this evolution was the result of project management or simply a natural course that the industry had to take.

In my mind the catalyst to the change was the fact that projects became larger, more complex, and more costly to undertake and that in itself created the necessity of the project manager. This in turn resulted in having a new breed of professionals at the helm requesting that things are done in a different manner by all those involved, from professionals to contractors. This led the latter to develop and invest, so in a nutshell, yes I do believe that it was a positive contribution.

For a lot of people project management is about managing time, among other aspects of the project. So if project management has been a positive contribution why do our local projects always take longer than originally planned?

The management of time is only one aspect in project management. Admittedly, the majority of projects, and this is not only common in Malta, take longer than originally planned. In my personal opinion and in projects that iAS have been involved in, the reason is wrong planning at the very beginning which is then carried through the rest of the project.

In most cases a financial business case will only make sense if the project can be undertaken within a specific period of time. Going beyond that period of time will increase project costs, delay returns on sales, putting the feasibility of the project at risk. When things start to go wrong, the original timeframe does not have the necessary buffers built into it, and the problems encountered result in delays.

At iAS we provide our clients with an optimistic, realistic and pessimistic programme of works which are combined through a PERT analysis. Clients will always want to adopt the optimistic timeframe but we constantly advocate that they should allow for necessary buffers in the estimate. Many times clients argue that in other countries in the world, predominantly the Middle East and the Far East, skyscrapers are built at a pace of one storey in a week. They are correct but one has to appreciate that these are built in different cultures, under different circumstances and the initial investment made by the developer in the design development of the project is tremendous. So it is in my opinion incorrect to compare the time it takes to build one storey of the building without looking at the whole picture.

Does society in general have what to benefit from project management?

Be it a public or private funded project, project management should, and does create the necessary checks and controls to ensure that the project is executed in a structured manner in all aspects, from design development to health and safety and pollution control during execution of works. Through these controls the end result will be better which in turn leaves a positive contribution to the well-being of society in general

Is project management just a bureaucratic exercise where people justify their existence through the creation of systems and paperwork?

There are two sides to project management. There is the paperwork part, such as collection of data of what happened yesterday, what is happening today, quality control testing and more. At iAS we tend to refer to that as the retroactive part of project management. More importantly there is the proactive part whereby, through our systems and processes we try to foresee into the future as much as possible to determine where the potential risks exist which will allow us enough time to find an alternative route. This to us is the most exciting part of project management where through our systems and processes, together with our project team and the client we can actually steer the project away from potential pitfalls.

That said, any systems or procedures are only tools which assist the project management team in being proactive. Pro-activeness has to be instilled by the individuals managing the project.

Larger projects and recent trends indicate a number of high-rise projects. Is the industry geared up to handle such projects, and what contribution will the project management profession make to their successful completion?

The local industry has always adapted to the needs of the day. Be it professionals or contractors, I dare say that they have always stood up to the challenge. I agree that the challenge of high-rise buildings should not be taken lightly and we are already seeing a number of professionals teaming up with larger international firms who have previous experience in such structures.

In relation to the project management team, it is essential that this is in place as soon as possible to guide the project through all its different phases, creating the necessary controls and mitigating any risks. Approaching such project without the necessary management team can potentially lead to insurmountable problems.

What in your opinion is the key to a successful construction project?

One might argue that completing the project is a success in itself. For us at iAS, the success lies in the route taken to complete the project and how risks encountered were pre-empted, how quickly they were flagged up and more importantly how effective the mitigation measures, if any, actually were. We achieve this through having control over the project and positioning ourselves at the heart of the project. You have to be dedicated towards the project and always putting the best interest of the project, working with all the team members, stakeholders and interested parties to create one common goal which will eventually lead to a successful project.


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