The challenge to change client culture in construction

Engineer meeting

“Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”

  • Albert Schweitzer

The Client needs to become a true leader – not a dictator or passive bystander. To be challenged to change client culture in construction. Over the years, there has been a succession of fashionable panaceas promoted to Clients for solving project-related problems[1]. These have included critical path scheduling, matrix management systems, joint ventures, value engineering, agile project management, six-sigma and quality assurance. The current fashion is partnering and alliancing. In reality, all these techniques have a valuable contribution to make, but they must not be allowed to displace all previous experience, and their application must be understood and integrated into the value chain correctly.

To become a leader – or certainly a leading influence – the construction Client bodies need to be informed and become involved in the industry they wish to influence. Not to any detailed extent, but to the extent dictated by sound management practices.


It is easy to analyse Client behaviour as has been done above. As with most industries, undesirable traits could be added to the list. The objective here is only to illustrate the main ones in order that they can be highlighted for what they do to a Client’s total cost of procurement. If considered on a national scale for all Clients, this amounts to a very inefficient and un-competitive industry.

Solutions are less easy to provide when it is realised that the solution requires cultural change. Changes in culture are initiated and driven from the highest level in any organisation. The arrival of Dr John Marée at Eskom in 1985 is proof of this, and it is evident to the whole country. Hence, any solution which is proposed for Clients of the construction industry must have an appeal and effect at the “Chairman / Upper Executive” level.

Fortunately, in South Africa, one does not have to re-invent the wheel. There is proven UK experience to rely on, and it is for this reason that it is proposed that the solutions are best effected through the implementation of the following:

  • A Construction Clients’ Forum, which is party to an agreed strategy for change
  • A Construction Strategy Code of Practice, such as that being developed in response to the Latham Implementation Plan
  • Reliance on a tried and tested Form of Contract that promotes collaboration with equitable risk allocation, i.e. the NEC Suite of Contracts

The former will act as the place of reference for Clients large and small, especially for the occasional Client. The latter, if drafted in simple clear language which appeals to Senior Executives, will be the standard by which the industry operates. It is hoped that a new Construction Strategy Code of Practice will contain many of the well-documented best practices and strategies for change client culture in construction to follow.

[1] M. Barnes and S Wearne, The future for major project management, International Journal of Project Management, Vol 11 No. 3 August 1993


  • NEC Suite of Contracts