Problem structuring methods for collaboration : a conceptual development, with an application to a construction partnership in the UK
Problem structuring methods (PSMs) have been developed within operational research (OR) to assist a set of actors to agree on a problem structure and make commitments to consequential action. Their characteristic feature is the use of a model to represent alternative versions of the problem of common interest, combined with facilitation to help actors make constructive mutual adjustments. Whilst most PSMs have traditionally been applied with actors confronting problems within organizations, others have also been applied with actors working between and across organisations to address a problem of common interest. This research will explore the significance of PSMs in collaborative contexts of this kind. The aim of this research is to investigate the possible roles of PSMs in assisting actors of an inter-organisational domain who engage in collaboration to address a problematique of common interest in order to reach joint agreements with respect to it. The hypothesis investigated in this research is that the analytical assistance provided by PSMs can be expected to contribute to a collaboration process principally through improving actors' sense-making of their problematique, and through providing structure to the product of this sense- making activity. The interpretation of our hypothesis is that PSMs generate this effect through improving the quality of dialogue between actors. This effect should tend to impact positively on the ownership of the commitments resulting from the dialogue, and on mutual accommodations in the power balance among actors. In order to articulate this hypothesis, it has been necessary to conduct some conceptual clarification to achieve a clear meaning for the terms 'shared meaning', 'power', and 'dialogue'. Building upon this conceptual clarification, a model of collaboration as a process has been developed, which identifies the factors, pre-requisites and processes involved in actors' ability to achieve the intended products of collaboration. This model provides the basis for identifying the possible effects of PSMs, and for evaluating their effectiveness. To explore our hypothesis and the adequacy of the conceptual model, a case study drawn from an action research project in the UK construction industry was carried out. This action research project was industry-academic collaboration aimed at contributing to build a high value construction environment, and its principal output was the development of a PSM-based methodology for construction project reviews. The case study reported in this thesis involved the application of this methodology in a multi-organizational construction partnership in the hotel business. This involved engagement in and observation of ongoing partnership activity of three construction project teams. Reasonably clear and positive effects from the application of the methodology were found in the dialogue between participants, consistent with the hypothesis. Additional positive effects in terms of achieving inter-organisational learning within the selected partnership were also identified. Overall the results of the case study are encouraging; however, as they result from the application of a particular PSM-based methodology, extrapolation to more general conclusions about the potential of PSMs for multi-organisational collaboration should be made with caution. Nevertheless, the results of this research suggest valuable potential avenues for further research. The case experience also was generally supportive of the conceptual model of the collaboration process, in that the activities and processes observed could be interpreted without difficulties within the model's framework. The model offers a means for further theoretical and empirical work aimed at confirming and enriching its structure and validity.