Designing the Design Organisation: Client-consultant coordination in a large infrastructure project

University dissertation from Chalmers University of Technology

Abstract: Large infrastructure projects are unique and last for a long time, but they are still temporary organisations. The technology involved is often complex, and the uncertainty is high. Managing such projects and coordinating all the actors involved is a complicated task for both suppliers and clients. During the critical early design phase of large projects, many conceptual solutions are developed that will influence the planned infrastructure’s construction as well as its operation and maintenance. This phase requires contributions from and coordination of a wide array of technical competences, often from different organisations. Furthermore, management challenges arise as public infrastructure clients increasingly outsource tasks that were previously conducted in house. The purpose of this thesis is to increase the understanding of how organisational structures and routines for coordinating project participants are designed at the start of the early design phase and developed further over time. The findings are related to previous research on the organisation of complex projects, general research on routines in organisations, and research on the role of cognition and heuristics in processes of organisational design. When projects are unique and long, they are less influenced by the permanent client organisation’s standard management models and may select and develop their own routines and organisational structures. To understand better how coordination practices emerge during the early design phase as a result of client decisions and client-consultant interaction, a longitudinal case study of a large railway tunnel project was conducted. Findings suggest that in situations where project management possess a high degree of discretion, cognitive heuristics (or rules of thumb) may potentially influence organising decisions. In addition, one type of simple organisational heuristic used to enable coordination in this complex context was short mantras. Since many coordination mechanisms in unique, complex, and uncertain contexts are new, and because few project members have experience from similar projects, changes to the initial organisational structures and routines are to be expected. In the case study project, such changes in the early design phase were limited, incremental, and mainly reactive. A conclusion is that satisficing heuristics play an important role in a transitory and temporary environment, especially in relation to decisions on organising. It should be acknowledged that it is often efficient to rely on previous experience, simple rules of thumb, and established solutions to organise projects. Still, it is suggested that permanent client organisations should also foster meta-routines in order to prompt the project management team to plan regular assessments to revise and adapt organisational structure and routines.

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