P.S. Barrett, M. Sexton, M. T. Curado (1998), "Sustainability Through Integration"
CIB 1998 World Congress, Gavel, Sweden

Sustainability Through Integration

Peter S. Barrett, Martin Sexton, Miguel T. Curado

Research Centre for the Built and Human Environment,
University of Salford, UK


To move towards sustainability in the built environment, environmental issues must become an integral part of the management systems of the organisation involved.

Taking action is one thing, moving in the appropriate long term direction is another. Without a clear strategic view of the relationship between construction activity, the built environment and society’s goal it is difficult to focus action in a beneficial direction.

This paper puts forward a view as to how organisations’ quality, health and safety and environmental management systems can be integrated, so that environmental issues do not remain on the barren periphery of organisational action.

The second part of the paper outlines a strategic view on the nesting of the parts set out above, drawing some conclusions for effective action in the future.

Keywords: Environmental Management, Integration, Improvement, Strategy

1. Introduction

Construction firms are increasingly faced with sustainable development-based requirements which are influencing many areas of their activities: ranging from proactive environmentally conscious design and construction, through to green marketing and asset portfolio management. These requirements are being generated by a diverse range of stakeholders who have an interest in firms’ overall environmental performance: be it the growing public alarm about environmental depletion and degradation, insurance companies concerns over future liabilities centred on environmentally-hazardous land and building materials, or the emergence of green consumerism (for example, see [1]).

Environmental considerations are demanding enough for firms to manage – but they are coming on top of an existing proliferation of quality and health and safety issues. The question facing firms is whether to manage each of these requirement areas separately or to integrate and manage them as a single, cohesive system. It is argued that if sustainability (as well as quality and health and safety) considerations are to be truly promoted by firms, effort needs to be made to integrate environmental systems with other systems, and to align them with strategic direction.

It is proposed that integrated, developmental management systems is a useful means of addressing these issues. The paper is structured as follows. First, the prevailing responses to environmental, quality and health and safety requirements will be summarised. Second, the potentially adverse implications of these responses are articulated. Third, it is argued that an integrated, developmental system view is a useful way forward. Finally, a ‘supple systems’ approach is offered as means of operationalising this view in firms in a practical, meaningful way.

 2. Prevailing responses

Corporate responses to environmental requirements come on top of existing efforts to actively manage quality and health and safety requirements. In a review of current mechanisms to manage these three issues Barrett & Sexton [1], concluded that:

  • Quality requirements tend to be client-driven and are being addressed through the promotion of service or product consistency, rather than trying to cultivate continuous improvements.
  • Health and safety requirements are predominantly legislation driven and are historically accommodated within firms through mechanistic systems, rather than culture-based systems which can integrate other, non legislation based, requirements.
  • Environmental requirements are stakeholder-driven, a dimension which requires firms to create multiple perspective goals: a skill which many firms are failing to get to grips with.
Considering this apparently insurmountable mish-mash of requirement characteristics and organisational responses, it is temptingly easy to suggest that firms are doomed to be saddled with expensive and adversely fragmented management systems.

3. Implications for firms

The prevailing, fragmented systems have both effectiveness and efficiency implications. Bass et al. [2], for example, argue that such fragmented approaches encourage the following inefficiencies: actions and decisions being made in isolation (thus making them sub-optimal); employees being overloaded with information, and even with conflicting instruction which make open the firm up to risk; and bureaucracy.

In contrast, Barrett & Sexton [3] stress the risk of separate systems not being effective in two respects: lack of systems’ alignment to overall strategic direction (shown in Figure 1 below), and lack of systems’ appropriateness to engage and manage operational reality.

Figure 1: Aligning systems with stakeholder requirements and corporate focus



This leads to the central question in this paper: how can a firm enhance its environmental performance while also efficiently addressing the issues of quality and health and safety?

 4. An integrated, developmental way forward

It can be seen that the complexity confronting firms provides a huge challenge and that the current approaches, or more recent developments, all carry problems.

The following section endeavours to effectively and efficiently ‘nest’ the management of environment, quality and health and safety requirements within an approach which focuses on the improvement cycle within firms. Thus, it can complement steady-state quality management / assurance, or be a viable option in the absence of such activity. It addresses an area where systems can contribute - the hinterland between individual action and corporate strategy - but does not pretend to address the whole of management activity.

It will be seen that the emphasis on key measures of tangible achievement fits well with the health and safety approach, at least as it appears in theory. In terms of quality there is increasing pressure to achieve improvements as well as consistency. In the environmental field this translates into an approach which allows incremental progress to be made toward meaningful action encompassing stakeholders’ views.

It is suggested that the key to achieving improved organisation responses to a range of business requirements is to introduce balanced feedback mechanisms so that construction firms actually learn from occasions where it could have done better or from opportunities / ideas from other sources. This learning process is afforded by firms creating the capacity to scan, sense and monitor significant aspects of their organisational and business environments, the ability to link the resultant information to other information concerning the operating norms which direct activities, the ability to detect deviations from these norms; and the ability to initiate corrective action when deviations are detected. Furthermore, the feedback loops should encourage the capacity of the organisation to progressively improve through continuously learning, unlearning and relearning; rather than be geared towards the (eventually stagnating) maintenance of the prevailing system.

In simple terms, the construction firm collects positive feedback externally, as well as internally, then analyses the information and integrates it back into future service provision in order to improve performance levels. It should be stressed that the process is iterative and thus encourages continuous improvement, bit it must be strategically focused to avoid segmentation.

Further, the concepts of situational leadership introduced by Hersey et al. [4] might be useful in broadening this idea. These authors define the readiness of an individual or a group as a function of both ability and willingness, and argue that different management styles are appropriate to different levels of readiness.

The style depends on varying the levels of task and relationship components of leadership. Therefore it seems logical to expect the need for a stronger procedural approach to the implementation of environmental management in organisations that present lower levels of readiness, while for higher levels of readiness a more behavioural approach may prove itself more suited.

Based on this sort of thinking and aiming for systems which are client-responsive and facilitate a continuing cycle of improvements, an approach has been developed, through debate and observation, which endeavours to meet these criteria. The approach has been styled "supple systems" and is discussed next.

5. Supple systems

The supple system approach originated from the quality management domain (Barrett, [5]), but can be fruitfully enlarged and refocused towards the continuous improvement of how organisations address requirements generated from the business environment. The key features of supple systems are given in Table 1.

There is not space here to describe the approach in detail (see Barrett & Sexton, [6]), however, in summary, the approach advocates that a strong, but flexible audit system is developed which ensures that improvements in the quality of the service are being achieved. The audit system identifies sources of feedback, assesses if action is required, and at what level, prioritises between alternatives, allocates responsibility, checks later that action was taken, tries to objectively assess the impact of the actions and finally feeds these findings back to those involved.

In addition, action is required to be taken simultaneously on all of these fronts if construction firms are to be galvanised into enhancing their level of performance (see Barrett, [7], Barrett et al., [8]). Firms need to create an environment in which people know what needs to be done to better support the core business. This is achieved through the direction provided at the strategic level which aligns systems with the core business strategy and with each other; by operationalising this vision through ‘supple’ systems which provides information about the level of performance on its full range of activities; and finally by underpinning these mechanisms by creating and supporting learning individuals and groups within an organisational context which encourages them to actively overcome problems and spot opportunities for doing things in better ways through innovation.

The objective, therefore, is to know what needs to be done, to know how to mesh individual actions to greatest effect and to have people involved who, once they know what is needed, are capable of, and motivated to produce, innovative solutions. The improved level of performance is the product of innovations, at all levels of the firm, each orientated towards clearly stated strategic goals by integrative supple systems. The end result of this enhanced dynamism is the creation of a continuously learning and innovating management systems that meaningfully contributes to organisational strategy formulation. The view presented here can be summarised as shown in Figure 2.

Although ultimately all of the above factors need to be working in unison to create optimum performance it is more realistic to think in terms of a sequential development. It can be argued that the feedback information is the first place to start as this will inform strategy formulation and begin to create a better informed customer orientation amongst staff. If, for a given organisation, say, a strategy already exists then this can be the springboard for the other areas instead. The particular order is not critical and is contingent upon the given organisation.

Table 1 - Key features of supple systems

Objective-nested The systems are aligned to, and positively support, appropriate strategic organisational objectives. Systems should not be developed within an operational/technical vacuum.
Client / Stakeholder orientated The systems are tested against stakeholder, and especially customer requirements, by actively seeking feedback through both hard and soft data.
Minimalist / Holistic "As much as you must, as little as you may", that is, not having systems for their own sake, but rather targeting high risk / gain areas. Better to have made some progress on all important fronts than to have patchy provision.
Loose-jointed The systems operate at an audit level: clarifying objectives, checking performance and integrating efforts. At an operational level different styles and approaches can be accommodated, especially when they have proved themselves over time.
Evolutionary Allow incremental and continuing progress to be made from whatever base.
Symbiotic with social systems Build on the norms and culture of the organisation, for instance allowing self-control or group pressure to operate where appropriate.


Figure 2 - Improving performance through vision and integration


6 Forces for and against integration

The level of integration of management systems seems to vary a lot along the life cycle of organisations. Small organisations tend to have a high degree of integration, accompanied by a low level of formality.

As organisations grow usually management systems grow more formal at the cost of integration. This movement is usually followed by an effort to recuperate the integration lost along the process. Different internal and business contexts may justify distinct choices regarding the degrees of integration and formality.

Multiple factors affect the degree of integration of management systems. Satisfying clients and other stakeholders should create a drive towards integration. Regulations and legislation will push towards highly formal systems, whilst costs will point towards the opposite direction.

The fact that the construction industry usually works with individual projects may play against integration, due to differing requirements.

The will of some organisations to show high profile initiatives to please specific lobbying groups may also play against integration, since there is a wish o showing neatly defined systems.

Low integration may also be fostered by lack of willingness, particularly due to the particular culture of the organisation, where an insular worldview may predominate.

 Figure 3 – Co-ordinating map


It is common to find environmental management system defined along the lines of an organisation's formal structure encompassing procedures, practices, resources and processes, that implements environmental management (Griffith, [9]). We advocate that formality is not central to the definition.

Figure 3 is an attempt to summarise the current situation and propose an ideal approach. It seems reasonable to suggest a dimension running from informal to formal. There is certainly a lot of discussion about integration and so this implies the presence of its converse, namely disintegration. These two dimensions form the axes of the above diagram and allow the present situation to be illustrated very clearly.

Many firms have moved to create discrete systems, whether for quality, health and safety or environmental issues and have operationalised this in terms of formal systems. In doing so a degree of disintegration is achieved alongside the more focused management of the issue being addressed. This, then, is the "typical route" that has been taken. As more discrete systems are added the problems worsen leading to the emerging "current trend" which is for companies to seek to integrate those systems.

Arguably the response of, say, a small organisation could be effectively integrated by virtue of the fact that, although informal the firm addresses the various demands in an integrated way because that is the way they arrive as part of their workload. This could be just as appropriate as a very formal, but tightly integrated approach that might fit typically with the needs of a larger company. Thus, taking formality as a variable that is predominantly driven by factors such as size, it is suggested that there is an "ideal zone" where the response is integrated, but the level of formality can vary.

Overall, the model allows the suggestion of the ideal zone to be clarified and it highlights the potential inefficiencies of the current route being taken by many companies. If a firm does desire formal systems then the optimum route would appear to be horizontally across the "ideal zone".

Work is now being undertaken using case studies to investigate different parts of the above diagram and the routes between these parts.

7. Research agenda

Further work is essential to identify strategically relevant issues for construction. At the Research Centre for the Built and Human environment we expect to make a contribution through an ongoing project on integrated delivery systems for sustainability. The key issues for this project are:


8. Conclusions

It has been seen that sustainability issues cannot be meaningfully internalised and acted upon within construction firms if they treat sustainability (along with quality and health and safety) as a discrete problem with an isolated solution.

Environmental performance improvement requires strategic focus if it is to flourish, and add real value to organisational performance. Without direction, environmental management systems and initiatives will always be on the barren periphery of organisational behaviour, because they cannot meaningfully influence it.

An objective-nested, integrated approach, in contrast, encourages beneficial mutual crafting between sustainability and corporate objectives. This permits the focusing of organisation-wide effort by guiding and shaping a climate where strategically aligned environmental improvement intent can emerge anywhere in the organisation, and be translated into performance-enhancing action throughout the organisation as a whole.

The focus should be embodied in a hierarchy of objectives that infuse and maintain a distinctive strategic theme throughout the organisation. The development of these objectives should take into account as many stakeholder views as possible. Further, these objectives should form the central measure for assessing environmental performance improvement; and, in the same breath, these improvement efforts should critically assess, and if necessary change, the substance of these objectives.

Solutions for environmental management should not be taken at face value. The relevance of each approach should be judged per se, but only within the context of each firm and its environment. However, sometimes the approach followed may suit better the interests of the consultants selling it, rather than the company where it is actually implemented.

9. References

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