Ifonima Essien

  • Ifonima EssienIfonima Essien is originally from Nigeria and joined Oxford Brookes in 2013. He is a research student in the Department of Real Estate and Construction. His thesis title is 'The Impact of Complex Systems Environment on Building Construction Performance: A Case of Lagos, Nigeria.'

    How did you hear about Oxford Brookes University?

    I heard about Oxford Brookes from researching universities online.

    What attracted you to Oxford Brookes University to conduct your research?

    There were three things that aided my decision to conduct my research at Brookes; the erudite supervisory team assigned to me, the Oxford Institute of Sustainable Development (OISD) research group and the prompt feedback received from staff during the application process, especially from Dr Ramin Keivani.

    What were you doing before?

    I was teaching in the Department of Architecture at the University of Uyo, along with practising as an Architect/Project Manager in Nigeria.

    How easy did you find it to settle into the research environment?

    Settling into the research environment was quite easy for me and the research environment in general, support and available resources are excellent.

    Tell us about your research project.

    My PhD focuses on exploring the influence of the complexity of the external environment of construction systems on building construction performance in Lagos, Nigeria.

    Prior to joining Oxford Brookes in January 2013, I had gained extensive work experience in the construction industry in various regions of Nigeria. In 2000 I started my professional career in an architecture practice working in a project management role on numerous Government and private construction projects. It was astonishing to note that despite the best practice and intentions of the professionals’, contractors’ and client’s organisations, these construction projects seldom met the performance expectations of the stakeholders. This scenario and other identified inadequacies have mostly informed the motivation for my research. However, I later discovered that these problems are not particular to Nigeria.

    The majority of construction projects around the world consistently fail to achieve project objectives of budget, schedule and quality that were set out at inception. Much of the blame for this failure is attributed to environmental factors, which are outside of the control of construction organisations and practitioners. These are environmental factors that possess inherent subsystems, such as political, socio-cultural, economic, technological, legal and institutional regulatory bodies. These forces interact to yield outputs that act as stimuli for change in the construction industry the world over.

    The change in environment and its effect on the construction industry is encapsulated in the transformation that occurred in construction related professional disciplines in the 20th century. Construction Project Management (CPM) as a discipline evolved in the 1960s in response to the growing challenges of the construction industry and the inability of the traditional practitioners to cope with its complexity. Defined as the application of processes, methods, knowledge, skills and experience to achieve the project objectives, CPM offered an ideal approach to addressing some of the problems of the construction industry. However, following almost 60 years of CPM research and development, literature is lacking in sufficient studies that focus on evaluating the complexity of the external environments of construction projects.  This is the gap in knowledge which my research seeks to fill.

    The paradigm shift that occurred with the advent of the 21st century has challenged project management thinking and raised questions about the efficacy of current theories. Should practitioners be more focused on conformance to construction specification rather than performance to stakeholders’ expectation? Can construction organisations and their project procurement strategies remain static in an environment of constantly evolving characteristics? These and many more questions have shaped recent discourse of construction development. Without doubt, the project environment poses a strong influence on the performance of construction projects and this study will hopefully heighten awareness of the extent of its impact. 

    Furthermore, the external environment of construction projects differs across various countries of the world and developing countries particularly exhibit increasingly complex and dynamic scenarios. This is due to factors such as poverty, poor access to capital, insufficient infrastructure, rapid urbanisation, rural - urban migration, agrarian type economies and inequality in wealth distribution. These have resulted in higher risk environments, which impacts the outputs and outcomes of construction endeavours and requires a greater level of research and management innovation. The case of Lagos, Nigeria is no exception.

    Lagos is Nigeria’s most populous city with a population estimated to attain 25 million by 2015, according to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, and will rank among the top mega-cities in the world. Lagos was Nigeria’s capital city from 1960 until 1991 and still remains the country’s commercial hub, having evolved from a trade harbour in the 19th century. It currently accounts for about 52% of Nigeria’s economic activity, which has resulted in massive rural to urban migration. Providing housing, social and infrastructural facilities to match its requirements remains a challenge, which may be due to its peculiar environmental complexities. I recently spent several weeks in Lagos to conduct a pilot study and was pleasantly surprised at the on-going efforts at physical transformation in the state.

    With particular regard to building construction, Lagos has witnessed a boisterous industry in recent times with both public and private initiatives geared towards rapidly reducing the building deficit, especially in housing development. Similarly, I was amazed at the warm reception and enthusiasm with which my inquiries were addressed. Participants were keen to respond to my questions and help out by providing suitable contacts, permitting access to building construction sites, providing secondary data and much more. Ironically, even Government functionaries were open to speak about their experiences and were quick to admit the need for a synergy between industry and academia for the improvement of building construction delivery in Lagos state. I was quite pleased with the cordial reception received and respondents’ deep insight on the conditions of the construction industry in Lagos and its external environment.

    This experience helped me improve upon my research design and to clearly identify suitable respondents for the primary data gathering exercise. A mixed method approach, using both quantitative and qualitative methods, will be adopted to achieve the objectives of my research. To understand the nature and severity of project environment complexity and its impact on construction performance, semi-structured interviews will be conducted in the first instance. These will draw on their lived experiences in the study area, while the completion of structured questionnaires will be used to validate the facts about the causal relationship amongst these phenomena. This is necessary in order that the different aspects of this investigation can be dovetailed. The research participants will be drawn from the leadership in the construction industry in Lagos, Nigeria.

    Leadership exists in 3 levels in the construction industry; (1) Industry Regulators level (i.e. Government regulators), (2) Professional institutes and trade associations and, (3) Construction companies. Respondents are to be drawn from each leadership level and their selection criteria will include a minimum of 5 years post qualification industry experience in Lagos, to ensure that they possess sufficient knowledge of the study environment. Specifically, participants will be evenly drawn from the 7 construction-related professional bodies which comprise the Nigerian Construction Industry e.g. Nigerian Institute of Architects. Others will include Engineers’, Quantity Surveyors’, Estate Valuers’, Town Planners’, Land Surveyors' and Builders’ bodies. 

    The recruitment and selection of participants added an interesting twist to my research. During my visit to Lagos, I was able to acquire the membership directories of these professional associations and have since made efforts to contact likely respondents by telephone. These interactions to solicit involvement in the next phase of the study have proved to be quite fascinating. Whilst some respondents expressed scepticism about the prospect of giving out information to a total stranger, most seemed quite enthused and pleased to be recruited for the study. In all, over 100 respondents have signified their interest in helping out with the study. Without doubt, sharing their personal stories and lived professional experiences will provide an interesting narrative for unravelling the dynamics of the complex construction industry in Lagos.

    Therefore, the study will seek to develop a conceptual framework for evaluating the extent of these environmental influences on building construction projects and proffer methods for operationalizing pragmatic responses. Furthermore, critical success factors for successful implementation of building construction projects in emergent, self-organizing and non-linear environments will be examined in the Construction Project Management context. The direct impact of specific environmental stimulus such as construction related legislation emanating in Lagos, will be examined and wider conclusions drawn for improved understanding and building construction delivery. It is hoped that the results of the study will contribute knowledge for developing building construction projects into learning and complex adaptive organisations, which can respond favourably to environmental forces.

    What do you enjoy about being a research student?

    I love the challenge and unpredictability of academic research, as well as the exhilaration of establishing new knowledge. One of the key challenges for me has been finding a clear focus for my study. I have been constantly inundated with the reality of how difficult it is to study the ‘environment’ given its sheer scope, size, complexity, inherent ambiguities and the resources available for PhD research. These challenges were quite daunting but I have persevered and since figured out a rational approach for getting the work done.

    Furthermore, I have found that conducting a good and successful PhD research project requires diligence, intense motivation, good interpersonal relationship skills, excellent communication and sustained passion. 

    What are your future plans?

    Finish my PhD in Construction Project Management and pursue a career as an Academic and International Development Consultant.