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PROCUREMENT PERSPECTIVES - Negotiation practices can be disruptive

Stephen Bauld
PROCUREMENT PERSPECTIVES - Negotiation practices can be disruptive

Dispute resolution is a subject of considerable study at post-secondary institutes of learning around the world.

One mid-sized Canadian university, for instance, offers no less than 16 separate units (through its departments of history, business, political science and philosophy) on this subject.

This list does not include the other units offered through the university’s school of business on labour peace and the business negotiation process, its history program and its political science program.

The goals of these various programs are to teach students to avoid dispute before it arises, and how to deal more effectively with those disputes that do arise. The construction industry, by its very nature, has potential disputes around every aspect of daily operations.

In much of the thinking related to conflict management there is an apparent assumption that the causes of conflict are hidden and difficult to understand.

The following university course descriptions illustrate the point:

  • Conflict Transformation – Theory and Practice: An examination of ways of presenting, resolving and transforming conflicts in everyday life, in our culture and others, and in the areas of family, business, the law, schools, and large-scale political conflicts;
  • Peace Studies: An introduction to the discipline of peace research, focusing on concepts of peace, war, security, conflict, violence and non-violence and examining the roles of value and ideologies in the attainment of peace.
  • Theory of Value: A study of human practices of evaluation in morality, politics, art, religion and economics.

What I find interesting about this course content is that most of these topics may come into play in the negotiation of a very large and complex construction project.

Undoubtedly, this type of study serves an important role. However, it overstates the complexity of the situation.

Although difficult cases are not rare, for the most part the causes of real world disputes in construction conflicts are rarely this complex.

Many writers dealing with global conflict attribute this to the limited success of negotiation in solving conflict to cultural and analogous differences from one society to another.

These writings have obvious implications in the growing extent of international trade, and with the steady growth of international product sourcing, such trade is becoming increasingly relevant in public procurement of construction materials – even at the municipal level.

There is no doubt that different cultures, belief systems, languages, business practices and social norms make disputes more likely at the international level than is likely within a fairly homogenous society.

Even so, disputes arise simply from either arguments over money (or money’s worth) or due to one person or organization treating others badly.

Until the happy (and unlikely) day on which all people are as wealthy as they would like to be, little can be done concerning disputes over money, but it is possible to avoid many disputes that arise from human conduct.

The type of behaviour that leads to conflict at the international level will often be exactly the same type of behaviour that will lead to conflict at the national level.

Most people who deal at the international level are sufficiently sophisticated and tolerant enough to understand that values, beliefs and customs are likely to vary from one part of the world to another.

What they will not put up with is behaviour that would certainly be inappropriate in any part of the world.

Many of these types of behaviour that lead to conflict in international business or relations are fundamentally the same types of behaviour that would lead to labour strife (if applied in the workplace) and to business failure (if applied routinely in commercial dealings).

Stephen Bauld is a government procurement expert and can be reached at Some of his columns may contain excerpts from The Municipal Procurement Handbook published by Butterworths.

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