University infrastructure building | Some experiences part 1

For past more than one year I have been associated with my university's infrastructure building project. Over that period I have got opportunities to observe and interact with variety of agencies both private and government run. My university is funded by MHRD. Almost all the work that has been carried out for us has been through CPWD

Though the following may be quite "common-sense" kind of points, sometimes we pay the price of having overlooked them in our planning and execution. These points are mainly concerning physical infrastructure creation.

About project initiation

There is no "standard template" which you can use to start a greenfield project for creating infrastructure of a university. I believe that each university/institution has a character unique to itself and also has a unique vision based on its strengths which at the beginning might be few in number. That said, from planning and implementation standpoint, there will always be some "commodity" items (e.g. certain types of labs, offices etc.) and some "specialty" items that your university will have. Following are some of the points to watch during initiation phase. These, I believe, might help you during the execution phase and in the long run.
  1. Key stakeholders should deliberate as a team to identify the structure of the university's overall business. Following are some of the key questions to which you must have the answers:
    1. What academic and non-academic units to have?
    2. What are the focus areas of each unit and where does the unit stand in overall priority?
    3. When should each of these units be commissioned/started?
    4. Where should these units be physically located?
    5. What should be the internal organisation of each unit?
  2. Key stakeholders should deliberate as a team on identification of core and supporting infrastructure items. Core items mostly comprise of academic entities such as various academic departments of the university. Supporting items are those that are required to conduct the business of core entities. Example of supporting items include: residential, recreational, administrative and services related infrastructure. Following are some of the key questions to which you must have answers:
    1. What are the core infrastructure items and priority of each?
    2. What are the supporting infrastructure items and priority of each?
  3. The model to be used for executing the project should be carefully chosen. Key points to consider are:
    1. Who will be the Project Management Consulting (PMC) entity? Options could be: some state run organization such as NBCC or CPWD etc., or a commercial private organization such as Tatas, or it could even be a special team formed by the university itself. Each of the options has its pros and cons.
    2. Should the PMC be responsible for delivering the project as a turnkey one? From management perspective it is generally a good idea for the university to hold just one entity (i.e. the PMC) responsible instead of managing several different contracts with contractor, architect and PMC etc.
    3. From university side (i.e. the client), it will be immensely helpful to have a PMO (Project Management Office) set up for the project. The project team from client side should be lean and have professionals from civil, architecture, electrical and project management fields. This team shall keep an eye on the day to day progress of project and ensure that work quality, cost and time schedules are adhered to. For such critical tasks avoid deputing your faculty members as they are unlikely to be skilled in those areas and even if they are, their focus will not be there. It is best to engage practicing professionals from respective fields.
  4. Take stock of special local conditions and factor them into your planning (financial and time schedule). For example, if you are creating the university in a hilly area then certain special constraints may apply.

About tenders and contracts

One of your primary objective here should be to cover yourself against any risks which might impact your ability to get delivery of the project as per planned cost, quality and time schedule. Slippages on some fronts in the projects are almost inevitable. They may be attributed to any party related to the project including the stakeholders inside the university. However, most slippages on such projects happen invariably due to non-performance by contractors/vendors or the PMC. Key thing for project team is to identify risks early and then track and mitigate them to avoid failures later.

It is best to reduce the risk of failure by engaging with agencies with very good track record of project delivery. It may be helpful to keep the following points in mind:
  1. You must require the bidders to disclose any past disqualifications and penalization that they ever suffered. You should carefully assess their past performance and consider disqualifying all those whose past record is poor.
  2. Regardless of bidders' claims about good performance, you must do a thorough background check by yourself by talking to their past end users and not just to the reference officials in their past clients. Chances are high that references are "managed". In our project, a particular supplier of elevators had managed to get a favorable "recommendation certificate" from one of the IITs where they had supplied the lifts, however, when we did a background check there we got a very negative feedback from many of their end users. Thar supplier was not shortlisted by our PMC.
  3. Ensure that when tendering any contract you have suitable clauses to levy penalties on the vendors for non-performance. It is important that you spend time to carefully identify and define all those scenarios which you will deem "non-performance". All those scenarios must be clearly added in your contracts.
The above is by no means a comprehensive list.

In subsequent posts here I will try to jot down my experiences related to few other aspects of such projects.

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