“It’s great to be back!” was the concluding comment in an email following a recent meeting of the Advisory Group for our IOSH funded research project investigating the safety management of contractors.

Designing a research project that provides useful practical insights and simultaneously generates robust empirical data to test and develop theory is no small challenge. And one that I don’t think we achieved on our last project, but hopefully we can succeed this time round. That’s where our Advisory Group of experienced practitioners can play their part: making suggestions, challenging our ideas and keeping us mindful of what really matters to practice. No academic ‘flights of fancy’ would satisfy them.

So I was more than a little apprehensive as I set out my ‘straw men’ in the meeting. Would they make sense? Would they be sufficiently interesting? Were they relevant? What if they were incinerated in an instant?

Our successful project launch event in February has identified several important issues and since then I had worked hard to marry them to existing theoretical problems I’d identified in the academic literature. I had succeeded in finding four topics that I thought might work. And now they faced their first test. Fingers-crossed.

If contractors work with a client organization how do they share the knowledge that each possesses? And what in particular stops this sharing? No real problem with this particular ‘straw man’. However, knowledge might be really ‘sticky’ inside either organization. Those that conduct the initial negotiations are not the same people that do the job. And they don’t appear to talk to each other.

My second ‘straw man’ suggested that clients and contractors might see each other as different groups. So what sorts of tension occur between them? How are these managed?  They were bound to agree with this, weren’t they? Of course, but discussion did highlight the subtle (or not so subtle) ways in which contractors are not embraced by the client organization. Are they housed in the 1950’s Nissen Hut or the brand new office block? And who holds the door open for whom?

Things were going well – two successes. The last discussion led nicely into the third topic – the management of psychological safety. Do these relationships between contractor and client allow everyone to thrive? Or are they selective? Some thrive, others merely survive. For example, what do health-care facilities do contractors have access to when they are on-site? Can they access the fitness centre or the confidential well-being service?

Could we make it to lunch without a heap of ashes? Safety leadership is a buzz word and no-one really knows that it means. But in a client-contractor relationship is leadership shared or distributed between both parties, or does one simply dictate to the other? It could be shared. It might need to be shared if the contract lasts for several years and both groups want to meet their desired objectives. The Advisory Group certainly encouraged us to investigate how and whether consensus is achieved.

Phew – my ‘straw men’ made it unscathed, but with plenty to think about. Meanwhile the advisors left happy that they’d had a good debate and glad that we’d been left with trying to make sense of a complex and inter-related set of problems.

I can’t wait for the next meeting.

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