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A critical investigation of the briefing process in Hong Kong's construction industry


Geoffrey Q.P. Shen Jacky K.H. Chung

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Geoffrey Q.P. Shen Jacky K.H. Chung, (2006),"A critical investigation of the briefing process in Hong
Kong's construction industry", Facilities, Vol. 24 Iss 13/14 pp. 510 - 522
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Nina Ryd, Sven Fristedt, (2007),"Transforming strategic briefing into project briefs: A case
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P.A. BOWEN, R.G. PEARL, P.J. EDWARDS, (1999),"Client briefing processes and procurement method
selection: a South African study", Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management, Vol. 6 Iss 2 pp.
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Ann T.W. Yu, Qiping Shen, John Kelly, Kirsty Hunter, (2005),"Application of value management in project
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A critical investigation of the


briefing process in Hong Kongs
construction industry

510
Received March 2006
Accepted July 2006

Geoffrey Q.P. Shen and Jacky K.H. Chung


Department of Building and Real Estate, The Hong Kong Polytechnic
University, Kowloon, Hong Kong, Peoples Republic of China

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Abstract
Purpose This paper aims to investigate briefing in the construction industry in Hong Kong.
Specifically, it sets out to discover the current practices on briefing in the industry and the limitations
of these practices.
Design/methodology/approach This study consists of a literature review and a pilot study,
structured focus group interviews and semi-structured interviews.
Findings The study has revealed that current practices, although have been in operation for a
long time, have a number of limitations such as lacking in a comprehensive framework; lacking in
identification of client requirements; lacking in contributions from clients; lacking in involvement
of stakeholders; and inadequate time spent on the briefing. It is concluded that these limitations
must be properly addressed by the industry in order to improve the briefing and to avoid
subsequent problems in the design and construction phases, and that more resources should be
allocated.
Originality/value So far, little work has been undertaken to study the practice of briefing in
sufficient depth in the construction industry in Hong Kong. This paper improves our comprehension of
the nature of client requirements and provides valuable insights into the details of briefing in the
public and private sectors of the local industry.
Keywords Project brief, Construction industry, Hong Kong
Paper type Research paper

Facilities
Vol. 24 No. 13/14, 2006
pp. 510-522
q Emerald Group Publishing Limited
0263-2772
DOI 10.1108/02632770610705284

Introduction
Briefing (also known as architectural programming in the USA) is the process
whereby a client clarifies and informs others of his or her needs, aspirations and
desires, formally or informally (CIB, 1997). It provides a channel to convey
decisions and information between clients and consultants. Thus, a better
understanding of their requirements and preferences at the project inception stage
can be achieved (OReilly, 1987; Fisher, 1998). Blyth and Worthington (2001)
describe briefing as a problem formulation and solving process, which identifies an
organizations needs and resources, and matches these to its objectives and
mission. It helps to balance the distinct interests of the users, client advisors, client
founders and legislators from the demand side and those of the designers,
consultants, contractors, property agents and facilities managers from the supply
side.
The authors wish to express their sincere gratitude to The Hong Kong Polytechnic University for
their financial support of the research project on which this paper is based.

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Briefing generally starts with a statement of need, followed by stages of:


.
drawing up a functional brief;
.
concept design; and
.
scheme design.
A brief, which is a product of the briefing process, is a formal document containing the
written instructions and requirements of a client for a building project (MacPherson
et al., 1992; CIB, 1997; Blyth and Worthington, 2001; Kamara and Anumba, 2001 and
Kamara et al., 2002). The brief acts as a means to facilitate communication between the
parties from the supply and demand sides. It also forms a record of decisions,
information, agreements, amendments, conflicts and uncertainties to ensure continuity
and consistency throughout the construction process (OReilly, 1987). Konya (1986)
pointed out that a brief can vary considerably in length, content and form depending
upon the nature and complexity of the project. Briefing is a critical process in
construction and a considerable amount of research has been conducted into how to
improve briefing since the Banwell Report was published in 1964 (Newman et al.,
1981;OReilly, 1987; Salisbury, 1990; MacPherson et al., 1992; Latham, 1994; Green,
1996; CIB, 1997; Fisher, 1998; Barrett and Stanley, 1999; Kamara et al., 2001; Blyth and
Worthington, 2001). However, as Barrett and Stanley (1999) pointed out, many people
still overlook the importance of briefing in construction. These people feel that a brief
can be constructed quickly and efficiently merely by writing down the clients
requirements at the start of the project. Consequently, the clients requirements may
end up not being clearly defined for the reasons stated in Table I.
The Banwell Report (1964) stated that insufficient resources were devoted to the
briefing. After thirty years, the Latham (1994) report also concluded that effort is
required to understand the needs of clients. Recently, a recent report by the
Construction Industry Review Committee (2001) also recommended that clients should
set out the requirements of their projects clearly, systematically and comprehensively
in construction projects. This reveals that the practice of briefing is still considered
Problem

Reason

Confusion within client organization over


direction and aims of the project
Inexperienced client has insufficient knowledge
to decide how to proceed
Focus on feasibility studies is limited mainly to
financial considerations
Unstructured approach/lack of focus for whole
project
Unstructured approach to collecting clients
requirements
Difficulty in trying to accommodate various
needs of all users
Contactor has no real understanding of client
objectives

Internal fighting and hidden agendas within the


client organization
Refusal to commit finances to a phase that may
seem unnecessary
Time pressures and refusal to commit finances

Source: Barrett and Stanley (1999)

Does not have the support of all parties and dos


not adhered to the project
In order to be applicable to every project, may be
too general to be useful
Failure of focus group representatives to
consult/report back to user groups
Unclear if such information would be useful to
contractors

Investigation of
the briefing
process
511

Table I.
Problems in briefing

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512

inadequate in the construction industry and that further improvement is required


(Barrett and Stanley, 1999). In Hong Kong, little work has been undertaken to study
the practice of briefing in sufficient depth in the construction industry, although the
output of the construction and real estate industry approached HK$260,000 millions
(23.5 percent of the territorys GDP) in 1995 (Rowlinson and Walker, 1995). It is
observed that the practice of briefing is informal and confidentiality in the industry
and are hardly known to outsiders. For these reasons, a study has been conducted to
investigate the practices and problems of the briefing in the industry in Hong Kong.
This is the first piece of work on the subject. This paper begins with an introduction to
the research methods employed and detailed illustration of research findings on
current practices in briefing. A discussion on the limitations of the practice is given at
the end of the paper.
Research methodology
The aim of this study is to investigate briefing in the construction industry in Hong
Kong. Specifically, it sets out to discover:
.
the current practices on briefing in the industry; and
.
the limitations of these practices.
To complete the study within six months, the research was limited to focus on briefing
on residential projects in the private and public construction sectors only, which played
a significant role in the industry.
Methods of study
Although qualitative data can be more difficult to analyse, a qualitative approach was
adopted in the study in order to overcome the limitations stated below. The residential
market is highly competitive in Hong Kong. Briefing in the industry is usually
confidential. Only a small group of senior managerial staff from client organizations
are involved in the preparation of the initial brief. As a result, the size of the target
population may be too small to satisfy the requirements of quantitative analysis. In
addition, the response rate of questionnaire surveys in the industry could be extreme
low, 8.2 percent (Fong and Wan, 2000). In reference to the framework of applied
research proposed by Sekaran (1992), the specific methodology of this study mainly
consists of a literature review and a pilot study, structured focus group interviews and
semi-structured interviews.
Figure 1 shows that this study is comprised of three stages, including:
(1) a background study;
(2) data collection; and
(3) data analysis.
In stage one, the research began with a comprehensive literature review of relevant
materials from textbooks, internet, journals, and research reports to acquire
background knowledge about briefing. Moreover, a series of short interviews
(the pilot study) with construction professionals was conducted. In stage two,
interviews were conducted to collect qualitative data in the research. Three focus group
interviews were organised to collect the data from a group of respondents in meetings.

Background
Study

Literature Review
(2 months)

Investigation of
the briefing
process

Pilot Study

Data
Analysis

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Data
Collection

513
Structured Focus
Group Interviews

Semi-Structured
Interviews

(2 months)

Data Analysis
(2 months)
Research Findings

The interviews followed a predetermined route based on a standard set of questions


shown below:
.
Please give a brief description of your current briefing.
.
Please list out three items that you like most in this practice.
.
Please list out three items that you like least in this practice.
.
Please suggest in what ways do you think that this practice can be further
improved.
The respondents were encouraged to express their opinions and suggestions in
response to the questions. The discussion was recorded for later transcription.
Over 13 individual interviews were organised to follow up and collect in-depth
information to supplement the data collected in the group interviews. These interviews
enable researchers to access the substantive content of verbally expressed views,
opinions, experiences, and attitudes in the research (Berg, 2001). They also provide the
flexibility for researchers to clarify doubts, ensure that the questions and responses are
properly understood by repeating or rephrasing them, and pick up non-verbal cues
from the respondent (Sekaran, 1992). In stage three, the collected data were properly
studied and analysed, and the subsequent research findings summarized and
presented in the form of research publications.
Sources of data
We have considered a number of commonly used sampling methods such as simple
random sampling, stratified random sampling, systematic sampling, and quota
sampling method. The quota sampling method has been adopted in the research
because of the small population described above. Research data were collected from the
client organizations selected from the government and the Real Estate Developers
Association of Hong Kong in accordance with their business nature and share in the

Figure 1.
The research framework
of this study

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514

local residential market. A total of eight client organizations participated in the


research, and their profiles are illustrated in Table II. They are well-known client
organizations in the public and private sectors of the industry, and four of them are
companies listed in the local stock market. With their support, three focus group
interviews were successfully conducted. Over 30 construction professionals (seven for
pilot study, and 27 for interviews) attended the interviews between March and May
2002. Most of these attendees were senior members of staff with more than two years of
experience in conducting briefs. They included seven executive directors, six project
managers, four architects, eight quantity surveyors and nine engineers.
Their identities and details of their background details have not been disclosed in this
paper. This group of interviewees can be considered as a good representative of the
industry and they made up the entire sample of brief-takers from the industry in this
study.
Findings on the practice of briefing in Hong Kong
Clients are usually categorized in accordance with the following factors: sector (public
or private); size of organization (small or large); project interest (developer or
owner-occupier); project continuity (continuing or one-off), and level of experience
(high or low) (Naphapiet and Naphapiet, 1985; Rougive, 1987; MacPherson et al., 1992).
Referring to these factors, the characteristics of clients in Hong Kongs construction
industry are illustrated in Table III.
Table III shows that the characteristics of clients in the public and private sectors
are almost the same except for their project interests. These clients are large in size. For
example, the Hong Kong Housing Authority, which is a statutory body, is one of the
largest property developers in the world. It has over 15,000 employees and annually
provides an average of 50,000 subsidized homes in the industry (Housing authority,
2002). Chiang (2002) suggested that the clients are elite developers who are normally
very powerful in the industry. To gain insight into the practice of briefing in the
industry, a series of focus group interviews and individual interviews were undertaken
and the collected data is presented as follows.
Procedures of briefing
It is suggested that a briefing, which is comprised of initial brief and detailed project brief,
has eight stages: strategic analysis, client analysis, facilities analysis, statement of needs,
confirmation of needs, functional brief, concept design, and scheme design (Latham, 1994;
Atkin et al., 1995; Kamara et al., 2001). However, our research findings have revealed that
these stages are not fully implemented in the industry. The procedures for briefing in the
public and private sectors are quite similar, and they are normally comprised of three
stages only. A summary of the briefing procedures is given in Table IV.
In the private sector, briefing is mainly undertaken by external consultancies and
the brief is usually given either in a written format or through a combination of a
written and verbal format. The briefing generally starts from the functional brief and is
followed by the concept design and scheme design, as shown in Figure 2. In the
beginning, the chairman of the client organization will initiate the process by inviting a
consultancy, mainly an architectural firm, to undertake an investigation into project
feasibility. The results obtained will be used to formulate a functional brief at the
inception stage. An interviewee pointed out that this process is usually free of charge.

72,300 units
472 unitsa
53,000 m2
422,000 m2
684,000 m2
22,000 m2
12,000 m2

Government department
Government- related
institution
Private developer
Private developer
Private developer
Private developer
Private developer

Hong Kong Housing Authority (HA) The HA is a statutory body and is


one of the largest property developers in the world
Hong Kong Housing Society (HS) The HS is a quasi-government
developer and it provides a significant amount of public housing
annually under different housing schemes
Henderson Land Development Co Ltd Henderson is one of the most
active private developers in Hong Kong
Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd (SHK) SHK is a well-established in Hong
Kong, and has a wide range of in-house professionals
Cheung Kong Holdings Ltd Cheung Kong Holdings is a
multi-discipline property development company and has built many of
the most notable structures in Hong Kong
MTRC Property Division Besides railway operations, the MTRC is
also actively involved in the development of key residential projects
above existing stations and along new subway lines
KCRC Property Division The KCRC is a public corporation that
develops property projects with joint-venture partners along its
railway networks

Production
in 2001

Business nature

Brief description

Note: The annual production of HS has significantly reduced from 6,152 units to 472 units in between 1999 and 2002

Private sector
(24.9 percent)

Public sector
(75.1 percent)

Sector and market


share percent

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16

1
1

No. of
respondents

Investigation of
the briefing
process
515

Table II.
Profile of the client
organisations that
participated in the
research

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516

Moreover, it is very informal. The chairman will provide only a few verbal instructions
to the architect even though he has a full set of project requirements in his agenda.
These instructions mainly include number of buildings, size of flats, or similar
examples in the market. If the land is secured, the stage of scheme design will proceed,
and the architect will translate the project information and requirements from the
functional brief into a number of concept designs. Drawing on his/her experience,
the project manger of the client organization will choose one of the designs. The
architect will then further develop it into the scheme design, which contains a set of
sketch drawings and specifications. These documents will be submitted to the
chairman for endorsement and they become a core part of a detailed project brief.
In the public sector, the brief is normally given in a written form only. The brief
usually starts with a statement of need and is followed by the concept design and scheme
design. It is mainly undertaken by the central management unit, which specifically
manages the briefs of all of the projects in a department. Moreover, an external
consultant will be employed as a professional adviser on some occasions. For example,
the Housing Society invited a number of experts from local universities to facilitate the
briefing of a landmark project in the New Territories in 2000. A respondent from the
Housing Authority suggested that the design of public housing is governed by a set of
modular designs and internal regulations. Therefore, the briefs of public housing
projects are usually standardized, regardless of site location. As a result, some of the
project managers may simply develop a brief by modifying an old one borrowed from
similar projects and then submit it to a senior manager for approval.
Identification of client requirements
Successful briefing is about the thorough analysis of needs and rigorous evaluation of
available options (Atkin et al., 1995). Most of the respondents agreed that public clients

Table III.
Characteristics of clients
in Hong Kongs
construction industry

Size of organization
Project interest
Project continuity
Level of experience

Clients in the public sector

Clients in the private sector

Large
Owner-occupier
Continuing client
Very high

Large
Developer
Continuing client
Very high

Briefing guideline
Investigation of clients
Identification of requirements
Table IV.
Procedures of briefing in
Hong Kongs
construction industry

Concept design
Scheme design
Source: Latham (1994)

Strategic analysis
Client analysis
Facilities analysis
Statement of need
Confirming of need
Functional brief

Private sector

Public sector

Yes
Yes
Yes

Yes

Yes
Yes

Investigation of
the briefing
process
Verbal instruction
from Clients

Project
Architect

Lease
Conditions

517

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Functional Brief

Statutory
Ordinances

Site
Information

Concept
Design 1

Concept
Design 2

Concept
Design 3

Comments
from Clients

Scheme Design

Figure 2.
Briefing process by
private developers

have their own planning divisions to formulate the statement of need through research
on the user and by conducting studies; thus, client requirements are generally well
defined in the public projects. On the contrary, most private clients are investors who
will sell or rent the buildings to the public after the completion of the projects. They
tend to be more focused on the development program, financial flow, and completion
date. As a result, client requirements have not been well defined in private projects.
Some of the reasons suggested by interviewees are given below:
.
Client requirements change from to time to meet changes in the market, such as
the tastes and budgets of the customers, and there are no fixed requirements.
.
No detailed description will be given in the brief to prevent any legal claims from
being raised regarding modifications to the design.
.
Most private clients are highly experienced in the industry. They know exactly
what they want and are able to instruct the consultants to revise the
requirements if necessary.

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518

Some of the private clients have formed strategic partnerships with selected
consultancies. Because of long-term working relationships, these consultancies
understand their requirements very well.

Owing to the aforesaid factors, client requirements are usually loosely defined in the
private projects. Consequently, the criteria imposed by site location (which defines the
orientation and standard of buildings), lease conditions (which define the usage,
composition, plot ratio of land and project completion date) and building regulations
(which define the maximum height and layout of buildings) become the major
considerations in a briefing. These criteria may constitute more than 70 percent of the
client requirements in a typical brief. One of the respondents pointed out that briefs are
usually simple in the private sector. They might be made up of a collection of
correspondence, including e-mail, fax, the project presentation and records of informal
discussions. He concluded that this practice is efficient for maintaining a flexible brief
throughout the project cycle and he was satisfied with it.
Discussion on the findings
Most of the interviewees believed that the current practices in briefing sound practical
in the public and private sectors of the industry. However, the research findings
revealed that these practices are not effective in providing a clear understanding of
client requirements and preferences. A number of problems have been identified. These
problems are in line with the work by MacPherson et al. (1992) and a detailed
discussion is given below.
Lack of a comprehensive framework
Research findings reported that clients usually treat the briefing as an event, not a
process, and that it has not been well organised in the industry. A representative from
the public clients point out that briefing is mainly done by experience of brief-takers.
No briefing guide or menu is used neither it is done formally or informally. Thus, in the
current practice, brief-takers mainly focus on the stages of concept design and scheme
design only. This is similar the situation in the UK, in that very few brief-takers make
any real use of briefing guides to improve the process (Barrett and Stanley, 1999). It is
suggested that a briefing framework should be applied in order to improve the
comprehensiveness of briefing stages in the industry. The framework can be either
adopted from overseas studies or developed by in-house team members. The
framework provides a formal approach to ensure that all criteria and options are being
systematically investigated and thus, appropriate decisions are being made (CIB, 1997).
It also provides a mechanism to manage any changes in the brief throughout the
construction process. For example, a review workshop can be arranged to find out
whether the stated objectives have been met and what the constraints were if they were
not met.
Lack of identification of client requirements
Defining requirements is the root of a good briefing (ORielly). However, the research
findings suggest that the identification of client requirements is not being done
properly in the industry:

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More clear information means weaker position in any future disputes! This is the major
reason why the private clients generally keep their requirements as vague as possible and
avoid in providing any detail information to consultancies in the briefing process. We would
provide general guidelines on standard and number of buildings, size of the flats, and
sometimes, similar examples to them, . . .

a representative from the private clients expressed. This explains the reason why the
private clients tend to overlook the identification of client requirements. Consequently,
they would save time in the stages of strategic analysis, client analysis, facilities
analysis, statement of needs and confirmation of needs, to jump to the scheme design
stage when conducting a briefing. Barrett et al. (1999) agreed that most clients do not
set out a clear set of requirements for building. Contrary to what the client may believe
this may create the potential for future disputes and result in the building of an
unsatisfactory structure. Moreover, OReilly (1987) suggested that a written record of
client requirements would be helpful in dealing with such matters as changes in
personnel, ensuring the consistency of decisions throughout the project, and informing
intended users of the building when the structure will be completed. It is concluded
that a clear set of client requirements is essential in both the public and private sectors.
Private clients should emphasize the importance identifying client requirements and
more time should be allocated for it.
Lack of contribution from clients
A brief must be owned by the client at the highest level within the client organizations
(Atkin et al., 1995). Our research findings suggest that most private clients do not
appreciate the importance of briefing and usually rely heavily on professionals to
interpret their needs in the process. This is different from the practice in the UK, where
many clients will undertake their own project/need definition in-house (Latham, 1994).
This is because clients in Hong Kong usually have a great deal of bargaining power in
the market, which enables them to shift the responsibility to the professionals and
maintain an inactive role in the briefing. This is supported by incidents in which the
consultancies undertake the feasibility study free of charge at the inception stage.
Chiang (2002) explained that, since the Asian financial turmoil in 1997, the reduction in
construction activities has intensified competition among consultants in the industry.
This approach is concluded to be ineffective and risky. The responsibility that is
shifted to consultancies will eventually be transferred back to the clients. For example,
the clients avoid providing any detailed information in the briefing. As a result,
architects take extra time to anticipate what they really want. This will result in an
increase in time and in consultancy fees. Moreover, the briefing process is a two-way
one (Barrett and Stanley, 1999). This approach might be risky because the quality of
the brief mainly depends on the experience of the architects. Latham (1994) pointed out
that architects may work on the wrong user requirements if they are fail to distinguish
between the clients needs from wants. This may cause work to be aborted during
construction.
Lack of involvement of stakeholders
Some of the respondents agreed that the involvement of stakeholders who are able to
identify the strengths and constraints of the projects from different viewpoints, is
essential in drawing up the requirements of clients, and results in a more reliable

Investigation of
the briefing
process
519

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520

project. However, the research findings show that briefs are usually produced by a
small group of people from the client organization or by consultancies in the industry,
and that the briefs may not be comprehensive. In the discussion with interviewees, we
found that the public clients usually had difficulty identifying the stakeholders and
getting them involved in the process. A representative from the public clients
suggested that the involvement of stakeholders, who can identify strengths and
constraints of the projects is important in briefing, and their consensus could ensure
the reliability of projects. Nevertheless, the stakeholders usually have different
objectives, different agendas, and different bottom lines in negotiation and thus, it is
extremely difficult for them to arrive at a consensus in meetings. This is also supported
by another representative from the public clients that stakeholders, in particular
end-users, always have too many wants instead of needs, and finally their involvement
will prolong the duration of briefing. As a result, the involvement of clients,
stakeholders and users will normally be limited. However, the briefing may suffer
because not all architects are good brief writers. Kamara and Anumba (2001) explained
that an expert in one filed may miss out vital information that is related to other
professionals. For example, architects may not be familiar with the construction
process and may overlook some matter in the construction stage. There is a tendency
for them to focus on design rather than on clearly establishing the requirements of
clients in the briefing process. Thus, the briefing may suffer because of the bias of
brief-takers. Atkin et al. (1995) concluded that decision-making should be transparent
and decisions should be communicated to all who have stakes in the project.
Lack of time spending in briefing
Investing time at the beginning of project to develop a complete definition taking into
account all of the requirements will reduce the likelihood that changes will need to be
made later (CIB, 1997). The findings of this study revealed that the current practice of
many clients is to shorten the time of the briefing to allow the work of construction to
commence at an earlier time. An inadequate amount of time is allocated for the
definition of client requirements at an early stage of the briefing so that construction
projects may end up suffering from poor definition. This is in line with the work by
Latham (1994) and Kamara and Anumba (2001), which revealed that commercial
pressures from clients may require detailed designs to be prepared as soon as possible.
This reduces the time spent on understanding the requirements of the clients and,
finally, and increases the chance of the project failing.
Conclusions
The paper has described the practice of briefing and its limitations in Hong Kongs
construction industry. It improves our comprehension of the nature of client
requirements and provides valuable insights into the details of briefing in the public
and private sectors of the local industry. The study has revealed that current practices,
which have been in operation for a long time, are practical in the industry. However,
they are subject to the constraints such as lacking in a comprehensive framework;
lacking in identification of client requirements; lacking in contributions from clients;
lacking in involvement of stakeholders; and lacking in time spent on the briefing. It is
concluded that these limitations must be properly addressed by the industry in order to
improve briefing and to avoid subsequent problems in the design and construction

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phases, and that more resources should be allocated. To address these problems,
further research will be conducted to explore how value management, which has been
introduced in a number of briefing-related publications (MacPherson et al., 1992;
Latham, 1994; Atkin et al., 1995), can be applied to improve the practice of briefing in
the industry.
References
Atkin, B., Flanagan, R., Marsh, L. and Agapiou, A. (1995), Improving Value for Money in
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Corresponding author
Geoffrey Q.P. Shen can be contacted at: bsqpshen@polyu.edu.hk

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