A study by the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras (IIT Madras) has found that freelance expatriates hired by Public Sector clients play a critical role in the smooth execution of ‘vanguard’ or ‘first of their kind’ infrastructure projects such as highways, urban rail systems, and airports.

The researcher studied the challenges faced during initial stages of infrastructure vanguards and how different views were negotiated to create a set of processes leading to the project’s smooth management.

A key finding was that most of these conflicts were resolved by a hitherto unheralded group of project participants, freelance expatriates hired by the Indian client. This research paper offers a critical insight into how megaprojects can be better managed.

Ensuring project progress

Ashwin Mahalingam, Department of Civil Engineering, IIT Madras, analysed empirical data from two metro rail megaprojects that were part of the Delhi Metro to conceptualise impasses as arising due to contradictions in the institutionalised logics relating to work practices used by various organisations on such projects.

The study showed that contradictory logics in carrying out work can lead to ’horizontal’ or process-based institutional voids, and ’vertical’ or role/hierarchy-based institutional voids that must be successfully navigated to ensure project progress.

Mahalingam, in a release from the institute, said that expatriates are often hired for their technical skills. However, their outcome-aligned incentives and their ability to connect with other expatriates on the contractors’ side helps them play an understated but critical role in resolving conflicts on projects – a strategy that megaproject organisations would do well to leverage.

The expatriates resolved conflicts using three sets of coping strategies, re-architecting transaction spaces, reinforcing hierarchy, and mediation. The critical role that expatriates play in the management of such projects is perhaps the single-most important practical finding of the paper.

“We hope that this paper will help practitioners better anticipate the challenges faced on such megaprojects, and use the strategies that we have identified to cope with these challenges. In doing so, we hope to smoothen the provision of critical infrastructure such as drinking water, power, transportation and other essential services to communities,” he said.