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Implementing sustainability in small and medium-sized construction firms: the role of absorptive capacity

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journal contribution
posted on 19.01.2016, 14:35 by James Upstill-Goddard, Jacqui Glass, Andrew Dainty, Ian Nicholson
Purpose – Construction organisations are becoming increasingly aware of the impacts of their operations, from both an environmental and, more recently, a social viewpoint. Sustainability standards can enable an organisation to evidence a benchmarked level of performance against a particular issue. To date, research on standards has largely focused on the operational and administrative aspects of their enactment, rather than how they might affect – and be appropriated by – organizational actors. This research examines how capacity for learning can affect the success of implementing standards within two construction SMEs. Design/methodology/approach – Taking an organisational learning and absorptive capacity (ACAP) perspective, this research uses the case study approach and abductive logic to understand what role learning plays with regard to sustainability standard implementation. Findings – The results reveal that strong communication channels and commitment to training programmes increase the capacity for implementing standards, but that SMEs tend only to approach standards if they see immediate financial benefits stemming from their implementation. Practical implications – SMEs provide a challenging context for the implementation of sustainability standards unless there are significant external levers and extrinsic motivation for them to be embraced. Care should be taken in incorporating these aspects into the future design of standards that are more aligned with SME needs. Social implications – Stakeholders should seek to apply pressure to firms to positively influence engagement with sustainability standards. Originality/value – The role and importance of ACAP is an underdeveloped debate in the certification field. This study is the first that links the process of implementing a standard with the ACAP of an organisation.


This research forms part of an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) programme, sponsored by Responsible Solutions Ltd and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC; grant number EP/G037272/1), which is managed through the Centre for Innovative and Collaborative Construction Engineering (CICE), based at the School of Civil and Building Engineering at Loughborough University.



  • Architecture, Building and Civil Engineering

Published in

Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management






UPSTILL-GODDARD, J.D., 2016. Implementing sustainability in small and medium-sized construction firms: the role of absorptive capacity. Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management, 23(4), pp.407-427


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This paper was accepted for publication in the journal Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management. The definitive published version is available at: