A few weeks ago, I spoke at KA Connect 2014 on The A/E Firm Website of 2015. The conference, hosted by Knowledge Architecture, was all about strategies and tactics for building highly connected practices from emerging leaders at top AEC firms. It’s structured much like a Ted event, and was both insightful and inspirational. I walked away from the conference with a ton of insight, but below are my seven big takeaways:
1. Four Great and Thoughtful Quotes
- “More radioactivity has been put out by coal dust than all the nuclear power plants (including disasters) over time.” — Alexander Rose, The Long Now Foundation
- “Nobody ever went home because the paint stopped working.” — Alex Serriere, Teecom, on the critical importance of technology to the success of a building.
- “Millenials have a preference to access over ownership; they’re more concerned about losing their phone than losing their car.” Bruce Haldors, Transpo Group, on the changing relationship of consumers to cars and the open road.
- “We’re great at sharing, we joint venture with each other all the time. Yet, we’re horrible at collaborating.” Steve Burrows, WSP USA, on the challenge of A/E/C firms working together to deliver the best overall experience and outcomes to the client.
2. Four Tips for Building Great Online Communities
Whether your firm is looking to build an internal community to share knowledge across offices or disciplines or to develop an external community to open source ideas and innovations, you better be prepared to run a marathon. KA Connect 2014 brought us lots of great ideas from successful community managers.
- Be Strategic. Gartner estimates that 80% of online communities fail within the first 3 years. The #1 reason is lack of strategic intent. The best communities support a business practice or make something possible that couldn’t happen otherwise. — Vanessa Di Mauro, Leader Networks
- Be Tactical. The “ground game” is really important. You have to actively do outreach to individuals and encourage them to get involved. — Chris Parsons, Knowledge Architecture
- Be Relevant. Most professionals only participate in 4 online communities — one large community and a handful of niche ones. What will your community offer they can’t get elsewhere that could supplant one of their four? — Vanessa Di Mauro, Leader Networks
- Be Patient. Historically, the relationship of lurkers to commenters to contributors was 90:9:1. Fortunately, that dynamic is changing. More and more people are getting comfortable participating in online communities. As of 2011, it was starting to look more like 70:20:10. — Rebecca Arsham, Parsons Brinckerhoff
3. Two Proof Points That A/E Firms Are Still Struggling with Commoditization
I’ve said, and written on this blog, for the better part of 3 years now that commoditization is a very real and very large problem for professional service firms of all stripes. After KA Connect, there is no doubt in my mind that commoditization continues to be a major problem from many firms in the A/E/C industry.
- “Fees have not recovered to 2006-2007 levels. What you’re doing for 4.7 this year, you’ll do for 4.6 next year. It’s a 10 year race to bankruptcy.” Dan Noble, HKS
- “Commoditization is a race to the bottom.” Carl Davis, Array Architects
4. Four Amazing Insights on Thought Leadership Marketing
The apex of the event for me was Bob Buday’s talk on thought leadership marketing in the consulting industry. Bob shared the story of the meteoric rise and rapid demise of CSC Index based on its investment in thought leadership — specifically, how it “found” the insight the later became business reengineering. Bob’s talk brought out all kinds of great insight as to the critical role that thought leadership can, and in my opinion should, play in the marketing AND operations of an A/E firm:
- Start with Research. To be a thought leader you need to conduct deep research on best practices both inside and outside your client base. You need to start with a hypothesis of what you hope to learn, yet be open to course redirection when research findings disprove your original hypothesis.
- Build Tentacles. For thought leadership to really work, a firm needs to build a dedicated research function that has “tentacles” into practice lines. In some firms, the research function is independent, in other firms it’s imbedded within the practice areas. Either way, to quote Chris Parsons, research should yield “both a practice advantage and a marketing advantage.”
- Operationalize the Findings. Ultimately, the failure of CSC Index (at least from Bob’s point of view) was its inability to operationalize the findings of its thought leadership. The firm’s research found the concept of business reengineering and built a framework for how to apply it towards an enterprise technology investment. Yet, the firm failed because it wasn’t able to deliver consulting services against the insight utilizing the framework at scale. Ultimately, Accenture and Ernst & Young operationalized the insight and grabbed the lionshare of the opportunity. Carl Davis echoed this insight, “We’ve been invested in thought leadership for 4-5 years, but it wasn’t until we could drive that thought leadership into our methodologies that it started to create an advantage.”
- Don’t Democratize the Budget. “If you spread the firm’s investment in thought leadership across 10 practice areas in tenths, your investment will fail. You need to stage big-deal marketing campaigns for big-deal ideas.” This is a huge and critical risk for most A/E firms. I’ve said for over 2 years that most firms are too diversified. They don’t have the focus they need to build the expertise necessary to stop the “race to the bottom.” This message has been repeatedly met with disinterest and sometimes harsh criticism from many firm leaders. Yet, Bob brought it through loud and clear. If your firm is going to stop competing on fees and start competing on knowledge, you have to invest more resources in less places.
5. Two Proven ROIs for Content Marketing in A/E Firms
I’ve been standing on the soapbox speaking to the fundamental value of content marketing in the A/E industry for at least 3-4 years. During this time, the message is met more frequently with skepticism than with excitement. A few weeks ago I shared 3 examples of content marketing generating tangible business outcomes for A/E firms. Here are two more:
- “Our firm’s website has generated $1.7M in active opportunities within 3 projects right now. One of those was a client seeking a firm with specific project experience, within a certain geographic location at a certain size. The client essentially identified a geography around its project and searched online for firms IT DID NOT KNOW with the experience to do what it needed.” — A successful A/E firm marketer from a firm in the Northeast (I’ve left this firm anonymous because this insight was shared with me in conversation; not through presentation).
- “Thought leadership has changed the way we hire and the skill sets of people we hire. We avoid rainmakers. We hire someone who is a current thought leader or someone who has the ability to become one…Thought leadership is part of our business strategy. Every proposal we prepare is laden with thought leadership. We’ve been vested in thought leadership for 4-5 years. And, the last 2 years have been the most successful in our firm’s history. We think that’s a more sustainable model than a relational or fee-based one.” — Carl Davis, Array Architects
6. Two Signs of the Apocalypse
Alex Serriere, from Teecom, nailed it when he titled his talk as, “Buildings. The Ultimate Smart Phone Acccessory.” Yet, I think Fast Company journalist, Leah Hunter’s talk on where technology is headed, would’ve better been described as, “Earth. The Ultimate Technology Accessory.” Anyway, I couldn’t do Leah’s talk justice so I’ll just drop it down to two signs that the apocalypse is truly upon us:
- Biometric smartwear — forget George Costanza’s cotton jerseys…clothing that senses all kinds of things about you.
- Imbeddable technologies — why not augment your God-given memory with a little RAM; everybody’s doing it!?
7. Come for the Cats, Stay for the Communities
Okay, you kind of had to be there. But, hey, what can I say, Chris likes cats. And, really, who doesn’t like pictures of cats.
In summary, if you’ve never been and you’re a leader, marketer or technologist in an A/E firm, I’d highly recommend placing KA Connect 2015 near the top of your agenda next year.