This post shares 7 helpful ideas related to thought leadership marketing, knowledge management and community building in AEC and other professional services firms.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A NASA Knowledge Manager, a techpreneur and a Texas two-stepper walk into a bar…No, seriously they did. Well, actually they presented from the stage of a San Francisco art museum. Either way, 150 people and 22 hangouts, later out comes a Periodic Table of Knowledge Management, 7 Habits for a Highly Effective Knowledge Management Program, and a 4-Step Framework for driving culture change at scale. Not bad for 2 days work.
KA Connect 2016, Chris Parsons’ annual gathering of both unconscious and seasoned AEC firm knowledge managers, just wrapped last week. In my weekly attempt to #WOL (after a short hiatus), I’m going to share some of my key takeaways from this year’s event.
7 Key Takeaways from KA Connect 2016
1 – Thought leadership is finally a priority in AEC firms.
For over 5 years now, I’ve been beating the drum on the importance of thought leadership in the marketing of an A/E practice. My calls for firms to invest in content and digital marketing have been met with skepticism in some firms and pause in other firms (“show me examples of other firms doing this” and once I’ve fallen completely behind, I’ll give it a try). But the wind is changing. In an informal straw poll of a small working group of firms on Thursday, thought leadership was a strategic priority for as many as 15% – 20% of firms.
And, from my conversations, for many firms it is the main driver of their investment in knowledge management.
2 – But, some firms are confusing thought leadership with knowledge management.
Unfortunately, a lot of firms still aren’t entirely clear what thought leadership actually is. In a hangout session I led, I recognized a lot of confusion around the nuance between the two. For our purposes here I’ll handle it like this:
- Knowledge management, as Carla O’Dell put it, is how organizations learn and remember.
- Thought leadership, as I see it, is how we take what we’ve learned and point it outward to attract clients.
3 – Thought leadership should be disconnected from projects.
Okay, so this really isn’t a takeway from the event, rather it was a “giveaway” (so to speak) from me for some of the event’s attendees. It’s an important point I stressed in my Hangout group. The mistake I see a lot of firms make when they try to invest in thought leadership marketing is they simply put a new lens on their project work. They jump to self-publish on a blog, and begin by recasting the stories of their project work. While your client work should inform your thought leadership strategy, they’re not part-and-parcel. Thought leadership should demonstrate your unique point-of-view about solutions to problems faced by a range of your clients. It should be grounded in both your years of experience working with clients on projects and in original primary research. Your project work should simply provide clients with proof of your thinking applied in practice.
4 – Relationships are the fabric of everything.
Professional services firms talk about this all the time as it relates to marketing and business development. In fact, in talking with one A/E firm marketer, he told me that 88% of their 2015 revenue came from existing clients (in one way or another) and the other 12% came from relational business development (that scares me for at least a couple reasons — the first being changing client demographics and the second being a lack of revenue diversity and the risk that brings to the business). That said, in all honesty, thought leadership and digital marketing is not a whole lot different than traditional business development. Rather than starting as a relationship between people, thought leadership is about building a relationship between your clients and your firm’s ideas (whether that’s happening offline through a speaking event or online through an article or webinar).
As it turns out, the foundation of knowledge management is relationships as well. Just about every speaker, from Ed Hoffman of NASA to Gil Hantzsch of MSA reinforced the importance of starting a knowledge management or change initiative with relationship building. To make change happen you have to start by building social connections between people. Once the social fabric is there, people will begin to share. Eventually, as they build trust, they’ll begin to ask questions and crowdsource answers. And, if you get really good at it you might find a way to innovate across geographies and disciplines at scale.
5 – Knowledge management is asymmetrical and multi-dimensional.
Like so many things related to marketing a firm, developing an effective knowledge management program is not linear nor uniform. No two knowledge management programs are the same and they shouldn’t be. The elements of a firm’s knowledge management program (I’m confident you’ll see more about that later this year on KAConnect.com; full-disclosure, KA is a client) are directly tied to the problems the firm is trying to solve. As a result, one firm may pick a selection of elements to solve their problems and another firm may pick a totally different selection. If anything, a knowledge management initiative looks more like a continuous collection of discrete problems the firm is trying to solve and less like a coordinated journey from one place to another.
6 – You can’t get a group of people (even with shared interests) asking questions and providing answers, at scale, until you validate and share.
There are a lot of reasons for a firm to care about community management, even if it hasn’t adopted a formal knowledge management agenda. Maybe your firm is looking to activate a closed client LinkedIn Group or alumni community. Or, maybe you’re simply looking to improve communication and coordination between offices and disciplines. Either way, Rachel Happe’s “Working Out Loud Framework” is a great tool for making it happen. As co-founder of the Community Roundtable, Rachel works with a wide range of companies on building high performing communities (internal, external, offline and online). The Working Out Loud Framework provides a model to help you to seed a community and build it over time. Essentially, it says if we want to get a group of people, with shared interests, asking questions and answering them out loud, that we have to encourage them to modify their behaviors just a bit at a time. We do this, first by encouraging their participation and validating it when it occurs. And, second by creating structure and space for people to share. Once that trust is in place, people will be more likely to freely ask questions and share answers.
7 – Mistakes and mishaps are fundamental building blocks of a firm (and should be represented in its marketing).
Collectively, we all know, that our best sources of learning are our mistakes. Most of our successes are quickly forgotten, but our mistakes stay with us for decades to come. Yet, in many corporate environments there’s often very little perceived space for mistakes to occur. In his opening remarks, Ed Hoffman shared one of the interesting cultural phenomenons of NASA when he said, “It’s a hard place to admit mistakes.” In order to break down this barrier, the organization embarked on a program to share mistakes. He enrolled senior leaders to share their stories via a blog called, My Best Mistake. By shining a spotlight on senior leaders and their mistakes, the organization is building a culture of reflective practitioners who are willing to share their stories and acknowledge mishaps.
One of the compelling aspects of a knowledge management program is that it helps to create organizational memory — to help a firm remember and learn from its mistakes so it doesn’t make the same mistakes over and over again. I heard more than a few firms call this, a desire to “fail forward.” For years, I’ve said this should be a fundamental element of a firm’s marketing efforts especially in their case stories. Clients know, and expect, that any complex project is going to have challenges and firms will make mistakes. What they really want to know is how your firm has responded to mistakes when they’ve occurred in the past. They want to know how those learnings will make you a better partner and a better advisor.
There’s a sequential relationship between knowledge management and thought leadership. While they’re not the same, it’s pretty hard for a firm to be effective at sharing its ideas externally if it hasn’t built the muscle to do so internally. If yours is an AEC firm, and you’re at all interested in marketing with thought leadership, I’d highly recommend taking a good hard look at KA Connect 2017. I’m confident you won’t be disappointed.