Developing high quality content in an A/E firm requires building a sustained model for knowledge flow — either by extracting knowledge from the firm’s expert consultants through internal knowledge management or culling it from the marketplace via primary research.
Array is the highest ranking healthcare-only architecture practice in Architectural Record’s 2013 “Top 300 Architecture Firms.” With a background in finance, Carl helps Array’s clients do well while they continue to do good.
In 2015, I interviewed Carl Davis to learn more about how he transformed his firm from one that competes on fees in a downward spiral to one that competes on knowledge leveraging thought leadership. .
Establishing a Platform for and a Culture of Knowledge Sharing
Q: You made a bold decision as a leader, a year or two ago to make a significant investment in knowledge management at Array. Tell us a little bit about the thinking behind the decision.
The recession put a lot of stress on firms’ business models. There was a lot less building going on, and a lot more firms scrambling for projects. Array wasn’t immune to this. This excess of supply put a lot of pressure on firms, real fast. A lot of firms were competing aggressively on fees. You’re either competing in that race to the bottom or you’re doing something else. For Array, we saw knowledge sharing as that something else.
At that point in time, we knew we had considerable healthcare experience and expertise, but we weren’t doing a very good job of sharing it. Historically, we had this opinion that we didn’t want to give anything away for fear that somebody else would use it. But, I saw that as a shortsighted way of looking at it. Jumping ahead to today, our external knowledge sharing effort has not only raised the firm’s profile in the market, but we’re also finding that our staff is significantly more engaged in the practice because they’re able to contribute to the firm at a level and in a way they never could have before. They see knowledge sharing as contributing to the firm’s success, because they understand how important it is to our business strategy.
Q: I see a lot of firms rush to the table to produce external marketing content, but you took a more measured approach. You placed internal knowledge sharing at the heart of your strategy. Tell us a little bit about the thought process. How did you come to the conclusion to start internally?
We had a few failed attempts at making the firm more visible in the past. We’d ask John to write one paper this month and Mary to write one the next month, and it just didn’t work. So, I knew if it was going to work this time, we needed to approach it in a more sustainable way. I’ve seen a lot of firms jump to launch a blog or a content marketing effort, but often it dies off after a few months because there’s no infrastructure to support it. They’re doing it based on a collection of one-off scenarios.
I was looking for a platform to get people to share, and I looked at what makes people share in today’s environment. People are texting; they’re on Facebook; they’re on Twitter. Most people are willing to share snippets of information they find thought provoking, but when it comes time to sit down and write the paper they’re reluctant to do it for fear someone might criticize them or disagree with their perspective.
At the same time I was looking for something to connect our 6 offices together socially so that we could share all kinds of information. Not just knowledge, but simple stuff like standardized documentation, birthdays and such.
Then, I came across Chris’s social intranet for architecture firms. Synthesis brought together both aspects of what I was looking for — it was an easy way for us to share information across offices and it was a basis for us to build and share knowledge internally.
Importantly, it has the look and feel of a social platform. People are more likely to share in that format than they would be if we asked them to put together a white paper. They could ask a question that would result in an answer, which would evoke a comment from somebody else. This back and forth is building knowledge and is resulting in sharing in such a way that most people didn’t even realize it was happening. A lot of our external knowledge sharing posts result from those internal discussions.
Q: Did you face hurdles getting people to share knowledge internally? How did you overcome them?
Not really. We’ve always been a firm that has embraced change; especially change that’s meant to help us do something better or more efficiently. When we went through the process of discussing how we’d project our knowledge internally and externally, our people didn’t have a hard time wrapping their minds around it.
Also, I think it was a function of the way we implemented it. We didn’t have any rules. We just set it up, turned the switch and said, have at it. For the first few weeks we had people sharing information. Social stuff, really. But, then we had someone ask a question about Revit — where do I get this information and how do I do this — and, we had folks contributing from other offices. When that happened, I recognized we passed the first hurdle.
Q: How else has knowledge sharing improved your firm?
Just because we’re specialists doesn’t mean our clients inherently recognized that. We knew we had to convince our clients that we are experts and that we have knowledge and experiences others may not have.
We also know that the process of delivering healthcare projects is very different from other projects — delivering a retail center or an office building, for instance. The process we use meaningfully impacts not only the success of the project for our client, but also success for our clients’ patients. Knowledge sharing caused us to recognize that we’d not been doing a very good job of articulating our unique process and how it’s different from those of our competitors. We spent 3-4 months defining, refining and documenting our process so we could present it more effectively. We’ve been told time and time again our process does create value for them. Our process has emerged as a meaningful differentiator.
“When the market perceives your firm as a thought leader because of the quality and consistency of the content you are delivering, it can be an accelerant for growth; growth that is much easier to sustain.”
Transitioning to External Thought Leadership
Q: How did you make the transition from internal information sharing to external knowledge sharing?
The first opportunity I had, I commented on a discussion thread by suggesting that the discussion would make for an excellent blog post. A mid-level interior designer volunteered to do it. And, within 24 hours we had one of our first posts resulting from internal knowledge sharing. I think that made people much more comfortable with the idea of writing. They said to themselves, “If Nicole can do that and she only has 5 years experience, maybe I can do that also.” It became a bit of a peer pressure thing. And from there it evolved into something bigger for a lot of people, “I like doing this and I’m passionate about being a part of it.” As an example, staff now understand that they can take the myriad of problems they encounter and solve on their projects and turn it into a very informative post. Most likely that same problem is being encountered by many of our healthcare systems and they want to know how others dealt with it. These are topics that are easy for staff to write about and ones that clients find very interesting.
Q: Often, firms find it’s difficult to get people to physically write. They’re afraid of the task of writing. Did you see this inside your team?
In my experience, most people know how to write, but they’re afraid of putting themselves out there. People don’t want to expose themselves to criticism. The fact that we share so freely internally helped people overcome that hurdle more easily than I think they would have otherwise. And the fact that we can now provide data to the author of a post on who and how that post was used in project pursuits, gives them the sense that they’re making real contributions to the success of the firm.
Q: Do you have any editorial calendar or strategy you’re operating against or is it simply organic knowledge sharing that percolates out?
It’s pretty much organic. The calendar sounds like a good idea, but it’s often too forced to work in a firm like ours. We’d like to see people contribute on something they’re passionate about; a topic that they see as enlightening to our clients. As a result, we don’t have a calendar. However, we do use an interesting platform to help us deal with the enormity of the content that we are producing. We use Drop Task to schedule, assign and communicate our content creation requirements to staff. It has been an extremely effective and easy to use platform both for staff and our marketing department.
Additionally, we pay close attention to where we’re seeing project opportunities and work to build content related to those project pursuits. If we’re seeing a lot of projects focused on ambulatory care or cancer centers, we might say let’s do a post on one of those topics. We’re trying to look ahead to what issues our clients are thinking about and produce thought leadership on those issues.
Q: Did your knowledge sharing strategy require structural changes to your marketing function or new roles within it?
Some of our roles did change, but we didn’t start out by saying these are the changes and these are your new tasks. It evolved over time. When we implemented Synthesis, what we found was that a lot of the contribution of material for our knowledge sharing site was information already being used by our marketing department in the process of developing the proposals that were going out.
In the past, marketing was focused on finding information on certain topics to place into a proposal. An awful lot of what marketing did prior was trying to get people to write excerpts for whatever they needed related to a proposal. Now, a lot of that information is already available in the knowledge sharing platform. If it’s not, they know who to ask for information because they know who’s passionate about a subject and that information tends to be more forthcoming because they’re already engaged in the topic. In some ways it’s making their job easier.
“I will say that we do much less traditional business development. This effort has been replaced by much more effort around thought leadership and the content needed to implement our content strategy.”
Looking Ahead for Array
Q: Array is a healthcare only architecture firm. That’s a very clear and enviable position for a lot of A/E firms. I tend to believe that most A/E firms are too diversified. You’ve worked inside more diversified firms. Do you feel like this singular focus has been more effective for Array?
Yes. Certainly it depends upon what the area of focus is, but for us we believe we can effectively diversify within the practice of healthcare design. We like to see our competition getting into other markets because we believe it’s a distraction.
One of the messages we often take to a client is this — every dollar we earn in our firm is invested back into the practice of healthcare design. We think that resonates with clients especially in the post-recession market.
That said, because healthcare has been one of the stronger sectors post-recession, there are a lot more folks practicing healthcare design. But, clients do see that it’s not something you just decide to do one day and become an expert. This is precisely why we’ve invested in knowledge sharing (both internally and externally). In order to be thought leaders in healthcare design you have to be able to live it and breathe it for a very long time.
Q: What advice would you have for a middle market A/E firm looking to embark on a knowledge strategy?
I can only point to what’s been successful for us. Start with internal knowledge sharing first. That is what made the external side both easy to implement and sustainable. Our strategy wasn’t just based on a few senior leaders writing articles; it was based on even some of our most junior people contributing and building that knowledge internally. Once we did that it became easy to flip the switch and push knowledge sharing externally. Don’t worry about getting the platform perfect right out of the gate. Implement fast, then iterate even faster.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing Array in the next 24 months?
The speed at which our industry is changing is incredible. We used to do strategic retreats and look out 5 years. Today, when you do that you just don’t know what you’re going to see. We’re taking a much more narrow and focused look than we used to. I believe we’re going to be delivering our services in a much different way than we are currently.
“I do know one thing firms who are not looking for signs of change in the marketplace or cannot react quickly to change when it does come will surely find it difficult to compete in the future.”
To learn more about the flow of knowledge in an A/E firm, read The 3 Flows of Modern A/E Firm Marketing.