Can you show me you are an expert instead of telling me about your experience?

Alan Mays posted a comment on the KA Connect LinkedIn Group last month that I have not been able to get out of my head:

Prem, I agree that a practical transfer of knowledge is needed within our corporate strategies as well as our profession. Sadly, I feel that it will probably go the same way it did 20 odd years ago. The recession then caused what many in the profession call it "the generation gap". Today, we are still dealing with that gap and adding to it daily as more and more our profession’s experience leaves due to retirement and attrition. Back then, there was a gap of experienced people capable of understanding the requirements of construction as set forth in the AIA B101. The way we learned was like being thrown into the pool and asked to swim with no lessons. We did have seasoned professionals to go to called the Quality Control group which usually consisted of professionals reviewing and teaching individuals best practices of the company and the industry. Sadly, education within many firms is now considered an overhead cost so therefore through this economic timeframe it has all but been stopped. The lack of funding for the internal education and the experienced staff have been removed due to overhead costs and "is not needed". Some firms ditched their QA/QC groups as they also were considered overhead therefore they lost their resource for education.

There are companies that feel the colleges and vendors or even the individual should be responsible for education. They have given up on transferring their knowledge onto the younger staff. One also has to point out that the leadership may also not have the knowledge needed to teach. Many executives within the firm have been long removed from the process of developing the documents. Many executives do not know the tools of their trade. FLW knew how to draw, however, today that is not true. Many execs do not even know how to draw in Autocad much less BIM. It is not necessarily their fault, but what they experienced through their professional career. I know many executives from my experience that have not been a reviewer of the documents at all. Ask yourself, when has the CEO reviewed my set of CDs? It is not part of their role. Do they have someone for that role? Ask yourself, when was the last time a partner lead a learning seminar, wrote a paper, or lead a hands on education project/initiative? Who are the teachers? Also ask yourself whether or not the firm has a R&D budget and/or department/committee? Are they researching new ways of doing business, new processes, new products, etc? These are the tools that are needed for education.

Prem, you show a practical solution and the post screams that you (as others I know) want to learn, but sadly, I fear, that the teachers may be gone. The solution that you present requires that experienced professional. The problem today is that they are the ones that are being removed today. Any educational system within a company requires support from the leadership, and are they willing to invest in that? The thing that is disturbing with what is happening in our industry today is that the owners/clients expect from their architect is knowledge, but sadly firms today throw that away and go with inexperienced (and low cost) contract labor. Sadly, the gap is growing bigger.

I can’t argue with the fact that Alan’s assessment is true for many architecture and engineering firms.

I can tell you, however, that there are firms in our industry who have not only continued to teach in the downturn, but have doubled down on knowledge management investments like teaching in order to prepare for the next up cycle.

Consider the following quote from George Wood Bacon:

Fortunes are not made in boom times. . .that is merely the collection period. Fortunes are made in depressions or lean times when the wise man overhauls his mind, his methods, his resources, and gets in training for the race to come.

Clients and owners want to hire architects and engineers with demonstrable expertise. As in, “I see that your firm has built twenty student centers over the last ten years. That’s good news. But what has your organization learned from all of that experience? I’m pretty sure that the team that works on my project won’t have worked on all twenty of the projects you listed in your proposal. I’d guess that many of the team members might not have ever worked on a student center before. Who are the experts and how are they transferring their knowledge to your organization? Can you show me you are an expert instead of telling me about your experience?”

You probably won’t hear a client or owner say that out loud. But you can bet they are thinking it.

Experience is not enough in a period of hyper-competition. You have to convert your experience to expertise and then leverage it. Teaching is an essential tool for leveraging your expertise, differentiating yourself from your competition, and winning new work with healthy fees.

Here’s the late John Wooden on teaching and winning:

“I began my career as a coach with a losing season in spite of all of my experience, awards, and accumulated knowledge in the subject of basketball. In fact, one of the games we lost was to my alma mater, Martinsville High School, led by my former coach, Glenn Curtis. While I may have known as much about the game as Coach Curtis, the difference was this: He knew how to teach it and I didn’t. It was pretty much as simple as that.

As you might imagine, the leadership graveyard is full of failed teams whose leaders, like me at the outset, were very well informed but could not teach to save their soul. This is true in basketball, business, and most other organizations.

Of course, knowledge is absolutely essential. I put it smack dab in the heart of the Pyramid and called it Skill. But knowledge is not enough. You must be able to effectively transfer what you know to those you manage – not just the nuts-and-bolts material, but your standard, values, ideals, beliefs, as well your way of doing things.”

John Wooden, Wooden on Leadership

Teaching will be one of the four sessions at the KA Connect 2011 conference in San Francisco on April 27th and 28th.

Does your organization invest in teaching? Are you or someone at your firm interested in telling your story? Please contact us at

Posted: August 23rd, 2010 | Filed under: Most Popular | 2 Comments »

2 Comments on “Can you show me you are an expert instead of telling me about your experience?”

  1. 1 Alan Mays, AIA said at 11:08 am on August 24th, 2010:

    Chris, I wanted to take a little time to respond to your blog. Thank you for the interest that you have shown to my reply. I just hope that CEOs of the large firms and small firms alike take note, not of my reply as much as, of Prem’s cry (shout) for education, on your LinkedIn discussion group. The new generation is screaming to learn, but sadly, I find that teaching is not there (as I explained in my previous post). I agree totally with the quote you used by George Wood Bacon. That means that there is investment. Sometimes investment means “overhead costs” and many if not most companies are slashing that investment. Many companies are telling their staff to do QA/QC and training on a budget of zero. It has been proven that zero budget education will pretty much give you zero education so in the long term expertise is lost.

    Your comment concerning the client was observed by me at a mixer created by the local AIA chapter. They had a panel of a contractor, client and architect discussing their experience. It was interesting to listen to the client continue to talk about what he expected the architect to know. He emphasized process and construction knowledge (how the building goes together). The architect continued to discuss design. As I listened further into the conversation one question came to mind, were the two individuals even listening to one another? You are so correct concerning experience. It is not enough today. An architect must be creative in design and be technically savvy. This will increase with the need to be green. Does that firm have a “design guide” to educate their staff on the design requirement usually necessary for the design? That is one part of the expertise. The another part is the technical side of the building. Another blogger of Architecture has commented on this as whether being a generalist vs. a specialist. Shouldn’t we be both? Education IS the way to turn experience into expertise. Learn from experience and teach that to the inexperienced ones. In the days before my time, that was the job of the Chief Draftsman, something that does not exist today. In my time, that was the job of the QA/QC department or that, “Sage in the corner”. Sadly, through these economic times have caused many firms to dismiss that Sage. As a wise head of construction at a small firm I was once employed at once said, “Who is going to pick up doing what I do when I am gone?” What seemingly has been happening is no one picks up education as they do not want to be deemed as “overhead”.

    John Wooden is correct. I like the football analogy. A colleague of mine uses it quite often. We used it when we presented our workshop on CDs at the 2009 AIA National Convention. Every business leader and everyone else should be watching the HBO show, “Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the New York Jets”. Now apply what you see to your firm. It shows exactly what John Wooden was talking about. First thing, notice that they have and guard the most important thing to the team, the play book. No team goes into a game without a game plan. That game plan is started from the play book. Does your company have a play book? Call it a design guide, or standard details, etc. Are these maintained and kept up, do they just sit on the shelf or even worse, are they just thrown into the documents without even seeing if they apply? Do they follow the rules applied by the industry? Does the company update them with new info from their experiences? From that book a plan is created for every game that is designed to be flexible to react to the game conditions. Are your company standards flexible and allow teams to adjust to situations during the process? Realize that every game is different and that you cannot go into the next game with the same game plan. Finally, back to the point that John Wooden was talking about, education. Look at all the assistant coaches on a team. Watching the show emphasizes that they teach fundamentals as well as experience. Even the head coach as he sees things, will interject training. Ask yourself, when was the last time any CEO, or head officer of your firm wander through your office and stop by your desk to help you out with a problem? In my 28+ year career, never. It was always the assist coaches, the most experienced ones. Coaching is teaching. The coaching staff is that QA/QC department. Does your office have that staff and is their mission to train the team? Does your firm have an R&D department? The football team has one. It is called the coaching staff. They take input from the players to situations and devise the best solutions to the situation. These plays are then evaluated later and incorporated into that all important play book.

    Finally, you ask the most important question here at the end. Does your organization INVEST in teaching? Investment is an expenditure. It costs money. One cannot expect return without investment. So if you have a QA/QC budget of zero, then what is your return on investment? I find it interesting on how firms invest into the latest software and hardware or continue to carry large overhead costs internally like an accounting department (you don’t see them outsourcing that, do you?) and the IT department, but when it comes to the costs directly associated to what the firm produces, they eliminate it. It is like the hacker on the golf course. He buys the latest high dollar set of clubs and the latest balls or gadgets when all he needed was to go to the local golf pro and take a lesson. He just needed the pro to teach him the fundamentals again. The pros know it. That is why they all have that pro to go to. Tiger Woods has Hank Haney. He makes that high dollar investment. I think his return on investment is pretty good, don’t you?

  2. 2 Susan Strom said at 12:41 pm on August 24th, 2010:

    AlignMark published a short blurb on their study of the impact of a candidates experience on her job performance. The results are surprising. ‘Experience’ has little to no impact of performance. If the number of years a candidate has been in the field isn’t a good predictor of her performance, why would the number of years a studio has been designed in a particular market sector be a good predictor of studio performance? As this article points out, the difference between experience and expertise is in learning. What did you learn from each of those years in the field? Similarly, what did your studio learn in each of those years designing for my market sector?

    I think Chris is on the money with this one. Experience and expertise are two different things. I’ll take it a step further, what applies to the employee also applies to the organization. If your employees are not actively learning and teaching, then your organization isn’t either.

    Here is AlignMark’s article.