Several years ago, I saw a film titled “Six Degrees of Separation,” an early Will Smith effort that got me thinking. If everyone is a maximum of six relationships away from any other person on the planet, why is it so difficult for someone to be able to find the person in the firm who has real expert knowledge on the subject I’m struggling with at this moment? After all, even then our firm was fairly large, full of people who knew lots of good stuff.
The film was based on a then little explored science known as “small world theory.” With a curiosity that is not easily sated, I found a great book on the subject titled Nexus, Small Worlds and the Ground-Breaking Theory of Networks by Mark Buchanan, that offered a lot of interesting theory about rich networks and how they work to shortcut access to people and information, but very little practical advice about how to get your own network up and running. I needed to build a culture in our firm that made expert knowledge readily accessible to anyone at any time. After all, no architect or engineer today can have enough up-to-the-minute best-in-the-world knowledge on every subject a client may ask about. And, “I think this is the answer . . . “ simply isn’t good enough.
In the shower one morning, I had an “aha” moment – if I have a true passion about a subject, something that fascinates me so much that I continue to learn about it without being directed to or financially rewarded for it, I am likely to know who the world-class experts on the subject are. So, all I need to do, is get connected to those experts quickly. Not such an easy task. I needed to build a culture of “two degrees of separation,” one in which I know a great number of people who are passionate about a lot of different subjects on which I’m likely to need just-in-time, latest and greatest knowledge about at a moment’s notice. In other words, if I know that you are an expert on under floor air delivery (a subject I became passionate about to both save energy and improve air quality after being deposed in a sick building syndrome lawsuit), I know who to call to find out who the world class experts are and reach out to them for an answer to my problem.
I began spreading this idea, asking people to share their personal passions – when someone new joined the firm, in all staff meetings, with articles written for our newsletter. When someone worked for a period of time in another office, we made it de rigueur for a group from that office to take the visitor to lunch or dinner, or just a beer after work and share what turned each other on – work related or personal (with all the risks that implies). We made it clear, that this was a reciprocal thing. If I want to access someone else’s knowledge, I better have something I can share in return.
The idea caught on; so successfully in fact that it became our cultural norm that when someone was called out of the blue by another member of the firm (even someone they didn’t know) they would take the time to listen and try to guide the other person to a solution.
Before long, we were constructing our first Intranet knowledge platform. It quickly became obvious that data, diagrams and facts are rarely helpful to the person making the inquiry. After all, their problem is unique and needs interpretation to adapt what is on the Intranet to their individual application. Only a person with expert knowledge can interpolate for the situation at hand. So, in the spirit of “two degrees of separation,” we put a name with a link to the person’s e-mail and phone number on each citation, figuring that someone inspired enough to post a page on a subject can take you through the options, help you solve your specific problem or get you to the expert who can. It was also important as the Intranet matured, that a name connected to a subject was updated with a new passionate expert if the person left the firm.
So, the solution to knowledge management is not technological, it’s cultural. True professionalism today requires building a closely connected network of world class, just-in-time expert knowledge, accessible to everyone in your enterprise. And you don’t need a large firm to accomplish this. You can reach out to peers, contractors, building officials and friends to build your “two degrees of separation” network. As quickly as our world is evolving, no lesser standard of excellence is acceptable to your clients.
Ed Friedrichs graduated from Stanford University in 1965 and received his Master of Architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968. He joined Gensler, Architecture Design and Planning Worldwide, in San Francisco in 1969, opening the firm’s Los Angeles office in 1976, was appointed President in 1995, leading its development as one of the most successful and influential design firms in the world.
Ed will be talking about the role of knowledge sharing in high-performance AEC organizations at KA Connect 2011.