By Ed Friedrichs, Chairman, ZweigWhite
So, what is this all about? Knowledge Management (developing a firm’s body of expert knowledge and making it accessible to the entire firm) and Thought Leadership (developing new and innovative ideas through research and application, then sharing these ideas in a way that improves the profession and the industries we serve); thus, KM and TL – probably the most important background work that should be taking place in any design firm. Three weeks ago, a KA Connect LinkedIn conversation posed the question, “How would you make a compelling case for knowledge management and thought leadership to an A/E/C company CEO?” After reading the first few citations a few weeks ago, I felt compelled to enter the blog dialogue (I feel like I’m finally entering the 21st century when I participate in a conversation on a social network).
The conversation revolved around a concern that fee pressures and survival instincts were combining in firms to discourage or stop investment in KM and TL. “It’s all about billable hours,” resounded in the conversation, “who has time to invest in KM and TL? How can we convince our CEO to resume funding for this sort of thing and continuing education as well?” I was concerned about what I was hearing because I believe that successful firms create and sustain a culture of Knowledge Management and Thought Leadership despite economic conditions. In fact, KM and TL never work if directed or assigned. So, I chimed in, “If the CEO needs convincing, get rid of the CEO or join another firm.” Well that seems to have stirred a hornet’s nest so I kept adding to the dialogue.
Knowledge comes as a result of passions. You search out deep knowledge about something because you’re passionate about it. You connect yourself with others who share your passion. The proliferation of knowledge in a firm and access to it comes as a result of a culture in which people share their passions. When passions are broadly known in a firm, you know who to ask about what; who to talk to in order to gain knowledge about your problem, and to place your question in context.
Knowledge assets are not assembled. It’s not enough to build and rely on an elaborate electronic database of knowledge. What yields results is having the will and taking the time to build a culture that will use the electronic compilation to connect with the person who has the knowledge to facilitate (no, lubricate) that connectivity. The important thing is not spending the money, it’s building a culture of rich networks that share and collaborate.
Likewise, Thought Leadership is the outcome of a passionate commitment to a subject. People become thought leaders because they are constantly gathering knowledge about a subject that fascinates them so compellingly that they never stop gathering data and talking to people who are also deeply engaged. It’s not a matter of diverting effort from otherwise billable time. These are people who invent time to pursue their passions. Thought leaders just can’t help themselves. If someone thinks they have to ask for permission to spend time on something, they’re either not passionate enough or you have a very oppressive culture in your organization. Your culture, not your billable time policy, is what supports people’s passions, encouraging them, creating a platform (print, speaking engagements, membership in related organizations) for them to expose their thought leadership.
If no one in your organization is passionate enough about something to evolve into a thought leader, go out and find some passionate people (always my first question on an interview – what are you so passionate about that you’re always sneaking time from other obligations to work on?). And if your CEO doesn’t get this and is not a thought leader, see my advice in the second paragraph above.
If you have to pitch your CEO to resume your focus on TL and KM, why aren’t you the CEO? He or she has clearly lost their way. I don’t care how tough the market or the economy are, the CEO’s role, through thick and thin, good times and bad, remains the same:
- Lead client relationships – for sales, for referrals and for satisfaction
- Create an atmosphere where people want to work collaboratively with you and each other to do work that makes your clients successful
- Contract for services and manage their delivery in a way that generates profits
- Lead innovation through thought leadership and knowledge management
- Create a collaborative atmosphere with all stakeholders (contractors, subcontractors, suppliers, manufacturers, building officials, lenders, everyone) in order to bring the best and brightest resources and work effort to bear on your clients’ matters
. . . not necessarily in that order. But the CEO has to attend to it all to be worthy of carrying the mantle.
So what have I learned through participation in this conversation? From the number of responses that continued to share painful stories and concerns about their firms, there are some terribly repressed people and oppressive cultures out there. It let me know how deeply affecting this recession has been. At the same time, I’m working with companies and individuals who have held their course – CEOs who continue to lead and to support passions. I hope yours is or moves quickly toward being one of them.
About the Author
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.