Establishing a vision for knowledge management: Be like Gordon Ramsay.


                                                                                                                            © NASA

Back to Chef Ramsay

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Chef Gordon Ramsay’s formula for turning around failing restaurants:

Establish a vision. Do less. Do it well. Fix the decor. Work as a team.

Watch a few episodes of Kitchen Nightmares and you’ll see that this formula is devastatingly effective. It is also remarkably simple.

Step one in Chef Ramsay’s turnaround plan is to establish a vision for the failing restaurant. Most of the restaurants Chef Ramsay turns around are drifting without a clear identity, trying to be everything to everyone. In recent episodes he’s helped restaurants to position themselves as “healthy and fresh,” “family-style Italian,” and “from farm to table.” 

Chef Ramsay uses the vision for the restaurant as an armature for decision making.

Want to use frozen food? That doesn’t fit the vision of “from farm to table.”

How about using grapefruits from Mexico or apples from China? Nope. Out. Find a local fruit.

Can’t figure out how you are possibly going to decide which cheeses to serve in the dessert course? Draw a 100-mile radius around the restaurant and find a local farm making cheese within those boundaries.

This surely isn’t the first time someone has presented you with the benefits of using a clear vision to articulate your priorities and align a team. Yet virtually none of the restaurants Gordon Ramsay turns around have a clear vision. Why?  Planting your flag in the ground means shutting down other options and risking criticism from others. It requires discipline and clarity in communications.

In other words, defining a clear vision is difficult. Yet simple.

A vision for knowledge management

One of the challenges architects and engineers face is that they don’t know how to start organizing information and sharing knowledge. The sheer volume of both is so daunting that the opportunities for improvement seem simultaneously unlimited and exhausting. Many times they give up before they even get started.

There is more information to be organized in architecture and engineering firms than can possibly be organized. There is more knowledge created every day in architecture and engineering firms than can possibly be captured or shared. 

Enter the importance of clearly articulating a vision for knowledge management.

What is typically missing is a clear vision for what matters. What information do we absolutely need to manage? What knowledge is critical to our success to create, capture, and share? When all information and knowledge is treated equally, analysis paralysis and inaction is sure to follow.

Be like Gordon

Here’s my advice for those who are struggling with organizing information and sharing knowledge – be more like Gordon Ramsay.

Articulate your vision for knowledge management. Repeat it consistently. Use your vision to make decisions about what information gets managed and what knowledge you target for capturing and sharing.

It is difficult work. But the answer is simple.

Next post we’ll pick back up with step two: Do less.


Posted: April 18th, 2010 | Filed under: General, Most Popular | Comments Off on Establishing a vision for knowledge management: Be like Gordon Ramsay.

Is your project history database “bloated with no accountability” or “streamlined with a librarian?”

Card Catalog iStock_000008277334Small                   

                                                                                                               © RyanJLane

“Things that get used don’t get dusty.”

Denise Parsons

The way forward is simple. But it requires discipline.

Most architecture and engineering firms have some sort of project history database. In fact, they usually have more than one.  Project history can be found in enterprise systems like Deltek Vision, custom FileMaker or Access databases, Excel spreadsheets and Word documents, and folders of InDesign templates.

An effective project history database should help your firm to answer  “the 5 Ws and an H” – who, what, where, when, why, and how – of your firm’s experience.

Here are a few examples of questions a project history database should be able to answer:

“How many LEED Certified buildings has our firm built?” “Who was the project manager on the Pacific Tech University Lab Remodel?” “What projects have we built for public universities in Washington state in the last 5 years?”

The majority of the project history databases I’ve seen don’t get used. They don’t get used because they are either incomplete or inaccurate or both.  The reason for the poor quality of information is that the databases have too many fields and nobody assigned to maintain them.

Because there are no initial costs to creating fields (and because the technology makes it so easy)  folks tends to create fields to hold the answers to any question they might ever want to ask without concern for the long-term costs of usability and maintenance.

Spring cleaning

Here’s what I think you should do to develop an effective project history database:

  1. Create one source of truth by consolidating project history from multiple locations into one database.
  2. Keep your project history database simple by prioritizing fields which actually get used.
  3. Assign a librarian to each field you want maintained. You may well have different librarians for different types of fields. (For example, QA/QC tracking, project roles and responsibilities, location of the record copy of the half-size set, and project descriptions might be maintained by four separate librarians.) 

Going forward, you should only add fields into your project history database when you have a clear “use case” for how each field will get leveraged and assign a librarian to maintain it. 

A confession

I confess to having built a couple overly ambitious project history databases in the past. (I’m reformed now.) We review several project history databases a month through our consulting work.  I’ve seen enough examples of the “bloated with no accountability” variety of project history databases to advocate a “streamlined with a librarian” approach to our customers.

I’m currently designing Knowledge Architecture’s internal project history database. I’ll be the biggest user of our database but also the librarian. (You can bet we’ll have a streamlined design.)

Interested in help cleaning up your project history database?

Drop us an e-mail.

Posted: March 21st, 2010 | Filed under: General, Most Popular | 1 Comment »

“Game films” – Our latest knowledge management tool.

Top Gun and knowledge management   © Paramount Pictures

Sometimes writing is just too slow.

A couple of weeks ago I was on a  GoToMeeting session with Bob Batcheler of Newforma. Batch and I were developing content for a webinar called “Transforming data into knowledge: PIM and knowledge management.”  Batch had prepared his thoughts on project information management and I had prepared my slides on knowledge management. Our GoToMeeting session was the first time we had combined our slides and we were working through the mechanics of stitching our complementary narratives together.

I presented first. I quickly found myself scribbling note after note after note in my journal. Every time I would get a bit of momentum going, Batch would interject and throw out a question or build on my ideas. Which in turn lead me to reframe or clarify my thinking in ways in which I wanted to remember for our live performance. Hence the mad scribbling.

The problem with the mad scribbling approach was that it was too slow. In the middle of a burst of new ideas I’d say, “Hang on Batch – slow down, I want to capture this.” 

After several minutes of me imposing a  “burst-capture, burst-capture” rhythm Batch suggested we just record the GoToMeeting session so that I could stop taking notes and focus on producing a stronger story. Because recording a GoToMeeting session captures both audio and video, I could “study the film” later to pick up any changes, notes, or techniques worth incorporating.

Record the GoToMeeting session. It was so obvious.

My first “game film.”

Not only did recording the joint-writing session capture the raw ideas I was trying to write down – I also captured the tone, pacing, and inflection of my new “talking points.”

At one point, Batch really liked how I opened a particular slide.  I said, “hit this point hard, right here and pause for effect” into my microphone knowing that I was leaving myself a trail of notes to pick up later. In effect, I was “pre-coaching” myself.

After our meeting was finished, Batch uploaded the video to me. I watched the film several times, harvesting the best parts and eliminating the filler bits.  Recording the collaborative session improved both the quality of our webinar and improved my ability to recall the essence of the ideas we co-authored. (I’m sure it will also be amusing to look back on it later.)

Best of all, I had learned a new technique for creating and capturing knowledge. I called it my “game film.”

Meanwhile, in the office next door…

I have previously written about our methodology for performing Deltek Vision – Newforma Project Center (DV-NPC) integrations to illustrate how Knowledge Architecture invests in knowledge management. In this blog post, I explain how Brian created a checklist to transfer his knowledge of performing integrations to Chad. I also pointed out the limitations of checklists for knowledge transfer:

But there is more to bringing Chad up to speed on DV-NPC integrations than handing over the the knowledge explicitly contained in the checklist.  Brian also has experience and intuition (tacit knowledge for the KM geeks out there) which are not so simple to codify in a document. Our tactic here is for Chad to shadow Brian on enough DV-NPC integration engagements so that Chad can take over primary responsibility for delivering them in the future.  And of course, Brian will always be available as a backstop for questions.

Back to the brainstorming example above. I told the KA team about the experience I had with Batch at our next weekly meeting. As I began to enumerate the benefits of recording GoToMeeting sessions Chad interjected,

“Yeah, that’s a cool idea. I recorded the GoToMeeting session of the last DV-NPC integration I did with Brian last week. Good tip though.”

Chad went on to explain how valuable recording the integration process (several hours in length) had been. Not only did he capture the step by step process of tying the two systems together, he also captured Brian’s perspective on why he did things the way he did as well as  his experience in handling exceptions that might come up in other customer environments.

Chad found his way to recording the GoToMeeting session for the same reason that I did. Instead of scribbling “one-dimensional” notes, Chad was able to capture the rich knowledge contained in the video and his conversation with Brian. 

After the integration was completed, Chad studied (and continues to study) the “game film” much like a professional football coach reviews the tapes from Sunday’s game on a Monday to improve the plan for the next week. Or a surgeon reviews her latest operation to improve her technique. Or a group of fighter pilots (see Top Gun above) have “rankless, nameless debriefs” to accelerate the learning process of the whole squadron by performing root cause analysis of the flight plan’s execution to transfer lessons learned. 

Another knowledge management tool for your toolbox

Storytelling. Interviewing. Cookbooks. Host a conference.

Over the past several months I have written about the knowledge management tools that we use at Knowledge Architecture. Add game films to that list.

While game films are new to us, we have lots of ideas about how we can use them — documenting complex procedures, facilitating group learning and knowledge transfer, training new staff, and collaborating on process improvement come to mind.

We’ll keep you posted on our progress in implementing this new tool.

Posted: March 7th, 2010 | Filed under: General, Most Popular | Tags: | Comments Off on “Game films” – Our latest knowledge management tool.

Looking for a proven way to transfer knowledge? Write a “cookbook.”


Julia Child and Knowledge Management

I like to begin conversations about knowledge management by talking about Julia Child. Julia’s travels through France, her education at Le Courdon Blue cooking school, and time teaching at an informal cooking school for American women in Paris – her experiences acquired over time – all became part of her personal knowledge base.

Julia’s informal cooking school was in fact, a collaborative effort with two other women, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. Simone and Luouisette had already been working on a French cookbook for Americans and invited Julia to join them in order to make the book appeal to Americans. According to our good friend Wikipedia, “over the next decade, the three researched and repeatedly tested recipes. Child translated the French in English, making the recipes detailed, interesting, and practical.”

Julia Child was able to transfer her tacit knowledge (experience she had acquired over time) of French cooking into explicit knowledge (knowledge that can be reduced to a set of instructions)  through writing cookbooks. Millions of American women (and men) have read Julia Child cookbooks and learned from her experiences in France in the 50s.  

The Swiss Chef and his Cookbooks

My first manager after graduating from college was a Swiss technologist named Hannes Rosskopf.  Hannes possessed the traits you would stereotypically associate with the Swiss. He was precise, detail-oriented, and demanding.  I appreciated Hannes’s rigor because I knew that he was helping to mold me into a stronger consultant.  (Well, I almost always appreciated it.)

However, I believe what made the most lasting impact on me was Hannes’s approach to teamwork and personal development.  The first e-mail I ever got from Hannes went something like this:



Glad to have you as part of the team. You will be helping me to write cookbooks.



It turned out Hannes had also recently joined the company. He had been tasked with developing a standard methodology for our practice group. It was the dot-com bubble and our company was growing.  Our previous team leader no longer had time to provide technical leadership to the group because he had moved into a marketing and sales role. Charged with arming a hungry but inexperienced group of recent college graduates with technical knowledge  – Hannes borrowed a page from Julia Child. He decided to start writing cookbooks.

Hannes’s objectives differed from Julia Child’s in one major aspect. Julia Child aimed to transfer her knowledge to a sea of home cooks, most of whom she would never meet. Hannes’s predicament was more analogous to an executive chef starting a restaurant. His aim was to transfer his experience to a team of sous, prep, and line cooks so that he could further leverage himself over multiple projects.  Julia Child aimed to help her audience build their personal knowledge.  Hannes’s goal was to help build organizational knowledge. 

And so, I found myself busily writing procedural documents for building new e-mail servers, checklists for installing backup and recovery systems, and documenting rollouts of new software applications. Hannes curated, edited, and published this massive  collection of Microsoft Word documents to the team. He called this collection of explicit knowledge his “cookbooks.”

Often times, Hannes would lay down the outline of a new cookbook and seed it with his own knowledge. However, Hannes was most interested in enlisting us to improve the cookbooks because he knew that the process of writing cookbooks would help us to learn our subject matter better than simply following his procedures. Knowledge management in our team meant the following:

Figure out a new way to shave 3 steps off of a checklist that he wrote? Update the cookbook. Learn the hard way that the way we had been installing a certain piece of software was introducing conflicts with another piece of software? Update the cookbook. Need to learn how to perform a process that you’ve never done before? Read the cookbook. The cookbook doesn’t  exist? Write a cookbook. Then tell the team about it.

Hannes was relentless and systematic in his approach to creating, capturing, and sharing knowledge. In doing so, he not only built a library of explicit knowledge (cookbooks) with clear monetary value, he also leveraged his experience to grow a  team of consultants with a shared methodology for doing quality work.     

Crafting the Knowledge Architecture Menu

I continue to be surprised at how many “cookbooks” it takes to run a consulting practice. Knowledge Architecture will be one year-old next month. One of the things I have repeatedly told people over the last year is that I have felt like we were constantly doing things for the first time. 

Proposals. Contracts. Invoicing. Bookkeeping. Filing incorporation papers.  Checklists for welcoming new customers. Checklists for hiring new employees. Templates for developing information system roadmaps. Templates for developing intranet roadmaps. Planning guides for employee databases. Planning guides for project databases.  Procedures for performing integrations. Procedures for installing SharePoint. The list goes on and on.

Each of these cookbooks not only required an initial version, but now require constant revision as we acquire new knowledge through our daily work. However, I can sense that we are turning the tide on the volume of initial knowledge capture as we enter our sophomore year. While there is theoretically an infinite amount of knowledge to capture in cookbooks, not all knowledge is created equal.

We are focused on writing cookbooks which help us to do at least one of the following three things: perform quality work, increase profitability, and/or enable us to leverage each other and grow as a team.

Bon Appétit

If you are an architect who specializes in residential design, you probably carry around a library of unit plans which you have built over time. If you are a job captain, you probably have a checklist (at least a mental one) for transferring BIM models between members of the design team. As an HR professional, you probably have a set of  guidelines for your technical staff which you tell them before they interview new staff.

You are all cooks. You have acquired a large body of tacit knowledge over time through your work experiences.

There are more tools than ever before to help you create, capture, and share knowledge. Intranets, blogs, wikis, podcasts, and cheap video cameras to name a few.

Harness your knowledge. Write your cookbook.  Share it with your team.

You’ll never cook alone again.

Posted: February 21st, 2010 | Filed under: General, Most Popular | 3 Comments »

“Do Not Hurry; Do Not Rest” – On Acquiring New Knowledge.


How it begins

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Josh Lobel to speak at KA Connect. Josh is an architect with a deep interest in the impact that digital  tools have on architectural practice.  A mutual friend had introduced us and had mentioned to me that Josh was a big fan of “The Craftsman” by Richard Sennett. I checked “The Craftsman” out from the library and have been recommending  it to people to ever since.  Here’s what the New Yorker has to say about it:

“Sennett considers an array of artisans across different periods, from ancient Chinese chefs to contemporary mobile-phone designers, in this powerful meditation on the "skill of making things well." The template of craftsmanship, he finds, combines a "material consciousness" with a willingness to put in years of practice (a common estimate of the time required to master a craft is ten thousand hours) and a strategic acceptance of ambiguity, rather than an obsessive perfectionism.”

Sennett discusses the history of knowledge transfer throughout the book. Organizations have always wrestled with best practices for educating the next generation of craftsmen, whether they be the  guilds of medieval Europe or modern design firms. In addition to exploring the history of organizational learning, Sennett explores what humanity has gained (and lost) from introducing machines into our workshops. Sennett specifically focuses on the impacts of using CAD tools in architectural practice.

Josh and I started our conversation by discussing “The Craftsman.” Our conversation was energizing and fun. As we jumped from topic to topic – discovering that each of us had been thinking about history and process and tools  and practice from different perspectives – I kept thinking one thought to myself:

“Damn I wish I was recording this.”

Interviews as knowledge assets

I sent Josh an e-mail the next day to pitch him on the idea of conducting an audio interview for the KA Connect blog. He wrote me back to say that he was in. Awesome. We’d produce it as a podcast, perhaps the first in a series. The wheels were turning now. I thought of all the other people I could interview, the sponsorships, the glory.

As the days went by I kept thinking about great having a podcast series would be – I’ve advocated interviewing as a great knowledge management technique for years. A good interview helps to tell someone’s story. If you ask the right questions,  your interviewee will often share insights that they had not previously articulated, even to themselves. (The knowledge management intelligentsia calls this “Latent Knowledge.”)  Best of all, you can capture an interview and leverage it as a reusable asset – whether as a blog post, podcast, or video.

Perfect. I’d lined up the essential elements for a new knowledge management initiative  – create knowledge, capture it as a reusable asset, and then share it via multiple channels. There were only two problems with my plan:

    1. I didn’t have any experiencing interviewing people.
    2. I had never put together a podcast.

How I acquire new knowledge

Most of the writing I’ve done on this blog has focused on organizational learning, not personal learning. In addition, I’ve focused on leveraging existing knowledge, neglecting acquiring new knowledge.

My desire to create a series of interview podcasts got me thinking about how I learn new skills. Unlike the apprentices in “The Craftsman,” I’m not in a guild.  There is no master to pass down knowledge honed over generations. In addition, many of the skills I want to acquire (i.e., podcasting) were invented in the last few years.

Founding Knowledge Architecture has required me to develop the ability to rapidly acquire new skills. When I reflect back on jumping into sales and marketing, accounting and finance, product marketing and development and the countless other new things I have begun to learn over the last year – I can tease out three sources of knowledge which I repeatedly target :

People. Books. Blogs.

People – It turns out that I’m lucky. Josh’s sister Mia is an audio producer and journalist who specializes in podcasts. She and I talked last week and she gave me a wealth of advice and pointed me towards a long list of resources. (Talking to as many people who have knowledge on the topic in question is always my first step in learning a new skill.)

Books – I’m headed to the library this afternoon to pull a couple biographies of interviewers. I’ll probably also pick out a couple “best practices”-type books. (In general, I tend to prefer biographies to best practices books. The insights tend to stick with me better.)

Blogs – I’ve already started adding blogs about podcasting to my Google Reader. Blogs are a particularly good tool for learning modern skills such as social media and emerging technologies. However, blogs work equally well for learning “old-school” skills like marketing, business development, and writing. (The evidence of prior  knowledge acquisition sprees is clear in the image below.)


“Do not hurry; do not rest” – Goethe

Once I’ve gathered some interviewing and/or  podcasting experiences from other folks, books, and blogs, it will be time to to just try it. Record my first interview. Share it. I can refine and tweak from there. I’ll probably even write about podcasting and interviewing to help me crystallize my thoughts on the subject.

I like what Goethe says about pacing yourself in life – “Do not hurry; do not rest.”

I think his quote also applies to learning a new skill. Take a bit of time to do some research – but get on with it. The doing is where the real learning happens.

What about you? How do you acquire new skills? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Posted: January 31st, 2010 | Filed under: General, Most Popular | Tags: , | 1 Comment »

KA Dialog #1 – Part 5: Leverage yourself, and each other.


“Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth.” Archimedes

This post is the fifth in an open dialog with Bob Batcheler of Newforma. Here are links to Part 1: Knowledge management is squishy, Part 2: PIM is like a bunch of boxes… , Part 3: Information Disasters vs. Knowledge Disasters and Part 4: Disaster Prevention and Recovery (PM and KM Style) for reference.


Happy New Year! I apologize for the delay in responding to your last post. I spent December on the road talking to all kinds of folks about knowledge management on both a strategic and tactical level, including Newforma. My journal is full of anecdotes, techniques and lists of ideas – many of which I’m sure I’ll be sharing on this blog.

I have a New Year’s day ritual that I’d like to share with you. I have a personal journal and a Knowledge Architecture  journal. At the start of every New Year I brew some coffee (this year I went to Starbucks)  and read through the previous year’s journal entries chronologically. Beyond having a good laugh at false assumptions and worries that never came to pass – I look for patterns that emerge or phrases that repeat. This year, one cluster of phrases from my Knowledge Architecture journal stood out:

“Leverage yourself.” “Leverage yourself and your organization.” “Leverage technology to…” “At its core, knowledge management is about leverage…”

A scan over my blog posts, website, and workshop materials confirms that leverage was my word of 2009.

Knowledge management and leverage

I know what you are thinking. 

“Good for you Chris, after a year of writing you have discovered that the point of learning and using technology is to leverage yourself.  I’m sure that Archimedes would be proud to personally welcome you the last two millennia of human progress .”

Fair enough, but I think that there is more to it. You closed your last dialog post with the following questions:

So, Chris, the question to you is, as you build your business, how are you investing in building KA’s knowledge assets?  Or are the cobbler’s children running around without shoes?

Building a new business  in a recession (the DJIA was around 6,000 when we launched in March, 2009) has led us to deeply embed bootstrapping and leverage deeply into our culture.

As you know, we are a small company with limited resources. While it is true we are growing, the wisest investments we are making are into leveraging our people and their knowledge.

I am also seeing this approach from our customers. Many of them do not anticipate hiring in 2010. They have cut the fat from their budgets, and many have gone further. So what’s left? The prevailing cliché is “doing more with less.” Which is exactly right as long as you move beyond simply repeating the slogan and waiting for change to magically appear.

I believe that “doing more with less” means creating, capturing, and sharing knowledge assets to leverage yourself and your team so that you can work smarter, faster, and more profitably. 

The silver lining for 2010 is that now is a perfect time to invest in becoming a knowledge-driven firm. Let me nail that down with some specific examples on how Knowledge Architecture is leveraging knowledge assets both individually and as a team.

Everyone is their own knowledge manager

My wife, Denise,  serves as my own personal Peter Drucker – asking me Yoda-like questions when I am stuck. Here’s a question that she asks me on a regular basis which is an excellent jumping off point for discussing knowledge management at Knowledge Architecture (and beyond):

WIIFM – What’s in it for me? As in, “what’s the WIIFM for X person?”

For Brian Campbell, a Senior Consultant with Knowledge Architecture, the WIIFM for developing a checklist for performing Deltek Vision – Newforma Project Center (DV-NPC) integrations is to be able to nail every integration efficiently and right the first time.

Why? Beyond the obvious high level of pride that all of us take in our work – we have a couple of structural elements built into our business model which support a knowledge-driven culture. The first is that we run open-book financials and share profits based on firm performance. In addition, all of our integrations are supported for a year under our subscription plan. This means that Brian (and all of us) are personally invested in performing our fixed-fee engagements both efficiently (profit-sharing) and right the first time (preventing costly and embarrassing re-work.)

Leverage that asset

Let’s keep following the DV-NPC integration checklist asset through the organization to see how we can leverage it in marketing and sales.

My primary roles at Knowledge Architecture are marketing and sales, product management, and corporate operations. There’s a WIIFM here for me as well. I obviously need to be able to talk about features and benefits of our products and services when I’m meeting with a potential customer. However, the knowledge asset (checklist) created by Brian also allows me to speak confidently about the process and provide accurate estimates for our fixed-fee services. In addition, our standard proposals and contracts are derived from our methodology.

Furthermore, our debrief after every integration engagement (yes, we do closeout meetings) ensures that our methodology and our marketing materials stay in sync. I’m not selling something Brian can’t deliver and he’s able to update the team on the latest lessons learned and updates to our checklist.

Our continuous feedback loop ensures that I’m not selling something our consulting team can’t deliver and we’re all aware of the latest changes to our methodology.

I suppose this might be described as the WIIFU – What’s in it for us?

Growing the firm and sharing knowledge

As you know, we have recently hired my brother, Chad Parsons, to join us as our Director of Engineering. Chad’s primary responsibilities include overseeing delivery of our solutions, software development, and internal technology operations. Welcome Chad!

One of our top priorities is to transfer our DV-NPC integrations from Brian to Chad. We have a couple new initiatives in the first quarter which are more applicable to Brian’s background, experience, and skillset than Chad’s and we want to free him up.

In order to leverage Brian and Chad appropriately — our knowledge asset is on the move again.

But there is more to bringing Chad up to speed on DV-NPC integrations than handing over the the knowledge explicitly contained in the checklist.  Brian also has experience and intuition (tacit knowledge for the KM geeks out there) which are not so simple to codify in a document. Our tactic here is for Chad to shadow Brian on enough DV-NPC integration engagements so that Chad can take over primary responsibility for delivering them in the future.  And of course, Brian will always be available as a backstop for questions.

Is it inefficient and expensive for us to have both Brian and Chad work on integrations in January and February? The short-term answer is yes. But in the long run we are investing in creating assets and leveraging our people appropriately, ensuring that we are working smarter, faster, and more profitably.

Back to you

The most successful knowledge management examples I saw last year were almost always bottom-up, instead of top-down.  They all had a WIIFM and many times that benefit was the ability for an individual to magnify their personal impact or that of their team by creating, capturing and sharing knowledge.

Which leads me to my questions for your next post:

As a software company who has a five-year head start and thirty employees on us, I’m interested in learning how you are investing in building Newforma’s knowledge assets? How are the lessons learned from both of our companies applicable for our architecture and engineering clients?



Bob Batcheler is Newforma’s vice-president of industry marketing and product management. Bob’s career as a professional engineer includes time at Black & Veatch and Bechtel Power Corporation. His AEC technology background encompasses a variety of roles at Autodesk and Softdesk. Bob earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Lehigh University, and qualified as a registered professional engineer in Maryland.

Posted: January 3rd, 2010 | Filed under: General, Guests, Most Popular | 3 Comments »

Storytelling – the oldest profession.

Knowledge Architecture founder Christopher Parsons interviews himself on the power of storytelling as an applied knowledge management strategy.

You just equated storytelling to prostitution. Is there more to your statement or are you just trying to get us to read the story?


Do you care to elaborate?

Stories are the oldest means we have to share knowledge. You can look at religious parables, Greek mythology, or even children’s fairy tales for examples of how we have historically used stories to pass along knowledge and cultural values.

There is a great section in “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath on the power of stories. They explain why stories like David and Goliath and the Good Samaritan are far more effective ways to communicate than simply instructing others to “overcome adversity” or “help others in times of distress.” When we take the time to encode values, knowledge, or information in stories we make them “sticky” and inspire others to act.

Great book, one of the best I’ve read this year. Dan Conery of Newforma told me about it.

Any thoughts on how your readers can apply storytelling in their jobs?

Sure. Start telling stories.


Fair enough. I take your point. Here’s what I’m getting at. You don’t need a corporate initiative, storytelling committee, intranet, blog or wiki to get started. We knew how to share knowledge long before we had a printing press or the internet. Oral storytelling has a long and rich tradition. Sure, books, newspapers, magazines, the internet, web 2.0 are all are excellent mechanisms for creating, capturing, and sharing stories…but none of it matters if you don’t tell stories.

What kind of stories should we be telling?

This is a great question. An architecture or engineering firm is a business that designs buildings. If you don’t design great buildings, you won’t be in business long. Conversely, if you run the business poorly, there will be no buildings to design. So I’d start by focusing on stories that help people understand how the business makes money, where clients come from, and to understand how their efforts contribute to profitability, marketing, and sales. I’d also have an equal focus on stories that help to design better buildings.

I just finished reading “Open-Book Management” by John Case. Case asks you to imagine your business as a game and all of your employees as players. He argues that in most businesses, only a handful of players (top management) know the rules of the game (how the business makes money). Imagine what a football game would be like if only the coach and the quarterback knew the rules.

I’d argue that most AE firms run this way. Projects appear, bonus checks get distributed (or not) and most folks don’t know how all this “magic” happens. Employees are paid to design buildings, put together powerpoint shows, or close helpdesk tickets. A handful of individuals are responsible for running the business and ensuring the viability and performance of the enterprise.

Demystifying the “game of business” by opening the books and teaching basic business literacy might be one of the most powerful, untapped ideas for sharing knowledge that I’ve ever seen.

Can you give a specific example of business storytelling?

Absolutely. I started reading Anne Scarlett’s blog on AEC marketing a few months ago. One of my favorites posts is “Scarlett Letter #34: So how do you know one another? Diagramming your network. Part I of II.” Here’s an excerpt:

Well, it’s fun and inspiring for AEC leaders to educate your staff on how and why specific clients were won. {Notice I say client, rather than project, as that is the attitude we should always hold when thinking about new business}. I have a fairly forward-acting client that does exactly that by including ‘how we won this client’ into the agenda for their all-office quarterly meetings. A partner uses a flipchart to demonstrate in real-time how a specific client was won: who was involved; what was their role (buyer, influencer, informant); timing; and so forth. You can even share the origin of your relationship with the various players involved. For example, maybe one of the players was a vendor source that you’ve known for years, but never actually did any business with—proving that continuing to nurture contacts in your broader network can pay off in the longest run.

How awesome is that idea? “How we won this client.” Think of all the simultaneous benefits that this technique brings you, from your staff learning where clients and projects come from to seeing that you are out there marketing and winning work.

Look, I understand that suggesting to just “open your books” might sound a bit flip. Most open-book proponents recommend that you do this in an incremental, phased approach. Getting used to the idea of sharing sensitive information will take some getting used to. There is no doubt that this would be a sea change for most firms.

However, I think that Anne’s suggestion is pretty low-hanging fruit. Telling business stories doesn’t require much in terms of resources. You don’t need an intranet or a CRM to have a major impact on your business.

Win a project, tell a story.

How about design storytelling?

This is something our industry is really good at doing. We have loads of forums, lunch and learns, conferences, knowledge communities, and industry roundtables. A smart-ass revisionist like me might even call this “Social Networking 1.0.”

Proud of yourself?

Pretty much.

So where are the opportunities with design storytelling?

It would be great if we could capture and share more stories. The challenge is in finding the time to create the content, capture it in a story and then share it. The fact that we are all busy, mobile, and geographically-dispersed only compounds the challenge. It was one thing to tell stories around the fire when we had small villages, travelled as nomadic tribes, or worked on the farm…

I’m assuming this is where technology comes in.

Yes. But only in the way that systems like books, magazines, or television were additive to face to face storytelling.

Tools like e-mail management, personal video, screencasts, blogs and wikis mean that capturing knowledge has never been easier. Sharing stories has never been easier. And yet the plain truth remains…none of the new innovations matter if you don’t take the time to create, capture, and share your stories.

Any closing thoughts?

I should close with a story right?

I think you’ve kind of painted yourself into a corner.

I thought so. Well I’m going borrow a story which I hope helps to illustrate a final benefit of storytelling – leveraging yourself through a good story.

From the Arup website:

The Key Speech is required reading for each person who joins Arup or who wants to be reminded of what we are all about, and for those who want to learn about us.

On 9 July 1970 Ove Arup spoke to a meeting at Winchester, UK, of his partners from the practices around the world bearing the Arup name. His talk was in response to the collective desire to continue working together, despite the changes that would take place as the founding partners progressively retired and gave up ownership, handing over control to the successors they would choose for these practices.

The pre-natal name of ‘key speech’ for this talk has endured, in recognition of the fact that in it Ove both states the aims of the firm and analyses in his very distinctive way the principles through which they may be achieved. From time to time we have asked ourselves whether what he said in 1970 remains valid for us, despite the fact that inevitably some specifics about the firm’s organisation and individuals’ roles therein to which he refers in passing have changed over the years. On each occasion we have found that it does, and thereby reaffirmed our commitment to these principles.

You can read the whole speech here: Sir Ove Arup’s Key Speech.

Today we might record the speech as a video, embed it in an internal blog post, or tweet it. The fact remains that this is a powerful, powerful technique for knowledge management.

Thoughts or ideas on storytelling? Please share them in the comments below or e-mail me.


Posted: September 19th, 2009 | Filed under: General, Most Popular | 4 Comments »

KA Connect – The time has come for a Knowledge Management Tribe in the AEC Industry.

Updated 12/07/2009 – Please visit the KA Connect 2010 conference website at for more information.

Last fall I called Doris Pulsifer after reading “A Case for Knowledge Management in the A/E Industry,” a viewpoint article which Doris wrote for the October, 2008 issue of AECBytes. In the article, Doris comprehensively outlined the state of Knowledge Management (KM) in our industry, addressed the definition and history of Knowledge Management, listed common techniques and systems for managing knowledge, and shared insights into her approach as the leader of the Knowledge Management Department at Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, LLP. (You can read the article here.) Doris and I discussed the need for a Knowledge Management community in the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) Industry and I agreed that I would look into the next steps of getting one started.

Over the years, I have had similar conversations with others who were equally interested in the idea of starting an AEC Knowledge Management community. We all agreed that while Knowledge Management tends to appear on the agendas of various AEC roundtables and conferences, we could all benefit from a community and/or conference exclusively dedicated to the advancement of the practice.

At the same time I was having these conversations, I began watching TED. TED is a small nonprofit devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading.” It started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Education, and Design. (Hence the name.) Over the years it has grown incredibly and become an international institution. However, the TED Conference still remains at the core of the organization, and even though TED does have a membership model, videos from the annual conference are released weekly to the public. In my “list of organizations I want to emulate,” (yes, I actually have one written down) TED is right up there at the top.

In March of this year I came across the TED talk “Seth Godin on the tribes we lead” which is embedded above. The first time I watched it, inspiration struck:

“I’m going to create an AEC Knowledge Management Tribe.”

I watched the video several times and sent it to my friends and colleagues. I committed to myself that I would bring the tribe into the world and that I would do it within a year.

KA Connect 2010 – Chicago – April 8-9, 2010

While there are still many details to be worked out, I am happy to announce that the first KA Connect Conference will be held in Chicago on April 8-9, 2010. (The KA stands for Knowledge Architecture, the founding sponsor of the event.)

I chose Chicago as the hometown for KA Connect for three reasons:  Chicago’s convenient, centralized location should ensure high attendance, long history of architectural significance, and I met my wife in Chicago and I look for any excuse I can find to travel there.

Here are the “guiding principles” for the KA Connect Conference:

  1. Connect existing islands. The Knowledge Management community in the AEC is disconnected but has a yearning to come together to share, collaborate, and learn.
  2. Provide a platform for Thought Leaders. Firm leaders, industry analysts, management consultants and software vendors will share best practices, case studies, new technology, and innovative processes.
  3. Host at alternative venue. Natural light. Breakout rooms.  Informal setting.
  4. Create a hybrid program. No presentation longer than TED’s 18-minute limit. Clusters of quick, 6 minute, 40 second Pecha Kucha presentations. Use “unconference” techniques popularized by groups such as Mashup Camp.
  5. Highly engage vendors. Software and consulting practices participate in the conference like everybody else. The flipside – no direct selling or product evangelism allowed.
  6. Leverage video. Film the talks given at the conference and distribute video through the KA Connect website to the public.
  7. Build a community. Much like TED, the KA Connect Conference will be the heart and soul of KA Connect. But membership in KA Connect will include access to exclusive resources such as forums, wikis, and webinars to keep the conversation going.

How to KA-Connect

Doris Pulsifer is currently working with me to help plan KA Connect 2010.  More information on the schedule, speakers, venue, and conference fees will be announced over the next several months.

Please e-mail if you are interested in speaking, attending and/or sponsoring KA Connect 2010.

In addition, you can sign up for our mailing list or follow us on twitter.

Hope to see you there,

Posted: August 23rd, 2009 | Filed under: General, Most Popular | Tags: | 1 Comment »

Guest Post: Chris Marolf on the tangible benefits of Knowledge Management in the AEC.

Quick – what were the five things from your last project that you should remember for future projects? Got ‘em? Good. How about three important lessons learned from the project you did in 2006?

If you are struggling to remember these lessons, you’re in good company. I’ve been helping firms in the construction industry develop institutional memories with their lessons learned for the past ten years, and I find it striking how few firms are able to answer the above questions. As part of my work I also facilitate lessons learned meetings at the completion of projects. Two things really stand out after having done about 150 of these meetings: first, there aren’t many truly new mistakes in this industry. Most of the things that go wrong on a project have gone wrong on past projects as well. Second, these mistakes cost a lot of money, but they aren’t often fully accounted for. There is a lot of money at stake here!

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted: August 6th, 2009 | Filed under: General, Guests, Most Popular | 1 Comment »