Agents of Change in the Built Environment: A Study of AEC Thought Leadership

Thought leaders are a fascinating bunch. The architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industries have more than their fair share of thought leaders. These people are trustworthy and competent, curious, insightful and influential about a particular subject. They see possibilities and associations that aren’t obvious to others. They are the change agents pushing their firms to explore, improve and differentiate – and they are often prodding their profession to innovate as well.


Whether these people excel at communication, research, or experimentation, they have the potential (with the proper investment) to help a firm pioneer a new direction and/or reputation. In many cases thought leaders are already in leadership positions. Perhaps they’ve initiated or inspired a program to formalize the firm’s approach to discovering, learning, sharing and growing. Perhaps they’ve started their own firm or company or organization as their way to advance a specialized practice and satisfy their need to drive broader change.

There are also emerging thought leaders. You might recognize them by their inquisitive nature or their ability to persuade and change the perspective of their peers. They are continuously studying, testing their thinking, and advocating for better solutions. With a little luck, these emerging leaders will settle into firms that recognize and are open to exploring the possibilities that these individuals could help reveal.

At Walter Communications, we are curious, too. Thought leadership is a topic we talk about frequently, so we’ve partnered with our friends at the Cameron MacAllister Group to learn more about the prevalence of thought leadership efforts within the Built Environment industry. We recognize that investing in these people is a sort of gamble. There are no guarantees that their interests and efforts will bear fruit. We want to know more about the firms that make space for these individuals and help nurture their ideas to thrive within the organization. What have been the successes, the failures? We are also curious about why other firms have chosen not to pursue thought leadership or, perhaps, have opted to stop.

To take a closer look, we are interviewing firms with noteworthy thought leadership programs. You can find summaries of these discussions, like our profile of the research program at Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, here on our blog. In addition, we are surveying firms across the AEC sector to find out about their experiences with thought leadership programs – whether theirs looks like a research project, a full-fledge testing laboratory, a communications program, or even if they don’t have one at all. If you are willing to participate, we’ll share our findings with you, too.

Please take our AEC Thought Leadership survey.

Celebrating a Retiring Hero (or even just an executive)

Earlier this week, I responded to a new discussion question by Kristin Kautz on the SMPS LinkedIn Group about how to structure a communications campaign around a retiring executive. I offered five tips to Kristen based on the communications campaigns I’ve led for mergers and acquisitions with the final tip being “Keep it positive!” After all, retirement is the rite of passage that we all strive for and it should be a celebration of this person’s accomplishments and contributions to the company and their profession.

A day or so later, Jason Mlicki offered an example of exactly this sort of celebration. As a marketing consultant to environmental services firm Verantis, Mlicki built a microsite to celebrate the career of Woody Wilson West, one of Verantis’ retiring engineers. The Wonderful World of Woody site features a fun and only partially-fictional list of Woody’s super hero-like accomplishments and the ability for anyone to add their memories and congratulations. Perhaps the most effective part of this is that the message focuses on Woody’s specialization – FRP Fans.

Not that I have any idea what an FRP Fan is, but I assume that most of the site’s visitors do and that this topic is something that Verantis proudly pioneers. Mlicki and Verantis show that Woody and his subject-specific expertise has been an asset to the firm AND that he has built the firm’s body of FRP Fan knowledge – a subtle assurance to Verantis clients that Woody’s know-how is ingrained in the firm’s systems and minds of its remaining consultants. Nice work Jason and thank you for sharing the link.

In case you are interested, here are my five tips: 1. Consider your audiences. I'd suggest running through your list of audiences and considering what their concerns would be -- e.g. Clients: Will my project be affected? Do I have someone else at the firm who I trust and want to continue to work with? Will this affect the firm's ability to maintain overall quality or business acumen? Staff: Who will fill the void? What upward mobility opportunities does this create in the firm? ...

2. Consider your messages to each audience. The more concerns a group has, the more personal you'll want the communications to be. - With staff, consider a company- or office-wide meeting to announce it. - With clients, perhaps phone calls by the partner him/herself on the projects they lead directly, otherwise the clients' primary contact at the firm. My hunch is that having a trusted person in place is going to be one of the most important messages to clients, so a series of in-person client meetings with the replacement leader or new contact would be necessary. - With vendors, perhaps a letter is sufficient - With the industry/press/public, press releases are standard, but perhaps they could be accompanied by a video highlighting this person's contributions to clients and the industry. Meet w/ select industry journalists to see if there may interest in a profile story.

3. Consider all your existing communications vehicles and who they reach and include these channels as a part of the announcement -- e.g. newsletter, e-blasts, website, blog, Facebook/LI/Twitter.

4. Consider the sequence and timing of communications: e.g. 1. Tell partners. 2. Tell staff. 3. Tell clients and vendors. 4. Tell the public.

If this is a high profile firm/individual, time your communications closely together so the rumor mill doesn't scoop you.

5. Keep it positive. Make this a celebration of a full career and new opportunities for the next tier of leadership at the firm

The Generosity of the Thinking Man (or Woman): Managing, Sharing and Leading Through Knowledge

Image Not everyone is comfortable being generous with their knowledge. Many choose to hold it close to their chest hoping that their exclusive ownership of it will somehow be a competitive advantage. But people won’t know you have this knowledge if you don’t talk about it … and talk is cheap.

In order to convince people that you know your subject thoroughly, you have to show it. What better way to do this than to give it away?

Firms like HMC Architects and SWA Group are putting their knowledge to work in the form of educating the general public. (Full disclosure: Walter Communications has worked with both firms on these projects.) In both of these cases, young people are the knowledge-sharing conduit. SWA’s Matt Baumgarten notes, “Kids can spread information very effectively. Once they understand the concepts, they go home and teach it to their families.”

HMC’s godfather of sustainability Pablo La Roche recently led a workshop series on sustainability at a local elementary school. This initiative was made possible by a grant from the firm’s Designing Futures Foundation in an effort to contribute to the next generation of environmental stewards.

SWA is organizing two events in Houston, Texas for this fall that aim to open the public’s eyes to the real danger of living in a floodplain by calling their attention to the 100-year floodline and the natural infrastructure of the City’s bayous. The first is an art installation and the other is a series of presentations to public schools and an organized two-mile student walk along the 100-year floodline. These initiatives effectively build stronger connections with their communities and garner kudos from the press, but they also reinforce their reputation as experts – and as an added bonus, they keep employees happy and engaged.

Another firm that has impressed me by their know-how generosity I learned about at KA Connect –the single event where all the AEC industry innovators hang out. Through their strict focus, client list, research and services, Ayers Saint Gross has built a solid reputation and positioned itself as a resource for anything related to campus planning. The firm and its website is the single place a university need look to compare their campus with other schools, to access an image resource library, to find research and whitepapers on the latest trends and to hire top tier planning and design services.

Yes, this could be seen as a risky move since the competitors of Ayers Saint Gross can also access this resource, but the gamble pays well. According  to Principal Jim Wheeler, the firm’s policy is “give it away” and even goes so far as to require all employees to demonstrate knowledge through research, speaking and publishing. When firms set an expectation like this internally, it raises the bar and challenges staff to clear it. It may not be the right environment for every professional, but for those who want to take part in shaping their profession it is the place where they will thrive. What firm doesn’t want this type of person working for them and representing them to the public?

Ayers Saint Gross has it right.  They are creating a culture of learning, thinking and testing. Through this culture, they have created a reputation for stellar services and a continuous cycle of encouraging staff to exceed expectations, communicating findings and winning new challenging projects where they can put their research to the test.

You don’t always have to be the originator of an idea to have a reputation of being knowledgeable about a topic. I ran into Anthony Flint at the American Planning Association conference last week and learned about a new resource that his organization has created. In this case, The Lincoln Institute for Land Policy isn’t sharing its own knowledge (although they do frequently publish their own research and findings), but instead it has aggregated and organized all the scenario planning tools that are currently available in order to help planners learn which tool is right for them, how to use the tools, and to support further development and refinement of scenario planning tools. The Institute’s report “Opening Access to Scenario Planning Tools” and corresponding website establishes The Lincoln Institute as an authority on the technology that is pushing the industry in new direction without building a tool of their own.

If all of this sounds good and you are thinking that you’d like to start spreading your firm’s knowledge, make sure you look inside first. If centers of knowledge and leading experts can’t be easily found and accessed internally, then start with addressing this problem. If your firm already has a strong process for knowledge management, then what are you waiting for? This is the stuff of marketers' and communicators' dreams.

We’d love to hear how your firm is using its knowledge, leave us a comment.

HMC Architects' Social Media Story Telling

HMC Architects' Social Media Timeline As with any learned skill, story telling on social media takes practice. When we started working with HMC Architects in June 2010, they had already established themselves as one of the top architecture firms to follow on Twitter. From the start, they used Twitter to connect with and share knowledge and resources with others in the AEC industry and this approach continues to serve them well.

However, the firm's blog was simply an extension of their newsroom -- predominantly announcements of new projects, press coverage, new hires and promotions. In July 2010, the firm started creating content that told the stories of its work and its professionals largely by interacting with employees behind its firewall through an internal blog to mine for stories that readers might find interesting on their external blog.

Over time, HMC was able to learn from the blog and Facebook posts that prompted people to respond and share.

We created this timeline of HMC's social media path to illustrate the many lessons they learned over the years of consistently publishing content and ideas and closely monitoring what worked and didn't in terms of engaging their readers. Social media requires an ongoing process of trial and error. Even though their storytelling has matured and is effectively engaging readers, HMC continues to try new things.

There are lessons here for anyone starting or evaluating their social media program, perhaps, the most important message is that social media success takes time and consistent posting to understand what your fans and followers want.

What are some of the events that have shaped your social media strategy?

A large format version of this timeline is currently on display in the "Presenting Architecture" exhibit at the American Institute of Architecture San Francisco Chapter.

THE Marketing Event

I had the good fortune to be invited to moderate a panel on social and media for 8th annual The Marketing Event hosted by the New York chapter of SMPS expertly organized by Lauren Hlavenka, Nancy Kleppel.  This year they teamed with Chris Parsons of Knowledge Architectureand expanded the topic to include technology, knowledge management and a focus on the economy. There were three tracks for the event so I can’t speak to the full event, but the sessions I sat in on were really useful.  Chris kicked off the event with his keynote address that set the stage for the remainder of the day.  Chris is half way through a research initiative studying the social media efforts of the top 500 AE firms.  At this point, he’s looked through all the blogs, Twitter feeds, Facebook and LinkedIn pages and he is now in the early stages of interviewing each firm for insight into why they chose their path.

If you have the chance to see him present – and he seems to be speaking everywhere these days – I highly recommend it.  This guy is smart.

He talked about types of content that firm’s are putting out there and pulled out some of the strongest examples and examples of firms that are trying something all together different – like Perkins + Will’s approach to Twitter where just about every office has its own Twitter account to better track and connect with local people and topics that relate to their local services. (As someone with a background in big firm corporate communications, this idea makes my palms sweat as visions of every office, business line, practice area and knowledge center going public with their own brand of social media.)  As Chris says, “This is either crazy or genius and I’m still on the fence.” If you want a front row seat to his research, be sure to attend his conference KA Connect in San Francisco this spring.

The other memorable speaker that I listened to was Nancy Egan of New Voodou.  I’d been hearing about Nancy from several people for quite some time now, so it was really good to meet her and to hear about the work she does. Nancy’s session “Between Now and Next” focused on how firms are managing the recession and the bold moves that have made some more resistant to this downturn – the “keep your knees bent approach to life” as she describes it.

Nancy aims her spotlight on idea- and issue-based firms and accurately conveys that the successful firms will be marketed through a combination of the strategy, content and relationships. I especially liked hearing about Albuquerque, NM architect Van Gilbert (perhaps because Albuquerque is my hometown and not a city often associated with innovative architects).  She described how he parlayed his zoo and aquarium design experience to spearhead collaboration with representatives of some of the top zoos and aquariums in the nation to consider and publish their aspirations for the future of these institutions.  He and the others are now presenting their collective vision at industry events.  He’s also shepherding a partnership between the Albuquerque Zoo, the Albuquerque Aquarium and a high school in Bernalillo, NM to support the science curriculum development in a time of budget constraints.

In my session “Picking Your Path in Social Media”, I shared the podium with Tom Abraham from elemental architects, Jim Kent from Thornton Tomasetti and Harry Kendall from BKSK Architects  who each represent a firm of a different size and a different approach and different level of experience in social media.

Elemental has been blogging and posting on their Facebook page steadily for more than 3 years with their own defense of architecture from the cable TV do-it-yourself and Design Star impression that many Americans have of the profession and its craft.  Their blog is syndicated on at least three other blogs and they’ve amassed more than 10,000 Facebook fans.  Their profile is a testament to the accumulative effect of a consistent social media strategy.

Thornton Tomasetti’s program is driven by a strong internal communications engine – repurposing the best and publicly consumable content as tweets and Facebook posts.  They are continually exploring ways to get staff involved and shared some tactics for opening eyes of the technical staff to the type of content that would be interesting.

BKSK just started their Tumblr that is guided by the wisdom that “if it’s interesting to us internally, it may be interesting to others”.  In a few short months, they are already starting to understand the type of content that gets staff excited and compels them to contribute.  They also realized that the process of updating the Tumblr may in fact be the process that makes the firm more aware of its most interesting aspects.

The remainder of my afternoon was spent in smaller breakout sessions designed to be free form conversations on a particular topic, like “Social Media Tactics”.  I attended three of these and by the third, my creative energy was draining and I wish I’d attended the session on “Navigating the Ocean of Professional Possibilities” instead.

I left for the airport directly after the last session with a handful of new contacts and a head full of ideas.  If you have the chance to attend the 2012 version, I recommend it.