Archive for September, 2006

Carnival of the Green

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

So, this evening on my way home from class, I tune into WETA. Living on Earth, a weekly environmental news show, is airing and the host, Bruce Gellerman, is interviewing Nick Aster about McDonald’s inclusion of toy Hummers in their Happy Meals. Apparently the Hummer toy caused quite a blog furor.

Nick Aster writes a blog called Triple Pundit. So, when I get home, I google the blog (which is quite interesting) and this leads me to discover the Carnival of the Green, a blog carnival that Triple Pundit and another blog, City Hippy, started last October.

City Hippy lists all the green blogs that have or will be hosting the Carnival of the Green and I would bet there is a lot of great content on all those blogs. Check it out.

Strange news

Friday, September 22nd, 2006

Today’s New York Times contains several seemingly unrelated stories that strike me as odd, yet strangely related. Odd because when I read the headlines I thought, “huh?” Strangely related because the articles, taken together, seem to show that something new is afoot in the world.

The first article, on the front page, discusses the disclosure of the Jewish roots of Senator George Allen, Republican from Virginia. My reaction is: why does it matter? Is this gentleman’s ability or inability to be a political leader somehow changed by his heritage? It’s a human interest story, no doubt, but what is important in evaluating him as a Senator or a political candidate is what he thinks, says, and does on the crucial issues of our times and whether he treats other people with respect or disrespect.

The second article, also on page A1, concerns the loss of the current season’s pear crop in California because of lack of workers to pick the pears. Apparently, the Bush administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration has cut off the supply of pickers. As I understand it, one argument for restricting immigration is to prevent undocumented workers from taking jobs from Americans. Well, there were apparently no Americans willing to pick the pears and some of these pear farmers may well go out of business. I’m sure the pear industry is not the only one affected.

The third article, found on page A3, involves the dwindling birth rate in Genoa, Italy. The article points out that the Italians are no longer having many babies (in part because of a perception that it is too expensive to raise them) and so the government is now offering incentives to encourage its citizens to reproduce. My impression is that world overpopulation is a problem, so why is the Italian government trying to get people to have more babies? Well, reading on, I discovered that the population in Italy is not really declining, it’s just becoming less Italian – it is immigrants who are having the babies. Hmm.

It was the headline of the last article, on page A8, that struck me as strange. It reads, “Despite Plea, Indonesia Executes 3 Christians.” My first thought was: why the heck does it matter that they were Christians? If they were convicted of breaking the law and deserved punishment, their religion should have nothing to do with it. Maybe the issue here was that these individuals were innocent or that the death penalty was an inappropriate punishment, but to headline the article with the reference to religion seems to emphasize the wrong thing.

So, how are these articles related? Perhaps not in any way that can’t be shot down by counter-arguments, but in all cases, these articles report a world where distinctions of ethnicity and national isolationism are still strongly held but, paradoxically, no longer pertinent. George Allen’s mother kept her Jewish identity a secret because of the trauma her family experienced at the hands of one of the world’s worst racists during World War II. Fear of ethnic and religious discrimination is indeed still a problem, but Allen’s heritage has nothing to do with his ability to do his job. The California pears are rotting on the ground because of the Bush administration’s ethnic exclusionism and the racially-tinged economic fears of American workers. But if American workers don’t want to harvest crops, then our fruit will have to be imported or our grocery shelves lie bare and that makes no economic sense. The Italian government is trying to convince Italian nationals to reproduce because it doesn’t want its population to be dominated by people from other nations, but world hunger and disease caused in part by overpopulation is a far more serious issue. Headlining the Christianity of the executed men in Indonesia demonstrates the continuing and largely pointless distinctions made on the basis of religion.

The paradox is that the world no longer operates within such distinct boundaries. Communication, mobility, and a real need to level inequalities is driving us toward being a world community, not a collection of distrustful and isolationist groups. While this trend is bound to change the economic dynamics for a lot of people and may cause a dilution of cultural identities, globalization is happening. Instead of strengthening the battlements, why not figure out how to grasp the opportunities?

Fall semester 2006

Tuesday, September 19th, 2006

My fall semester is underway and it’s going well. I’m taking two courses, Building Technology (in the Interior Design department) and Project Management (in the business school).

In Building Tech we’re learning the basics of building systems, writing a paper on some building technology, and either building a model or keeping a journal of visits to a construction site. I’m working on my model already – it’s a suspended acoustical ceiling hung from an open-web parallel-chord steel truss. To keep it all close to the belt, the paper will be on acoustical ceilings as well.

In Project Management, besides reading the text and taking exams, we’re working in teams planning a cross-cultural wedding. Our team’s two cultures are Nigeria and Sudan. Since I’m in the ID department, my part of the project will be to develop the interior spaces for the wedding festivities. I know these cultures have rich histories, gorgeous textiles, handcrafts, and design motifs, and beautiful wedding traditions, but I’ve been having some trouble finding information on the web.

Nothing very profound to be said about these two classes as yet – just reporting in.


Tuesday, September 12th, 2006

Working in teams is pretty much a given in the architecture and design business. But good teams don’t just happen by themselves, as I’m discovering in my current Project Management class. We’ve learned that the structure of a project team and the role of the project manager may vary depending on the nature of the project and the company’s organizational structure and culture, but one thing is common to all projects: they need effective leadership. Good project leaders have a clear vision of the project as a whole and the ability to convey that vision to the team members. Without leadership, projects fail.

I’m finding this out first hand in my class experience. We were divided into teams of 8-9 people, given a short description of our term project, and set loose without much guidance on how to begin. All the other students in the class are in the MBA program, so I thought they might have had experience with this sort of thing, but none of them acted as if they knew any better than I what we were supposed to be doing. In the first two weeks of class we hadn’t accomplish much of anything, so I started producing drafts of the project deliverables and sending them to the others for comment, but not even that got much reaction. Finally, our professor stepped in and gave us a kick in the shins. I don’t know how the rest of the semester will go, but at least there is now some communication among us.

So what went wrong here or is this just the way teams work? I would hate to think that all team work is dysfunctional, so I am assuming the problem was, in part at least, a lack of leadership. Perhaps one of us should have assertively assumed the role of project manager, perhaps the team itself should have designated someone to lead the group, or perhaps this is simply a problem inherent in a project mangement class where every class member should have an opportunity to be a manager.

In the real world of commercial projects, however, teams that can’t function efficiently adversely impact the company’s bottom line. To compound the trouble, apparently good team leaders are few and far between and most companies don’t understand how to develop and nurture them. One article assigned for my class, entitled “Make Projects the School for Leaders” by H. Kent Bowen, Kim B. Clark, Charles A. Holloway, and Steven C. Wheelwright (Harvard Business Review, Sept.-Oct. 1994), states: “The challenge is to understand what leadership requires of people and to create a process and a system in which leaders develop naturally as part of the life of the business.” In companies with good leadership, the authors aver, senior management (1) expects leadership from its team leaders, (2) supports its leaders by making sure they have the resources to do their jobs, and (3) rewards leaders for success.

Turning to the architecture and design community – is the profession supporting and training people to become the leaders it needs for effective project management? We’re certainly not learning leadership in interior design school – but for the fact that I needed an elective and signed up for the Project Management class in the business school, I would never have been exposed to project management principles at all.

My guess is that the answer is no, and this may be a big mistake. The world is changing. To compete, architecture and design firms have to produce great projects. To produce great projects, firms need expert teams with effective leaders. To produce effective leaders within the profession, schools need to provide leadership training and A&D firms must value and develop leadership skills throughout their organizations.

Resources: Architectural hardware

Tuesday, September 5th, 2006

Architectural hardware:

August ‘06 index

Friday, September 1st, 2006

The World is Flat

Friday, September 1st, 2006

The World is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman‘s book about globalization in the 21st century, keeps popping up on my radar and triggering ideas. (See my previous posts: A New Business Model and Versatilists.) Last night, my Project Management professor treated us to a slide show about the book and today I read an interview entitled Wake Up and Face the Flat Earth: Thomas L. Friedman that Nayan Chanda, editor of YaleGlobal Online magazine did with Friedman in 2005. In the interview, Friedman says:

Well, let’s start with, what is the mix of assets you need to thrive in a flat world? Money, jobs, and opportunity in the flat world will go to the countries with the best infrastructure, the best education system that produces the most educated work force, the most investor-friendly laws, and the best environment. You put those four things together: quality of environment that attracts knowledgeable people, investment laws that encourage entrepreneurship, education, and infrastructure. So that’s really where, in a flat world, the money is going to go.

Friedman is talking about countries in this paragraph – what countries must do to be competitive in the flattened world of the 21st century. But suppose we translate the four points in this quote from the country level to a single firm. How can any one company incorporate Friedman’s ideas to ensure its own competitive position in the flat world? Here are my thoughts:

1. Quality of Environment: Firms need to make their companies great places to work. Several things contribute: comfortable and usable workspaces, good employee benefits, and positive organizational cultures. For example, employees are more productive when they have control over their working conditions – lighting levels, air temperature, noise level, furniture fit, etc. Including benefits such as health insurance in employees compensation packages attracts higher-quality employees and increases existing employees’ feeling of security. A culture that values intelligence, ideas, and collaboration generally achieves greater success than one that is based on power plays and inflexible ways of doing things.

2. Entrepreneurship: Firms need to encourage internal entrepreneurship by encouraging innovation, creativity, and risk taking and tolerating the mistakes that go along with exploration of new ideas.

3. Education: Firms must provide their employees with opportunities to learn new things by having in-house seminars, supporting continuing education efforts, or simply working learning time into weekly schedules.

4. Infrastructure: Firms will need to explore new types of partnerships with other companies, both local and global, to ensure that they can provide the best product or service to their customers. In-house, employees must be given the proper tools to do their jobs, be it computers that contain the right software, communication tools, or the physical tools needed to do the job.

In most cases, transitioning into the new flat world will require an initial expenditure of time and money and perhaps some radical and difficult revamping of organizational thinking. But, just as countries that fail to adjust will loose their competitive position in the world political and economic arena, firms that neglect or refuse to change will find themselves left behind in their marketplaces. Design firms are not exempt.