Archive for the ‘Internet & Business’ Category

Cre8d Design

Friday, January 18th, 2008

Hooray!

Rachel at Cre8d Design fixed my website! If you need help with your website, give her a nod.

Upgrading the site

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

Some things aren’t working right on my blog and I’m trying to learn what I need to do to fix them. This is taking some time, so my apologies in the meantime.

Collective wisdom

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

How do you collect the wisdom of an organization?

I work for a large architecture/design firm and the depth of expertise represented there is staggering. Yet, as a new employee, I have little idea how to efficiently tap into that expertise. Clearly, I can ask around until I find someone who knows what I need to know, but this takes time and the experts are usually busy and often out of town anyway. We also have an intranet that contains an enormous amount of information, but it seems to be a collection of random things that has simply grown over time and it’s often difficult to find what is needed. What we really need is a way to gather and access the firm’s collective wisdom.

Attempts to collect wisdom are not new. In ancient times, of course, wisdom was passed down orally from teacher to student. Then wisdom was written down in books. When I was in grade school, I spent hours lying on the floor reading the World Book and when I was in college, hours in the library, ruffling through card catalogs, bibliographies, and other indexes to try to figure out where to get what I needed to know. It was cumbersome and limited by the number of articles contained in my encyclopedia or volumes held by my college library.

Now we have the Internet which gives us access, theoretically, to a nearly infinite amount of information. The problem is how to find specific information. Search engines have taken the place of card catalogs but with less precision – general searches yield too many results, most of which aren’t pertinent, and specific searches miss important information.

The interesting development, however, is Wikipedia, which I think is brilliant because it collects wisdom, not just from a few selected people, but from anyone who knows something (and, of course, plenty of people who think they know something, but don’t.) True, you can’t rely on Wikipedia for an definitive answer, but you can get darn close in most cases and the access to information that the service provides is unmatched. Wikipedia works because millions of people contribute knowledge and that volume of input levels the information to something very nearly accurate.

So my question is, can the Wiki notion work on an organizational level? Can a design firm use a Wiki to collect the wisdom of the firm? I think it can. And I think it would be extremely valuable.

So, practically, how would you go about this? First, you’d have to figure out what kind of wisdom you wanted to collect. Then you’d have to begin to categorize or organize it in some way. You’d need a technical person and a site designer. Next you’d need to determine how to begin to populate the database and get it up and running. Then you’d have to train employees to use it and come up with a scheme for getting them to contribute. You’d also need a way to maintain some oversight over the content and to keep it clean and up-to-date.

This begins to sound like more than just a nice add-on to an existing intranet. It begins to sound like a complete reinvention. But what if it worked? What if you could open your company Wiki, type in your question, and instantly find your answer? What if you could, indeed, access your company’s wisdom with a few clicks of the mouse? That would be truly extraordinary.

Death of the Generalist

Saturday, July 28th, 2007

The Generalist is dead. It pains me to say it, because I am one. I want to know about everything; I want to be good at everything. But there isn’t enough time and there is too much, way too much, information. This has really hit home since I’ve started my new design career. Taking a building or an interior relocation from start to finish is extraordinarily complex and the sheer volume of expertise and information required is astonishing. As much as I want to learn it all, I’m beginning to realize it may not be possible.

Take Thursday, for example. In the morning I did some occupancy calculations for a client who needs to obtain permission from the city for an unusual buildout. This required me to understand several sections of the International Building Code, a document not known for its clarity, to say the least. It took me hours to parse the code language until I was satisfied I’d done the calculations correctly. People build careers doing nothing but interpreting the IBC. Later, I walked through a construction site where I was involved in discussions about fire alarm wiring, carpet laying, the proper use of plastic laminate, and the lighting levels in a corridor. Each of these involved a different trade, represented on the job site by a team working only in its single trade. In the afternoon I reviewed some specifications for office cubicles. There are those whose entire job is to understand the intricacies of systems furniture. In the evening, I went to a reception at a high-end furniture showroom that employs a pack of salespeople who do nothing but deal in this furniture.

All these specialists. It makes me, the generalist, want to cry. Not because I don’t appreciate the depth of knowledge that these specialists command, but because I know I can never learn everything that all of them know.

We need all these guys. No one of us can ever learn everything all the specialists involved in a design project know and we could never build a building or refurbish an office floor without all that knowledge. Architecture and design is a business of specialists and I’d better get used to it.

Nevertheless, I’m not going to cave in and become one of them. The design business also needs people who know enough about all these different specialties to see the big picture – people who may not have the depth of knowledge that the specialists do, but who understand the various processes well enough to ensure that the results really do resolve the client’s problem or need.

The difficulty, of course, is managing the overload of information that’s available. New designers have to learn a lifetime of information in a really short time to be even passably competent, even at one specialty. Becoming a semi-expert at all the aspects of a design project is one big challenge. Bring it on! Maybe the Generalist isn’t dead after all.

The blog experiment IV

Monday, December 18th, 2006

It’s been nearly a year since I started this blog. My initial objectives were to network with other designers and make contacts within the design world, create a place to amass resource links to make finding things easier, and showcase my work. Some of these things have materialized and others have not. First, the networking idea has been a total flop. I’ve written a boatload of blogs and gotten about 3 valid comments. I did have an interesting but short exchange with a couple of these commentors, but by and large, the only “comments” I get are from spammers (20-30 spams per day). Clearly, if this objective is to be met, I need a very different approach.

Collecting links to resources has worked fine, but I haven’t had a studio since I began the blog, so haven’t had a chance to see if these resource collections will make it easier to find products. I think they will, so I’ll continue to collect.

What has proven to be worth the price of the ticket, however, is providing a place to store and show my portfolio. I did some job hunting this fall and was able to point people to the website. I think many of them appreciated the chance to see all my work on their own time and in one place. It certainly enabled me to dispense with carrying huge satchels of drawings to job interviews.

An unexpected bonus is that managing the blog has connected me to information simply because I’m out there looking for ideas to write about. Something catches my eye or a thought occurs to me, I do an online search, follow a few links, and invariably I find lots of amazing stuff. The blog, therefore, opens up lines of thought and provides inspiration.

So after almost a year of blogging, I have to conclude that it’s a valuable exercise, though perhaps not for the reasons I originally envisioned. It remains an experiment!

Trends

Thursday, October 26th, 2006

As I learn more about the design profession, I discover new resources. Today’s discovery is DesignIntelligence, the Design Futures Council’s monthly “Report on the Future” and self-described “repository of a vast wealth of timely articles, original research, and industry news.” Here’s what the Council says about itself:

The Design Futures Council is a global network of design community professionals. The mission: to explore trends, changes, and new opportunities in design, architecture, engineering, and building technology. Members include leading architecture and design firms; dynamic manufacturers; service providers; and small, forward-thinking A-E-C companies taking an active interest in their future.

The Council regularly publishes articles on future trends and management practices that affect the design industry, including “reports on financial management strategies, best practice case studies, and articles on fees, profitability, ownership transition, communications planning, strategic change, [and] achieving competitive fitness.”

Webcrawling, I found a full reprint of DI’s January 2006 volume entitled Fifteen New Directions Sweeping the Design Professions. (One must subscribe to get the full text of articles on DI’s website. I can’t remember where I found the full article.) In the first article in this volume, Current and Emerging Trends Reshaping the Design Professions, author James P. Cramer states: “At no time in history have the design professions played such an important role in pressing global issues.” He’s talking about the sea-change occuring in how business is done globally, evidenced by a proliferation of “new methods, processes, technologies, demographics, values, and behaviors,” and argues that design firms will need to reinvent and restructure themselves to keep up.

I couldn’t agree more (see my post The World is Flat). Changes wrought by technology, particularly the global connectivity made possible by the internet, and new competition from educated, talented, and ambitious workers in countries like China and India are changing how projects are done in the US and other nations that previously had a monopoly on design. If we don’t keep up with the technology and we don’t join forces with these new experts, we’ll lose.

The issue goes on to present 15 trends that the Design Futures Council identified after surveying top design professionals. The first of these is that “firms will be delivering genuinely integrated and more overtly collaborative professional practices in architecture, interiors, engineering, and construction.” The successful organizational model will involve integration of all disciplines needed to complete a project either by creation of a truly multi-disciplinary firm or through an inter-firm collaborative effort. The future, the author argues, will see architects, designers, engineers, and contractors sharing authority, responsibility, costs, and risks from a project’s inception.

This level of collaboration will require firms to adopt technology that will permit a seamless exchange of data and this involves another trend that the article identifies – Building Information Modeling (BIM). With current architectural, design, and engineering systems, separate files are created by the various project participants as they develop and complete their tasks and drawings and documents are then physically exchanged. Changes to one document might require changes to other documents and these changes must transferred manually to every drawing or document that might be affected. This cumbersome process has enormous potential for errors and omissions. BIM streamlines and decreases errors by maintaining all project data in one file that can be accessed by all participants and changes to one part are immediately reflected in all parts. BIM has been around for a few years, but only now is it beginning to catch on (see my paper on BIM written in September 2004 for a class.)

The most forward-thinking firms have already adopted this technology and others are poised to do so. Given the incredible changes in how business is done and the increasing pressure on firms to produce more in a shorter period, firms that fail to adapt their processes and organizational thinking to this trend will surely fall behind.

I haven’t learned or even seen BIM in action, but I have had some recent conversations with firms that are adopting the technology and they’re pretty excited about it. So am I. The design business is poised on the edge of something new – not only new technologies, but new ways of doing things, new hierarchies, new expectations, and new needs.

I like the thought of entering the design profession at a time when things are changing. It’s invigorating and that’s a good feeling.

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.

Collective thinking

Monday, August 28th, 2006

I’ve been testing the waters of the design profession by talking to designers about what their firms look for in new hires and I encountered a remark that got me thinking. The fellow I was interviewing said (and I am paraphrasing), “Our firm would be interested in you because, unlike many younger graduates, you can think.” This comment made me wonder – what does it mean to “think”? The immediate answer is that thinking is the exercise of intelligence, reason, logic, and so forth, but it’s equally clear that thinking goes beyond “book learning” to involve life experience, social skills, basic curiosity and, perhaps most important, a willingness to step outside safe boundaries.

One of these boundaries is certainty. In his book The Long Tail, Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson talks about Google, blogs, Wikipedia, and other internet sites that operate on the “alien logic of probabilistic statistics.” By this he means that content of these sites is not certain, but is based on probability. For example, Wikipedia is an on-line encyclopedia created, monitored, and updated by users, with an incredible number of in-depth articles on nearly any topic one can imagine. Because, however, the articles are not backed up by panels of experts, as is the case with traditional encyclopedias such as Britannica, it is not certain that the facts in the articles are accurate. The probability is quite high that what you read in Wikipedia is accurate, but you can’t be sure that the particular article you are reading is. Britannica’s online version has some 118,000 articles; the English version of Wikipedia has 1,336,000. Certainty may be lost, but a world of information is gained.

The other interesting thing about this mode of amassing information is that it works with minimal or no structure. Anderson states, “The true miracle of Wikipedia is that this open system of amateur user contributions and edits doesn’t simply collapse into anarchy. Instead, it has somehow self-organized the most comprehensive encyclopedia in history.” This reminds me of the collective “thinking” of social insect colonies, which, though composed of many individuals, operate as a single entity – a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “collective intelligence” or “swarm intelligence.” David Gordon, in his essay Collective Intelligence in Social Insects, discusses the organizational processes of insect colonies and applies the method to science, math, and ultimately modern life. He concludes his essay with this statement:

It’s possible that this type of thinking will characterise the 21st century, where mighty corporations and institutions evaporate into networks of nodes and sub-nodes. Where individuals, dwarfed by the social, political, economic and informational networks they comprise once again surface as the collective masters of those networks.

This strikes me as nothing less than revolutionary. Business as we know it is going to change.

My question, then, as I approach my new profession of interior design and architecture, is: can this way of looking at things be translated into, say, the design of a building or a community? Judging by the admittedly limited exposure I’ve had to the design profession so far, it appears that the design process is one of drilling down from general requirements to minute, specific, and accurate details. This attention to detail is vital – after all, designers must ensure the health and safety of the people who will be using the building. But does this process restrain innovation and creativity by limiting design thinking to forms, materials, and processes that are certain? Is it possible for designers to look at their clients from a new perspective, tapping into the collective intelligence of not only the decisionmakers within the client firm, but also of the firm’s employees, customers, business partners, and communities. Can designers create solutions by drawing from the collective intelligence of the entire design community or even from that of the human world at large? One might say that the collective experience of architects and designers over the centuries has resulted in a community intelligence for design, but the profession is still churning out dysfunctional, non-sustainable structures. Perhaps it’s time for a new type of thinking in the design world.

Snakes on a Plane

Friday, August 18th, 2006

Snakes on a Plane premiered last night. A scare flick, its makers figured it would be mildly successful, but because of the internet it mushroomed into a cult movie – well before its release – and just might bring in some box office dollars.

A blogger named Josh Friedman seems to have started the craze for the movie in a July 2005 post. His blog got mentioned on several other sites and soon, according to an article on Wikipedia, people began creating “songs, apparel, poster art, pages of fan fiction, parody films, mock movie trailers and even short film parody competitions” and posting them all online. TV and print media picked it up as well, and “Snakes on a Plane” (“SoaP”) became a slang phrase roughly equivalent to a shoulder shrug. The studio even reshot several scenes of the film to incorporate internet fans’ suggestions and dialog.

My 23-year-old daughter arrived home yesterday. Tonight, on the official opening day, she and an enormous crowd of her buddies are going to see the film, plastered with snake stickers and outfitted in custom T-shirts they designed. They plan to invite the entire audience to join them at a nearby bar for a Snakes on a Plane party.

According to posts and comments on SnakesonaBlog some people even camped out to get tickets. Early reviews posted by the snake crazies are overwhelmingly positive. Apparently filmgoers are bringing toy snakes to toss into the air, shouting out comments and lines during the film, clapping and whooping, and generally having a fabulous time.

The very interesting thing about this is its demonstration of the incredible power of the internet and social networking. A single guy recognized the humor in the title and wrote an irreverant blog. This tickled the funny bones of the 20-somethings and they turned it into their own huge party. This movie – the plot of which sounds really dreadful to me – may net the studio some extra bucks, not because of the studio’s advertising dollar or the quality of the film, but because of the interconnectivity of this savvy generation.

Wow. If companies (including design firms?) can even begin to grasp this phenomenon and learn how to use it, they’d have a gold mine. I may be too old to really tap into social media to the same extent as my daughter and her friends, but I can at least be aware of it. I am awestruck and perfectly delighted.

August 21 update: My daughter had fun with the crowd antics, but thought the movie itself was just terrible. Box office results for the film’s first weekend turned out to be no better than any other horror flick, which goes to show that sometimes the anticipation is all the fun. A more important lesson, however, is that the product has to live up to the hype.

A new business model

Wednesday, July 19th, 2006

I’m reading Thomas L. Friedman‘s The World is Flat, in which he discusses the “flattening” of the world of business by the immense political and technological changes of the last few decades. He argues that because technology allows us to commmunicate seamlessly and instantaneously, much of the work previously done in-house will be increasingly outsourced to countries around the globe where workers can do it faster, cheaper, and often better. Companies that manage to adapt to these changing realities will succeed while those that do not will fall behind.

Friedman also talks about the “Business Web” – using the Web to gain access to standardized Web-delivered business tools to keep track of inventory, stay in touch with customers, schedule, budget, word process, store data, and so forth, through online subscription services. Because companies using these services no longer need to buy and update software or maintain cutting edge hardware and need fewer employees to do these tasks, they are able to realize significant savings in operating costs.

Because so much work will be outsourced, successful companies won’t be able to distinguish themselves simply by their ability to develop and use sophisticated technological systems. Rather, Friedman avers, what will separate successful firms from the pack will be their ability to “create a tailored solution” for their clients. In other words, just being technologically savvy won’t be enough – if one company can access technology, so can its competitors. What will enable a firm to capture the market will be its ability to provide personalized service and solutions that uniquely serve each client. Well, Mom-and-Pop stores have traditionally done just this, so it’s interesting to me to hear a modern business guru claiming that this is the wave of the future.

Nevertheless, Friedman’s predictions make sense, so the next question is how will design firms respond? Clearly, firms can benefit from the cost savings associated with the Business Web. Accounting, personnel, word processing, number crunching, and drawing/rendering applications could all be accessed online and the vast amounts of data generated for an AEC project could be stored off-site. Certain core tasks could be outsourced as well – CAD drawing, presentation drawings and booklets, reports, models, and code checking, to name a few. Even some aspects of project management could take place remotely. After all, establishing a schedule and making phone calls can be done from anywhere and the technology for video conferencing is readily available.

The key for design firms is to determine what can not be outsourced – and become the best at that. This, clearly, is personalized client-centric on-site work: face-to-face client interaction, discovering client needs, visually understanding the physical space, brainstorming a unique design, and on-site inspections, for example.

My sense, therefore, is that the design profession will see a shift in fee allocation with greater resources going into the client-contact side of the process and fewer into the actual production of project documents. Firms can save by outsourcing back-office tasks, computer-dependent jobs, and production work that doesn’t require physical presence at the client’s office or the project site. The most valuable workers will be those who interact well with clients and those who have the creative ideas for achieving unique solutions to the clients’ requirements.