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November 16, 2000

Architecture for the knowledge economy

  • With new models in the world of high tech and facilities management, architects can now rethink the “architecture” of their practice
    Resident Fellow, American Institute of Architects

    In advertising, the high-tech industry uses the term “architecture” to describe the framework of a system and its state of change. Using the powerful tools at their disposal, including the connectivity of the Internet, the leaders of that industry are reinventing day-to-day life for themselves and their clients. Their speed and agility open up mass markets, to which they deliver individualized services and goods.

    In the same way that “architecture” describes the framework of an entire technology system, architectural practice can become the overarching framework for decisions about technology, people and places. This framework integrates design process, business strategy, construction and facility operation.

    Think of it as going broadband, integrating and facilitating a wider range of services, connections, and collaborations. More and more, clients are demanding services that are integrated with and connected to their business strategy. And they select facility-development consultation services based on this demand.

    It is critical that businesses reinvent themselves around their clients” priorities. “Alignment” is the word that describes this. The idea is to align the firm and its skill sets, competencies, and services to anticipate client needs and requirements. With alignment, we move beyond dependence on the cycles of the construction market.

    In the last decade or so, all facets of our economy have been touched by a trend known in the banking world as “disintermediation,” which refers to the bypassing of channels, or the removal of the traditional middle man in many business transactions. Spurred by the ability to access information that intermediaries such as banks traditionally provided, consumers are increasingly able to price and locate goods and services themselves, eroding traditional intermediaries’ market share of these services.

    But for every trend there is an equal and opposite re-trend. Because of the glut of information that goes along with disintermediation, we are now seeing signs of “reintermediation.” We are now entering a new economy that needs intermediaries who can define and bring together the specialties that have been created.

    So what is this new economy? It’s a fundamentally new way of working that is knowledge based, as opposed to information based.

    There are three important distinctions between knowledge and information:

    1. Information can sit in a drawer, but knowledge has to reside in a human head.

    2. Knowledge is more difficult to pick up and transfer than information.

    3. Knowledge requires assimilation, understanding, and commitment. (See “The Social Life of Information,” by John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid.)

    Happily for architects, this client awareness is happening just as many firms are looking to expand their range of services as a growth strategy.

    The question for your firm is: How far beyond the building do you reach into the market?

    The answer for you might lie in the approach you decide to take. Do you develop a subset of the traditional skills within your architecture firm? Or do you invent a new consulting service within or connected to your firm?

    Robin Ellerthorpe, director of facilities consulting at OWP&P Consultants in Chicago, tells us that many clients now are requesting an overarching architecture. They are beginning to value a holistic development pro-cess over the project’s life cycle, as opposed to just wanting a building.

    There are, of course, myriad variations and steps in between.

    You can define your business by product or process, customer or client, or core competency or skill set. (See “All the Right Moves,” by Constantinos C. Markides.)

    While the traditional professional definition is limited to the design of a building and oversight of the construction process, the new “architecture” is the overarching framework of construction, integrating the creative design process with all that precedes and follows. As we grapple with the concept of “architecture” beyond architecture, here are some models and resources.

    If we work with the flow, we have tremendous opportunities, according to John Seeley Brown, director of the Xerox Research Center, who has relentlessly explored the techniques and technologies of innovation. He says you don’t invent the future, you unleash it by leveraging the global community mind.

    In an August 2000 Wired magazine article, Brown suggests that we let the world do more of the work. Think of the art of judo, he suggests. In other words, interpret the invisible physical and social forces and leverage them instead of fighting them. “Good architects constantly figure out how to turn constraints inside out, transforming them into resources,” he writes. “You let the physics of the situation do some of the computing.”

    Redefined or not, delivering architecture has changed in the New Economy. We constantly hear that the Internet has had the greatest effect of any trend on the design, delivery, and experience of architecture in the next century, and will affect it most profoundly in the next five to 10 years.

    Razorfish, a dot.com company, uses the Internet to the fullest to plot strategies for integrating clients’ existing systems into a platform via the Web. Razorfish is in the business of transforming companies. Interestingly, the words Razorfish uses to describe their process make it sound strikingly similar to the creative/integrative pro-cess used by architects. Here’s a glossary:

    clarify — understand business objects and strategic plans;

    architecture — the definition of functional, technical, and creative requirements;

    design — create the information, interaction, and interface plan;

    implement — build the final product, and test it to ensure it’s deliverable and the ability of the client to understand how to manage and maintain it;

    enhance — monitor and analyze the product and its performance against success criteria defined in the “clarify” phase.

    You must be the Internet, according to business author Gary Hamel, who describes the enormous affect of the Internet in his book, “Leading the Revolution”: “We are rushing toward a world in which everyone and everything will be connected to everyone and everything else. Virtually any piece of knowledge on the planet will be instantly accessible.” Everything, he says, must be rebuilt to change.

    Organizations will need to use the advantages of size, global infrastructure, and operational excellence, and rely on speed and imagination. And—most alarming to architects—if your business is going to stay ahead of the change curve, you can’t possess even an ounce of nostalgia for yesterday’s “core” business, Hamel opines.

    Consider a professionally diverse approach. Commarts, a multidisciplinary firm in Boulder, Colo., applies “design as a strategic service” to shape the client’s vision. Among 70 members of the firm, there are 25 licensed architects, 15 graphic designers, 5 interior designers, and 2 industrial designers. None of the three partners are architects. They are trained in art history, business management, interior design, and industrial design. Their identity stems from “solving design problems for people-oriented places.”

    Is Commarts an architecture firm, as such? No. The company has defined its own identity, and has embraced the diversity necessary within a multidisciplinary firm. The success of any architecture firm-of any scale or size-will hinge on its ability to acknowledge and celebrate differences in culture and skill sets within all the professions that contribute to the whole.

    In the world of architecture, deliberately creating “spin-offs” is another innovation. It means that rather than telling employees that a particular opportunity is out of bounds, the firm gives free range to would-be entrepreneurs. The firm then “spins off” businesses that would do better as independent entities.

    “Spin-ins,” in which the firm takes in an innovative group, offer another route to the future.

    How can we define—or even predict—a profession of the future, given the stunning mix of generations (not to mention race, gender, and ethnicity) in the workforce the client base? Harnessing the advantages of this generational diversity—including its related skill sets and experience factors—could be a key to success for persons designing the workplace and those managing and using it.

    Richard W. Hobbs was appointed Resident Fellow, Marketplace Research with the American Institute of Architects in January of this year. For the AIA, Hobbs is responsible for indentifying emerging trends in the profession. Prior to moving to Washington, D.C., Hobbs was in private practice in Seattle.

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