The Business of Selling Knowledge: Part 2

In the industrial era, solutions to most productivity problems could be seen with the naked eye. A slowdown on the assembly line signalled that it might be time to replace a rusty valve. Now that we work in a knowledge-based economy, we must recognize that less obvious problems are the cause of reduced profitability. While it is easy to see a direct link between rust and mechanical failure, the link between “rusty brainpower” and the declining health of a firm is indirect and intangible.

Architects who already feel marginalized are experiencing the beginning of a major trend: survival of the sharpest. Clients today are looking for the brightest minds to help them face their business challenges. The need for inspired thinking, strong project leadership skills and time-saving practices is ever-increasing. Within firms, passive learners with narrow horizons face an extremely limited future.

Part 1 of this series emphasized that firms today thrive or stagnate on the basis of invisible forces. The degree of staff motivation to learn faster than their competitors is one example. This article will focus on how to actively engage staff in contributing their knowledge toward the firm’s well-being, rather than seeing themselves as passive employees. When people are highly involved and challenged, they make an extra effort to prevent problems on a project or suggest ways to save time and achieve better results. Such a level of commitment does not happen by default. New knowledge development habits are required to create an active learning culture that refuses to accept mediocre performance.

All of the ideas below are aligned with a single philosophy: people learn best from interaction with others and from reflecting on their daily experience. Every member of the firm holds a vast untapped pool of knowledge that can be applied toward improving profitability and creating richer working relationships. Some specific ways to support a learning environment include the following:

1. Raise the bar. There are essentially three choices for delivering architectural services in a knowledge-based market: low-cost provider, distinctive value-adding consultant, or death-in-the-middle. Few clients aspire to work with mediocre firms. Firms that will thrive in the years ahead continuously expand their capacity to learn from experience, to know the latest developments in their client’s business, and to motivate a highly effective workforce. A clear-eyed assessment of the firm’s knowledge needs can begin by surveying staff to determine: a) What do they think about leadership skills development? b) What opportunities do they see to help the firm improve profitability? and c) What degree of support do they receive for doing their best work? Answers to these questions will prevent the firm from being complacent about the future.

2. Demonstrate ongoing support from the top. Senior management in the firm needs to visibly support learning forums that uncover better ways of working. In the knowledge era, encouraging people to put their heads together is a powerful approach to overcome isolation and indifference. By contrast, when people are remote from problem-solving–responding only to decrees by the office manager–they stop caring, become passive and get rusty. Knowledge exchange sessions must far exceed traditional in-house project and product presentations. Senior managers need to share their thinking processes in terms of how they deal with difficult situations, so that other members of the firm can benefit. Make a conscious effort not to lecture or hold court in one-on-one or group coaching sessions. Instead, be the spark for lively dialogue that extracts the many lessons to be learned from daily interaction with clients, consultants and contractors. Use both positive and negative project experiences as a basis for learning. Do not focus solely on technical issues.

3. Engage people in solving the firm’s problems. A major trend in business today is for companies to abandon paternalistic practices in favor of an ownership mindset. Most firms underestimate how much their staff can contribute to minimizing unnecessary work. Two of the biggest killers of knowledge sharing in firms are: a) lack of a clear process for suggesting and implementing a better way to do something, and b) lack of motivation to make a suggestion (or open discouragement). If staff aren’t coming to senior managers frequently to suggest time-saving methods, you have a problem with employee complacency and/or lack of motivation. What is the annual cost of this “speak no evil” approach? Is it possible that your staff averages a two-thirds efficiency rate due to duplicated and uncoordinated work in the system? If so, it’s worthwhile to convene a group who care enough and can apply their knowledge to identify and eliminate the worst elements of this extra work.

4. Recognize that you are developing talent, not just managing projects. Think about time-consuming contract administration predicaments or difficulties getting approval from clients to proceed. By the time these situations have a tangible impact (e.g., a shrinking bottom line, fewer clients) it’s too late for a quick fix. Nearly every (costly) tangible problem started out as a (relatively inexpensive) intangible problem. This means that the firm must accelerate the development of strategic thinkers with leadership skills. Everyone needs to foresee and prevent intangible problems; everyone must instill confidence in clients and begin each assignment with specific results in mind. Leadership capabilities do not develop by chance. The best way to continuously improve leadership skills is through action learning. Action learning involves regularly scheduled group coaching sessions that help people learn faster from their own daily experience. Participants use the devil’s advocate approach to extract multiple lessons from current project predicaments. What can we learn from this situation? What should we do differently next time?

Overall, why should senior managers take time from busy schedules and billable hours to show support for coaching and knowledge-sharing forums? Here is a shortlist of exponential benefits:

* Teach people to address emerging problems, before situations become expensive

* Instill the leadership skills that clients value

* Develop strong project leaders who can assume more of senior managers’ workload

* Shift mindsets beyond “busy” and “hardworking” to “preventing problems” and “eliminating repetitive work”

* Increase the firm’s attractiveness with regard to ownership transition. How valuable is a firm of rusty “hard workers”?

Learning Environments


–hope that economic conditions improve

–mired in duplicated and uncoordinated work

–share knowledge haphazardly

–“heads-down” hard workers

–paternalistic management style

–avoid tough questions


–assess self-limiting knowledge gaps

–identify and fix the root cause of problems

–rigorous knowledge development strategy

–accelerated learning from daily experience

–engage staff in solving the firm’s problems

–learn to challenge others and face difficult issues

Steps to Accelerate Knowledge Development

1. Assess your knowledge priorities

Identify the know-how and know-what required to get and keep profitable work

2. Identify knowledge gaps

Talk with a cross-section of staff to identify the firm’s skills and knowledge gaps

3. Write a one-page learning plan

What do you want to learn from your projects during the next six months?

4. Encourage the devil’s advocate role

Be very worried if you’re surrounded by people who don’t bother to disagree with you

5. Polish your coaching skills

Shift from monologue to dialogue, and from telling to asking

6. Support job shadowing and multiple mentors

People learn best from experience when they can ask questions and get feedback

7. Facilitate weekly action learning forums

Action learning alerts people to the hidden lessons in everyday life

8. Promote knowledge activists

Key communicators need to scan for trends inside and outside the profession

9. Welcome and integrate new staff

Instead of overwhelming or neglecting them, invite them to knowledge forums

10. Champion special interest groups

Informal knowledge exchange groups are the innovation drivers of your company

Sharon VanderKaay, Associate AIA, is Director of Communications at Murphy Hilgers Architects Inc. in Toronto. For the past ten years, her research has focused on the shift to a knowledge-based economy.