What’s the buzz about “knowledge management”? Simply put, it’s the creation, organization, and distribution of a firm’s collective information and, often, its wisdom. But that’s where the simplicity ends. In professional-services firms, where the company assets are primarily lodged in employees’ brains and in the documents they create, this collective knowledge is vast and varied. It includes annotated detail libraries, correspondence archives, project image collections, material libraries, building-type programming expertise, storytelling about how a job is won, how-to’s for assessment processes, and the loosely defined, wide-ranging wisdom that comes from years of experience as an architect.

Illustration © Daniel Horowitz

By making such information explicit and searchable, a firm can elevate the skill levels of all employees and improve both its design quality and profitability. Effective management enables individuals to share insights, avoids reinventing the wheel, supports new-employee training, and keeps expertise in-house even when individuals leave the practice.

Although much of this management is done on computers, the challenge is no longer technical. Firms routinely maintain e-mail archives, intranets, wikis, blogs, and online databases. An arguably greater challenge is cultural: getting people to actively organize information and learn how to search for it. Christopher Parsons, founder and principal of the consulting firm Knowledge Architecture, describes the challenge as identifying people in a firm to act as writers, librarians, and teachers — to create clear and compelling content, organize it, and impart it to the rest of the company. The goal of knowledge management, he says, is to enable a firm’s principals to “leverage themselves.” He explains: “That’s why we hire people, to leverage ourselves, to bring in their expertise for a bigger collective impact as an organization. Knowledge management can facilitate that process, but the root is the person who runs the company believing the way forward is to share experiences and get smarter.”

Parsons talks about “knowledge assets,” which a firm can develop to its advantage. “Say, for example, you’re a housing firm and have done lots of feasibility studies,” he says. “Your intellectual property is what you’ve learned having done these studies again and again. This can be systematically converted into a strong knowledge asset to be leveraged by the firm.” This stands in contrast to a tendency Parsons has observed of firms approaching every project as if it were their first. Instead, he recommends managing the asset by maintaining a database of lessons learned about best practices for delivering housing projects.

Ten years ago, many architects believed that in-house intranets would provide this information sharing. While valuable, those systems tended to be relatively static and top-down, with a centralized authority to create content. Since then, “social media” have come to maturity, and technically savvy architects have become familiar with blogs and other forms of bottom-up idea sharing.

Doris Pulsifer has been promoting knowledge management at SOM for years. She points out that “social networking” has been around for a long time — in the form of brown-bag lunches, conferences, and roundtables. But the relatively new Internet-based networking allows the shared knowledge to be more effectively captured, analyzed, stored, and redistributed. She says it’s useful to distinguish between explicit knowledge, such as business practices, and tacit knowledge, such as creative design. While both are necessary in a successful firm, the former is repetitive and more easily quantified and automated, while the latter is elusive and less easy to communicate. To support a culture of leveraging tacit knowledge, she argues, a firm must develop a framework that includes a set of understood goals, procedures, and measurement methods as well as technologies. The framework enables a firm to document its history, learn from it, and thereby improve its competitiveness. Interestingly, she says, the most useful kinds of captured knowledge do not originate in the IT department but among the architects and engineers of the firm.

As an example, she cites an initiative from SOM’s San Francisco office. A design team developed Excel spreadsheets to analyze weather data. Then the IT team provided a more robust structure, and the resulting tool uses Google Maps to organize project information. She explains: “Designers can go to their project’s location and see any weather files that are available. If no files are available for that area, they can extrapolate data from nearby locations. Using Google Maps, designers can also find the firm’s other buildings in that area.” The information source is useful not only to those who know what they’re looking for but also to others who are simply exploring. “The information encourages them to keep asking questions and maybe find a similar project,” says Pulsifer.

Such new tools and social media are very encouraging, she says. “Today, collaboration is the factor that matters most. We used to see all this information as proprietary. Now we see that creativity is not guaranteed by locking up your knowledge, but quite the opposite.”

Brad Horst, of Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering (EYP) has been promoting knowledge management in his firm, calling his approach the “Digital Project Story.” EYP prides itself in its expertise-driven design, and the “story” is, in effect, a portal through which anyone in the firm can tap into that expertise. Horst is midway through a three-year plan of developing a system for creating, capturing, and sharing information. Design teams are encouraged to work with Newforma for project information, Revit for design, Deltek Vision for financial data, and Axomic OpenAsset for an image database. As the teams adopt these applications, he’s found, they come to embrace each one as useful in its own right.

In the meantime, with support from the consulting firm Knowledge Architecture, Horst is building digital connections between the applications. As he says: “To me the motivating factor is, first, to figure out how to capture one story, then to capture a second and compare them with each other. Then, as we introduce other kinds of comparative information, we’re building expertise over time.” For example, a practitioner will be able to do a simple search through a personnel directory to find out who the office expert is in a particular area. When they narrow the list to one person, that expert’s profile will show the projects they’ve worked on. The searcher then drills down to get more detailed information about that project, perhaps finding specifications for a particular component. “Ultimately,” says Horst, “all this information will be linked so you can find it faster and form new understandings of our project history.”

But the greatest challenge to knowledge management may be teams finding the time to adopt new ways of thinking despite the pressures of project work. The good news, though, is that such initiatives are not the sole province of large firms. “What it takes is an entrepreneurial spirit,” Horst concludes, “looking for how to do things better.”