The Generosity of the Thinking Man (or Woman): Managing, Sharing and Leading Through Knowledge

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Not everyone is comfortable being generous with their knowledge. Many choose to hold it close to their chest hoping that their exclusive ownership of it will somehow be a competitive advantage. But people won’t know you have this knowledge if you don’t talk about it … and talk is cheap.

In order to convince people that you know your subject thoroughly, you have to show it. What better way to do this than to give it away?

Firms like HMC Architects and SWA Group are putting their knowledge to work in the form of educating the general public. (Full disclosure: Walter Communications has worked with both firms on these projects.) In both of these cases, young people are the knowledge-sharing conduit. SWA’s Matt Baumgarten notes, “Kids can spread information very effectively. Once they understand the concepts, they go home and teach it to their families.”

HMC’s godfather of sustainability Pablo La Roche recently led a workshop series on sustainability at a local elementary school. This initiative was made possible by a grant from the firm’s Designing Futures Foundation in an effort to contribute to the next generation of environmental stewards.

SWA is organizing two events in Houston, Texas for this fall that aim to open the public’s eyes to the real danger of living in a floodplain by calling their attention to the 100-year floodline and the natural infrastructure of the City’s bayous. The first is an art installation and the other is a series of presentations to public schools and an organized two-mile student walk along the 100-year floodline. These initiatives effectively build stronger connections with their communities and garner kudos from the press, but they also reinforce their reputation as experts – and as an added bonus, they keep employees happy and engaged.

Another firm that has impressed me by their know-how generosity I learned about at KA Connect –the single event where all the AEC industry innovators hang out. Through their strict focus, client list, research and services, Ayers Saint Gross has built a solid reputation and positioned itself as a resource for anything related to campus planning. The firm and its website is the single place a university need look to compare their campus with other schools, to access an image resource library, to find research and whitepapers on the latest trends and to hire top tier planning and design services.

Yes, this could be seen as a risky move since the competitors of Ayers Saint Gross can also access this resource, but the gamble pays well. According  to Principal Jim Wheeler, the firm’s policy is “give it away” and even goes so far as to require all employees to demonstrate knowledge through research, speaking and publishing. When firms set an expectation like this internally, it raises the bar and challenges staff to clear it. It may not be the right environment for every professional, but for those who want to take part in shaping their profession it is the place where they will thrive. What firm doesn’t want this type of person working for them and representing them to the public?

Ayers Saint Gross has it right.  They are creating a culture of learning, thinking and testing. Through this culture, they have created a reputation for stellar services and a continuous cycle of encouraging staff to exceed expectations, communicating findings and winning new challenging projects where they can put their research to the test.

You don’t always have to be the originator of an idea to have a reputation of being knowledgeable about a topic. I ran into Anthony Flint at the American Planning Association conference last week and learned about a new resource that his organization has created. In this case, The Lincoln Institute for Land Policy isn’t sharing its own knowledge (although they do frequently publish their own research and findings), but instead it has aggregated and organized all the scenario planning tools that are currently available in order to help planners learn which tool is right for them, how to use the tools, and to support further development and refinement of scenario planning tools. The Institute’s report “Opening Access to Scenario Planning Tools” and corresponding website establishes The Lincoln Institute as an authority on the technology that is pushing the industry in new direction without building a tool of their own.

If all of this sounds good and you are thinking that you’d like to start spreading your firm’s knowledge, make sure you look inside first. If centers of knowledge and leading experts can’t be easily found and accessed internally, then start with addressing this problem. If your firm already has a strong process for knowledge management, then what are you waiting for? This is the stuff of marketers’ and communicators’ dreams.

We’d love to hear how your firm is using its knowledge, leave us a comment.

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