9 ways firms can empower employees and adapt to a data-driven world
Buildings are more than a design made real. They are a collection of data.
Firms that leverage that data in their organization will be able to adapt and grow and thrive in the future.
But the key to doing so doesn’t lie in the technology tools themselves; it lies in the people in your firm.
Architect, author, and professor Randy Deutsch coined the term “superuser” to describe a rising number of people who are not only adept at using technology, but at tapping into social networks to solve problems.
Becoming a data-driven company is important for survival. But first, you must build a culture that puts human needs before technology. Here’s how.
1. Welcome superusers
Randy wrote a book called “Superusers: Design Technology Specialists and the Future of Practice.”
In it, he talked about design technologists and how they will help the industry evolve in the ways it needs to.
“We haven't had increased productivity in over 60 years,” Randy said. “We haven't been able to advance ourselves in the sector, in design and construction, really in a long period of time.”
The lack of advancement stems from not recognizing how important of a role this new crop of employees, who are Millennials or Gen Z, can play.
The focus has been too much on what work they can churn out with the technology. But a lot of their value is in how they work with other people.
Superusers aren’t just comfortable with tech tools. They thrive in working with their networks, sharing ideas, and using technology to help make that happen.
2. Become information intermediaries
When a company embraces design technology roles, it can begin leveraging data in new and useful ways.
The phrase “buildings = data” has been around for a while, but it’s an important truth.
“This idea of data and using it throughout the organization is an outgrowth of what we were saying since 2009, which is it's really about the I in BIM, not the B or the M,” Randy said.
Firms have a lot of public and private data collected from clients at the early stage of a project. And there are users and the public at large who want to leverage this data.
The way the industry can capitalize on this is for firms to redefine themselves as information intermediaries.
“It's up to us to connect that early data, public and private data, to make sure it's in a usable format and user-friendly format for the customer side at the other end,” Randy said.
3. Create a new model for the profession
Fully taking advantage of all the data architects have requires a new industry model.
A model where data from projects is shared across an organization, available for each department to use in its own way.
Randy gave the example of how data sharing allowed marketing to take a starring role in winning new buisness at the firm SOM.
“A client from Asia calls and says they want a high rise, like the high rise that your firm did in New York,” Randy said. “But with these types of windows, it needs to be oriented differently. What have you done?”
Typically the marketing department would have to ask the architecture team for that information, resulting in a time-consuming game of telephone. But not in a firm that shares data.
At SOM, the marketing department searched the data sets for words images and found that the firm had designed 17 high-rise buildings that matched the target profile.
“That's a conversation you always have when you vet a firm and say you have this amount of experience. But it's data-driven, and it's the marketing department,” Randy said.
“To the extent that we can sew them together or connect the dots, I actually think we have a new model of our organization and possibly a new model of a profession.”
There are pockets of this occurring, but it could become something much greater.
4. Shift culture during economic downturns
While change is happening in individual firms, widespread change will be harder to come by.
Existing firms with a traditional model prefer to focus on buildings much more than processes.
Change will happen with startups who can shift the culture from the beginning, or it’ll happen when global events force other shifts.
“Anytime there's been an economic downturn, it's a huge opportunity within the professional field and markets to actually make a cultural change,” Randy said.
Most recently, we’ve seen a cultural change to remote work because of COVID. That has led to other changes that are now beneficial.
“This very moment, March 2021, is the time for companies to actually raise that question,” he said.
It’s up to the leaders, not the design technologists, to prompt these conversations and reconsider the model.
Randy envisions a move away from outcome-based projects to more performance-based work, among other things.
5. Make things, don’t just design them
Another culture shift that should happen is architects exploiting tools they already use to make things, not just design them.
It would mean not thinking of the job as delivering a set of IKEA-like instructions to someone else.
“In landscape in particular, this idea that we can leverage our pre-existing computational tools -- Dynamo or Grasshopper -- to not only solve the problems we’re asked to solve or need to solve,” Randy said.
“But in doing so, there's the data dust and the offgassing of those solutions that actually solve other problems or create other opportunities.”
In landscape, that would look like using the same files used to operate bulldozers to create the design in the field.
Going from design directly to fabrication.
6. Embrace automation
Architects repeat many tasks before lunch, not to mention the many repeated tasks over a career.
Using tech tools to automate those tasks has worried some architects who see automation as taking jobs away from people.
In reality, that’s not the case at all.
“It's actually freeing us up to leverage our core competency,” Randy said. “It's getting us back in touch with why we went in this industry to begin with.”
Instead of endangering your job, it actually gives you the ability to perform it better.
“If we have any grievances or misgivings about that decision that we made, they'll go away fairly quickly if we stop doing the grunt work and leverage the automation to do it,” said Randy.
7. Focus on the problem to solve, not the technology
As much as data and technology are important for adapting, firms shouldn’t use technology for technology’s sake. It should always come back to a people-first mindset.
In the case of figuring out what tools to use with a client, the question should be: what fixes the client’s problem?
“The answer's always thinking of things from the consumer standpoint at the far end, and then working back and asking ourselves, do we have a tool that more agilely, more effectively, cost-effectively, time effectively can solve this problem?” Randy said.
If the answer is yes, then you should embrace the technology.
Randy said this is where superusers are important.
“It's not about the technology,” he said. “It's about the person who can ask those questions and then feel comfortable enough to take those things at home at night, those tools and mess around with them and see if they can get one of them to answer that question.”
8. Adapt by looking to the future and the past
Sometimes adapting means continuing to do what we’ve done before, but in a new way. Sometimes it’s taking things in a totally different direction.
We can adapt by taking cues from the past and looking to the future.
“Things continue on. I don't want to say in any way that it is all just cyclical,” Randy said.
Adaptation can sometimes be seen as acquiescing, like building barricades to fight sea-level rise, but that’s not the resilient approach.
“I make it really clear that adaptability is not just about dealing with the status quo and keep doing what we're doing,” Randy said.
“We need to think about other solutions, but at the same time, there's a lot of great solutions just from what people have done in the past.”
9. Put people before data
In order to build a data-intelligent organization capable of adapting and innovating, you have to first take care of your people.
If you’re just starting the data and technology conversation in your firm, start with making it a caring environment.
“It's caring about the future of the organization, but even more than that, caring about the future of the people who work in the organization,” Randy said.
Most organizations have focused on framing everything around what the client needs, and that’s fine. But to thrive and be profitable, they have to put their people first.
“Those things, they're very basic human things that need to happen first,” Randy said.
Things like vacation time, education, and revised org charts that show a future for design technologists will create an environment where people will love to work.
When that culture is established, you can then turn to improving your flow of data and thinking of innovative ways to adapt and thrive into the future.
Join us on Thursday, March 18th for Best Practice, a virtual fireside chat series dedicated to practice operations at architecture firms and beyond. From pain points to potential, hear how leaders in the architecture and engineering industry are innovating through new business models and managerial techniques.
We’re chatting with Randy Deutsch. Randy is the Clinical Associate Professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a licensed architect having designed +100 large, complex sustainable projects for which he received the AIA Young Architect Award Chicago. In 2020, Randy is part of a team that received an NSF Grant and DPI Seed Grant for planning a first-of-its-kind institute for the application of AI in design, construction and operations of buildings and infrastructure. In 2020 Randy was elevated to Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council.
In this 45 minute chat, we'll talk to Randy about adaptability and education for architects in a world of automation and commoditization.
- What are the biggest trends impacting professional practice over the next 5-10 years?
- How are "Superusers" impacting the profession today?
- What opportunities exist for architects to impact the most pressing issues of our time?
- and more!