With 55 staff in three offices, Feilden + Mawson is implementing an information management system that will increase its value to its clients
There comes a point in a practice's life when it has to take stock. It has to deal with that accumulation of computer and operating systems and ad hoc communication which seemed so comfortable and right when the practice called itself a studio and everyone knew the names of everybody's current partners.
Once a practice noted for its sensitive local work and with expertise in conservation, Feilden + Mawson has spread its wings and now works in China, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. In the UK it designs court buildings, research labs, housing and PPP projects. It took a hard look at itself when former senior partner Michael Everitt, who had been running the practice, urged his partners to bring in an outside professional manager. Paul Rynsard was the man and it was he who, now as managing partner, has implemented an information-management system - Workspace.
Trouble with architecture Not being an architect, Rynsard is dismayed by the profession's widely held belief that business and creativity are incompatible. He says: 'I don't understand why the profession is so unbusinesslike. In the past decade the paradigm has shifted and it has not understood. But we can get more out of the practice of architecture by being more professional. I have seen the way other professionals, such as accountants and lawyers, handle and access information.We are not on the same planet.'
Rynsard argues that architects should do what everybody else does and offer skills that the particular market wants. He says: 'With PPP projects, for example, you need to be fast and multi-skilled.You mustn't be narrowly focused on just your little architectural bit. Our competitors are not other architects, they are actually accountants, surveyors and lawyers. They understand the issue of delivery.'
The introduction of Workspace is intended to support this mode of thinking and operating. Rynsard explains the chronology: 'A while ago we worked on a government project with Foster and Bovis - using the Bovis Hummingbird portal. We later talked to Arup about its collaboration tool, Columbus. This opened a Pandora's box.
'Having opened the box, instead of relying on consultants we elevated it to a strategic view and asked ourselves the question, 'Where to do we want to be in the future?'' One conditional answer to that was that there was a need to maintain the flavour of the practice. Rynsard says: 'We have 55 staff but it is still possible to move around the three offices and know you are at Feilden + Mawson.' At the same time the offices are different. 'We have small teams in each office and each of them comes up with ideas. We want local variances, ' he says.
Rynsard explains: 'You want to be able to understand how a client out there differentiates one practice from another - especially when you know that not many clients scratch much below the surface.'
It's not always true, of course, and that is another element in the answer.
Rynsard says: 'As it happens, a lot of our clients are government bodies - who do look beneath the surface and ask about procedures and how we manage the process of building.What we were looking for broadly was a document and ideas-management system which would bring the whole practice closer together - and, of course, improve our profit margins. So we did a market search of quite a lot of systems. And we have come up with Union Square's Workspace on the shortlist.
'Union Square - U2 as we call it - seemed to be offering a combination of possibilities which we could take advantage of on a phased basis, or straight in. Strategically it gave us what we wanted, which was closer working access to information.'
At the same time the software house tried 'to understand how we can be innovative, minimise errors and, and this is key, that it had to fit our culture. We wanted a quality system and Workspace allows us that - without anyone noticing it's there.'
Emma Horsfall at the Norwich office, in charge of Workspace implementation across the practice, says: 'Its primary function is that of a storage system, which makes it exceptionally easy to find things. When you put a document into the system the system breaks it all down. That might take time to do. But when you search, it recovers it instantly. That's its primary function.We are also using it as a tool for our quality assurance, which otherwise we would have to do on paper.'
As is essential for practices working on government projects, Feilden + Mawson had implemented ISO9001: 1994. Rynsard says: 'It was an uphill task. It never fitted in with the way we worked. So we upgraded to ISO9001:2000, because we can embed it in our work rather than it being a simple bolt-on procedure. These standards may have more than a whiff of bureaucracy about them, but when implemented seriously they can provide a very clear management and operational framework for a business.'
And there are added benefits, says Rynsard: 'Since we brought in quality assurance we haven't had a claim. It's a great way of managing risk. And the auditing of each project has built up a huge body of information about what we can do and what to avoid.We have an expert-witness arm and, from this experience, you begin to see a pattern of why things go wrong. Mostly it's down to a lack of verification.'
Rynsard asks rhetorically: 'How do you integrate? Surprisingly, this has been the easy bit.We have done a pilot in May at London, then Cambridge and now Norwich. The last group is being trained up ready for November.
It has been very successful.'
As part of the implementation, Rynsard finds that people in the practice ask whether they can do some of the other things the powerful suite of applications offers. He says: 'The U2 people say 'You can. But is there any reason to?'' Leveraging knowledge Rynsard says a big motivator is its work in the PPP market: 'We can now be there because we can now leverage our knowledge so well.We can do that because we have access to information and we can keep up with people who have much larger operations than ours. Access is the issue. And that's what systems such as Workspace do.
They enable me to go to Bristol or Riyadh and access information from anywhere in the world.'
Rynsard explains: 'Where we are seeing the best benefit is the way clients want to buy into our system and its information. I can review my files at my accountants and lawyers just as I can give them access to all the latest legislation and regulations and rulings in ours. We keep the personto-person relationships going, but we have all the information behind us, which we can all access instantly.'
This applies to anyone in the practice.Of course, access is channelled and password-protected - and confidential material is guarded. But it is a simple business to log onto the site from outside, enter your password and browse the material you are after - or a location to which you want to add new information. The data, incidentally, is stored on Feilden + Mawson's own servers - not an external data store.
In the process of ISO-inspired auditing of projects, Rynsard finds that the practice is building up a set of robust cost models. So if the practice comes across a potential site it can feed it into the cost programme and, he says: 'You get real-time financial advice that day. PPP clients don't necessarily want to employ quantity surveyors but they want to know how much the project will cost.' So the service he offers can now provide that.
Part of the Workspace package is a news section on the firm's intranet.
Rynsard says: 'People are distinctive and so the local groups in each office come up with ideas and they are posted on the news page.What we are into is informal communities such as sustainability - which swaps information around all the time. It's taking the best bits of us as individuals and building up a knowledge base day by day. And we think eventually our clients will be making lots of suggestions as well.
Workspace recognises that information has a lifetime and there is a facility for authors to be asked automatically whether the information they have posted is still relevant.'
Rynsard says: 'You can put safeguards into digital systems. For example, we have certain milestones for which we have outside checks by experts.' But all this depends on the practice's culture, Rynsard says. 'You have to have a culture that allows you to make mistakes. All these systems we deploy are tools to make people do the job better. We would not survive if there were a digital straightjacket. It would be a huge problem. So people use the application as tools; the creativity bit doesn't have any straightjackets.'
Is Workspace firmly embedded at Feilden + Mawson? Rynsard says: 'We need to run it a little longer. But if it works we will be shouting about it.'
Degree of success
Managing partner Paul Rynsard is not an architect. He has a degree in economics and a Reading University construction-orientated MBA. His role is that of a development manager, working a nominal three days a week with clients and two on the business end of the practice.
Together with his fellow senior partner, architect Alan Robson, he reports each quarter to the full board - and has regular monthly discussions with it. Given the inward-looking nature of the profession, Rynsard had to work at gaining acceptance. He says: ' I found it very difficult at the beginning. So to be taken seriously as a professional I have had to effectively re-qualify with an MBA.'