Major change within an organisation is stressful, not least when it affects the way every member of staff accesses information.
Grimshaw Architects spent four years laying the groundwork for a new knowledge-management system, which has been in place since February 2005. The practice has 150 people across three offices in London, Melbourne and New York. The new system enables a virtual working world, so information can be accessed regardless of where the user or the information is physically located. A single information-management system across the three offices enhances efficiency. This may sound obvious in today's increasingly global computer-dominated world, but to put things in perspective as recently as three years ago something as basic as the employee telephone list was updated, printed and manually distributed around Grimshaw's London office on a weekly basis.
The story of how Grimshaw managed its changeover from Filemaker to Union Square Workspace reveals extensive research and a systematic decision-making process. Such a change represents a significant commitment of time and resources, and it's important to get it right. Grimshaw handles all of its IT needs in-house, with two people in the London office responsible for the day-to-day, and Robin Williamson (business systems manager, now based in Melbourne) and Jim Rea in London keeping an eye on the three- to five-year horizon. Rea notes that 'a high standard of architecture requires a high standard of IT, and that will be the case for ever more'. The recent change was driven by a desire to minimise replication of information and facilitate its 'capture, storage, and retrieval'. Two critical concerns were the desire for a practice-wide 'contacts' database and the need to handle an escalating volume of emails. The cost of maintaining databases, which involved duplication, was mounting. Also, the amount of material requiring nightly back-up had become extremely cumbersome, and the only solution within the current configuration was the purchase of an expensive new system, which was projected to last about a year.
Grimshaw's initial step in 2001 was the establishment of a first-generation intranet, which created a centralised pool of information for the practice's architects: this included items such as company induction and practice notes, as well as routine administrative tasks. For the next step, a move requiring the approval of the practice's board of directors, Williamson and Rea were looking for an industry-standard web-based customisable intranet and extranet system, and they consulted throughout the practice to 'tease the critical concepts out' and develop a matrix of what was required. A change in accounting software was not included, though a link for importing timesheets was. Other concerns included providing a document audit trail for all files, in order to be able to access a 'versioning' history. With one click, this would reveal who had opened, read, forwarded or edited a file, all in chronological order, facilitating the retrieval of file information after an event. There was also a need for 'supercession', to retain as much knowledge as possible when a person leaves the practice.
To obtain board approval, Williamson and Rea submitted 'non-technical, easily understood, succinct and practical reports'.
Will Yandell, founding director of Union Square Software, reiterates this, noting that one of the biggest challenges in dealing with architectural practices is that people in a senior position often do not properly understand IT and may think that their internal IT manager should be able to solve the problems without buying in external software. He uses the analogy of buying a suit, explaining that most men, if given the choice, would opt for an off-the-shelf number rather than a bespoke suit, but would then need to have the jacket fitted, the lapels changed, and the length of the trousers adjusted to suit their particular needs. And so it is with IT software.
In the case of Grimshaw, the practice was prepared to purchase external software, but the challenge was how to choose a package from the multitude on the market. Visiting trade conventions and web research revealed a choice of about 180 different products. In addition to evaluating which products best met their requirements, Rea felt it was essential to look at a firm's staying power within the market, noting that because of competition and consolidation perhaps only 10 per cent would remain after three years. The field was narrowed to a list of 12 products, and each company, after submitting a thick document outlining how its product matched Grimshaw's requirements, made a one-hour presentation. At that point, four firms were shortlisted for half-day presentations, which were made to three architects, the finance director, Williamson and Rea. To Williamson's surprise, the decision was unanimous for Union Square Software's Workspace, a specialist product for architects, engineers and the construction industry. A key factor which inuenced the final decision was human relationships. Rea explains that the human factor in IT is absolutely critical, because the work environment is highly stressful. 'You have to be able to turn off the old and turn on the new system simultaneously, ' he notes. There is little margin for error when amalgamating data, and no down time, because the system is used daily.
Once Workspace was on board, the team then had to make decisions that were right for the culture of the office. There was a temptation to go for a paperless office, but in the end they opted for a 'less paper' office. As many documents as possible are now scanned at reception. Although architects do their own scanning, all centralised paperwork for the finance department or human resources is scanned at reception. Rea explains that Workspace is 'really only a platform for our data, ' a way of storing, sharing and mining information, and disseminating it to a large number of people. An important advantage is that it is stored in an industry-standard database (SQL server), which is a big plus because it is not proprietary. Rea notes that this new way of disseminating information, along with voice over internet protocol, will enable people to access data remotely from home or other locations such as airport transit lounges or client premises, which he sees as a big trend in the future.
Although Workspace was adapted to suit the practice's needs, customisation was kept to a minimum to avoid complications with upgrades. Yandell explains that Workspace spent about a day and a half each month at Grimshaw's office over the course of a year to complete the transition. He observes that the Grimshaw office culture allowed more freedom in the way in which certain tasks were performed than in other offices he has experienced. Workspace was implemented progressively in different modules, in phases. The core implementation included a contacts database, basic project information and electronic timesheets.
Most recently, in July, the practice adopted electronic drawing issues, resulting in major savings in time and costs.
Rea says the technical problems are less important because, one way or another, they can be solved, and noted that the human factor is by far the hardest. People generally, including architects, find it very difficult to deal with fast-paced change. No one will adopt a new system unless it is better, which means some combination of easier, faster and cheaper. 'Give me a technical problem any day, ' says Rea. 'I work in a technical field and I am a technical person, but at the end of the day, I work with people.
I fix problems for people. I don't fix computers.' The day Grimshaw introduced the new desktop, all employees were served a full cream tea to bid farewell to the old and welcome the new system.
The market for intranet data-management systems for architects and their consultant teams is evolving rapidly. Daniel Logiudice of Cubic Interactive, which developed Rapport 3 after several years of working with Allies and Morrison and Broadway Malyan, sees a trend of smaller practices (10 to 15) adopting knowledge management systems to improve their efficiency and to track their profit margins more effectively. Software is constantly evolving to meet new needs, and what applies now may be superceded in 12 to 18 months. Most of the players in the UK market are new since 2000. Yandell explains that he developed Workspace in his bedroom five years ago. He now has a staff of 30, which services 25,000 seats (licences), including 10,000 for Tesco's construction-management business. The classic Workspace client has about 100 users (although they range from 10 to 1,000) and about a quarter are architects, the remainder being consulting engineers, contractors and project managers.
Yandell explains that the biggest challenge facing his sector is education: 'People can't get their heads around what is on offer.' A significant amount of his time is spent giving free CPD seminars to architects. Once a quarter, Williamson presents the Grimshaw experience to prospective Workspace clients. The RIBA's recent change in CPD requirements has increased emphasis on 'practice information', including data management. This should mean more work for Union Square and greater efficiency for architects, especially those who follow in Grimshaw's footsteps and assess their needs carefully before taking the plunge.