Does the term “thought leadership” annoy you? You are not alone.

I  admit that it is overused and borders on cliché, but other terms that get at the same idea —“change agent”, “futurist” — induce the same eye-rolling effect. “Knowledge sharing” lacks the sense of being visionary, and “subject-matter expert” is a mouthful and doesn’t quite convey the spokesperson quality that “thought leader” possesses.

I started dissecting this term when I began a research initiative with my colleagues at the Cameron MacAllister Group to study the prevalence of research, testing and/or knowledge sharing done by firms in the related architectural design, engineering, and construction industries — specifically efforts that are pursued independent from any one client or project for the purposes of enhancing the firm’s offerings or its reputation. For lack of a better term, we refer to these efforts as thought leadership.

The formal report from our survey will be released in the coming weeks, but overall we found a growing movement toward thought leadership programs across the AEC industry.

We conducted our research in two parts:

1. An industry survey with respondents from across the globe

2. A series of in-depth interviews with firms that have particularly noteworthy programs — at this point we’ve conducted 13.

Common topics

Firms are exploring an array of subjects. By a large margin, sustainability is the most common. It’s also the one topic that is almost universally treated with an open source model. This is driven by an interest in making real improvements to the built environment’s contribution to climate change by the industry as a whole. As a result, the leading innovators in this area are sharing what they learn, create and think. The invitation-only U.S. Green Building Council group, Sustainability Design Leaders, is one example of a tight community of the top sustainable design firms, where best practices, tools and processes are openly shared for the purpose of improving the collective. This information isn’t just shared behind closed doors. Perkins+Will may have been the first firm to offer their data transparently with the 2011 release of their Precautionary List. They have also created, and made available to the public, an assessment tool to help them evaluate their progress toward the energy efficiency goals of the 2030 Challenge.

Technology is the next largest bucket of topics. The efforts range from Eskew Dumez Ripple’s work with devices for measuring energy use and gauging the comfort of interior temperatures to sophisticated proprietary software like MKThink’s 4Daptive technology, a software solution for tracking the use of facilities. Swinerton’s Revit-based software touches every step of the company’s project life cycle: from design and construction to facility management and maintenance, it addresses project management, estimation, productivity, and on and on.

Firms are investing in research on business growth and operations, design process and project delivery. And we are also seeing a lot of efforts focused on market sectors and project types such as healing, learning and outdoor environments. Beyond these large categories there are the very specific project types, like Fentress’ thorough examination and communication about airport design.

Responding to the Recession Creatively

Of the 144 unique firms that participated in our survey, 55 percent have some sort of a thought leadership, research or innovation program. More than half of these programs were started in the last five years. No matter where you live, one thing that was hard to miss about the last five years is the recession. While we didn’t inquire about the recession in our survey, the subject came up in a few of our interviews. The recession catalyzed some firms to do things differently.

When business started to slow down for Lake|Flato Architects, Ted Flato and Bill Ayers began looking into prefabricated modular structures that could encapsulate their years of design experience, but have the flexibility to allow a modular solution to be custom designed for the site and client. The result is a system of modules they call the Porch House.

A Porch House project starts the same way any other Lake|Flato residential project does. The client’s needs are assessed and the site is analyzed. The design team prescribes where the various living and sleeping modules will be situated and then custom designs the connections — breezeways, porches, dog runs and carports — to create a unique home that is appropriate for the place and family. Even though the structures are prefabricated the client is left with a unique home that is appropriate for the place and their family, and Lake|Flato gets the opportunity to get to know and work closely with their client. As they speculated, The Porch House has allowed Lake|Flato to reach a new, less affluent, and younger residential clientele — who might one day hire Lake|Flato again to custom design a higher-end home.

The recession’s impact on our communities has also been hard to miss for firms. Jim Olson was concerned about the impact of the increasing numbers of vacant storefronts on the Seattle street where Olson Kundig Architects office is located. In an effort to take one vacancy off the market, he leased the space beneath his firm to use for the incoming interns or an occasional workshop. His partners Kirsten Murray and Alan Maskin had a better idea: why not use the space to enliven the street life as a rotating exhibition space curated by the designers of Olson Kunding? The [storefront] began as a “record store” — where passersby could browse nostalgically through rows and rows of vinyl, even play their favorite songs — but they couldn’t actually buy anything. At night, the [storefront] hosted cocktails and featured local DJs that played their favorite selections from the exhibit. A couple months later, the [storefront] was transformed into a mushroom farm grown from local coffee grounds to drive home the importance of local foods and farms.

This space has become more than a creative outlet for the firm — it has enhanced their connection to the local community. But the program’s impact goes much further than Seattle. The [storefront] has become the face of the firm on social media, which has been instrumental in strengthening the firm’s position in the global artist community. It’s also not a coincidence that the firm’s experience in exhibit design has grown from a couple projects before the [storefront] to a viable practice in the firm while this space has been active.

Undertakings such as Porch House and the [storefront] are not small in effort or impact. In our survey, we asked the average number of hours invested in the program. When we correlated responses with what we learned about the programs, these numbers seemed suspiciously low. This led us to believe that these programs are being run and supported by people who are personally excited by this work and are likely contributing their personal time.

Many of the programs our respondents told us about are structured enough to have clear objectives and reporting requirements. More than 90 percent of them are run by a principal or a senior-level staff person, and 32 percent of programs represent an investment of 1 percent or more of their annual revenue.

A Shift in Communications

Thought leadership programs can generate a wealth of useful content and points of differentiation for firms, so communicating about these efforts would seem to be a natural fit, and almost 90 percent of our respondents leverage their program in the firm’s marketing and/or communications efforts. Almost everyone claims to be talking about their efforts internally, and many are using their material for public speaking and in website content. Just over half are including their program in marketing collateral.

With 63 percent of respondents communicating their efforts through social media and more than half of them sharing their content through blogs, this subset of firms seem to be adapting to the shift toward communicating in the new media at a faster rate than the industry as a whole. (According to the research in my 2012 book Social Media in Action: Comprehensive Guide for Architecture, Engineering and Environmental Consulting Firms, only 16 percent of firms reported that they were blogging)

Interestingly, the more traditional forms of communicating thought leadership — talking with the press, authoring articles and books and client newsletters — were used the least. Perhaps this is a reflection of the decline of the news media as a whole. It was surprising to see less than 16 percent of firms using client newsletters, when promising client-facing publications such as SWA’s Ideas journal and Arup Connect, the firm’s online magazine for the Americas have recently been launched.

How Firms Are Affected

We also asked about how the program has impacted the firm and discovered two points that are worth noting:

1.    More than 65 percent of firms with these programs can make a direct or indirect correlation between the thought leadership program and new work. Although not every firm can point to a specific example, Sera Architects in Portland actually received a cold call from Google telling them that they’d been watching their sustainability presentations for years and invited them to respond to an RFP.

2.    The other point is actually a counterpoint. In my experience, a common reason firms don’t pursue  thought leadership programs is concern that the firm’s experts being positioned as spokespeople or representatives of the brand may feel empowered to start their own practice or may be recruited by a competitor. Less than 10 percent of our respondents had even a suspicion of this happening.

Types of Thought Leaders

Based on the interviews we’ve conducted, the firms with noteworthy programs seem to fall into one of four categories.

1. It’s in their DNA. Often it began with the founders.

Ove Arup declared that the engineering firm he started in 1963, Arup Associates, would position the building engineers at the same level as the building designers in order to practice holistic design — which requires collaboration and sharing knowledge. Well before intranets were possible, Arup offices would compile binders of their best practices and ship these to other offices so that the whole firm could benefit from this know-how. Naturally, the firm was an early adopter of intranet knowledge-sharing tools. Ove Arup’s early vision is evident in the Arup Fellows program and their Arup Thoughts blog that celebrates the experts who are generous with their experiences.

SWA Group is built this way, too. Co-founder Peter Walker encouraged his staff to pursue ideas and interests outside of work. Those he mentored are now at the helm and Walker’s ethic is still very present at every level of the firm. SWA’s idea leadership program supports the public pursuit of a few topics by groups of principals and staff. For example, CEO Kevin Shanley has worked for decades to restore bayous in Houston to a more naturalized state. His advocacy has inspired others in the Houston office to actively participate as well. Collectively, they’ve not only shaped Houston into a greener city, but also have positioned the Houston office as key consultants in many of the bayou projects. In the Los Angeles office, Gerdo Aquino and Ying Yu Hung have pioneered the idea of landscape infrastructure within their profession. Walker’s ethic is also evident in the firm’s fellowship program which last year awarded $10,000 grants to 10 non-principal staff to explore something of interest.

2. The overachievers

Firms like Lake|Flato, are never satisfied with their latest accomplishment when they see opportunity for further improvement. Lake|Flato is driven to design increasingly energy efficient structures. Currently, their average energy reduction of their projects is 54.6 percent — less than 6 percent from their Architecture 2030 Challenge targets. By comparison, the combined average energy reduction of the 104 firms committed to the challenge is 36 percent.

3. The natural teachers

Array Architects is pursuing what’s next in healthcare facility design in a transparent manner. Array staff actively blog about their insights, new research they’ve come across, and lessons learned from their projects. This form of sharing is a part of their culture and is initiated from the very top.

HOK pursues a wide range of topics through research and thought leadership. Biomimicry is one example. Since 2004, the firm has explored biomimicry as a source of ideas for designs that minimize the impact on the environment. Most recently, Tom Knittel out of their Seattle office released a 178 page report, “Genius of Biome” conducted by HOK and biologists from Biomimicry 3.8, an institution encouraging designers and innovators to look at solutions used by natural organisms for answers to their design challenges. The report details living organisms found in the most populous biome (a biome is made up of places that have similar climate and vegetation throughout the world. There are 18 biomes total), and identifies the strategies and designs of organisms and ecosystems that can be applied as solutions to placed-based issues like water, energy, materials and even social and economic conditions. HOK has made this investment to encourage  all architects and designers to emulate the successful designs and processes found in nature. In addition to the report, Knittel will be speaking and leading a hands-on workshop to teach designers how to apply this knowledge to their work at the 2013 Biomimicry Education Summit and Global Conference in Boston.

4. The lucky

In no way is this intended to be a disparaging remark. Luck is the intersection of preparedness and opportunity. Firms like Sera Architects, didn’t have the long view in mind when they hired two very passionate professionals. In their free time, Clark Brockman was examining the costs of designing and building a “Living Building” and Tim Smith was exploring civic ecology. Their approach was not driven by any strategy, but simply by their interests. Over time, the pair accumulated grants, published papers, received speaking invitations from conferences, and eventually were contacted by research organizations and universities to collaborate on formal research.

Their interests also informed the firm’s work. It wasn’t too long before Sera embraced and invested in the work that Brockman and Smith were doing. The two were allowed to be less billable and were given staff to expand their research into the practice. As a result of Brockman and Smith’s personal initiative, the firm has emerged as a credible leader in sustainable thinking — and sustainability is at the core of the firm’s identity. Today, Sera describe themselves not as a design-first firm, but as a sustainability-first firm.

There is one factor that we’ve found in each firm we’ve interviewed. Leadership. Somewhere — maybe not directly conducting the research, but cheering on the team that is — there are passionate individuals who have sparked the initial curiosities. Permission to pursue ideas can have infectious results. For the firms that don’t yet have a thought leadership program, I recommend looking at who is already investigating their curiosities, even if you don’t see the connection between their interests and the project work. Diversity of thought breeds innovation. Listen with an open mind to what these passionate individuals are exploring and how it informs their thinking. And don’t be afraid to invest in your people.

Amanda Walter is a communications strategist. After a decade of leading communications programs from inside large firms, she founded Walter Communications in 2010 to help architects, landscape architects and planners build programs and comprehensive communications campaigns that shape a reputation of focused expertise.