Firms that embrace lifelong learning as a core competency are making a smart investment.

Take a look around. Whatever happened to videocassettes, 8-track players, and analog TVs? Once epitomes of high-tech, they are now quaint relics of a not-too-distant past. The world has changed at a remarkable pace, and it keeps changing. Like it or not, we can’t help ourselves: Human beings are programmed to be inventive.

Never satisfied with the status quo, we seem to have a limitless capacity both to create and solve problems. There was a time when a 256-bit computer processor was considered state-of-the-art. Then Moore’s Law kicked in, and megabytes gave way to gigabytes. Terabytes are next. When nanotechnology really takes off, who knows what the upper limit will be — or if there is one. This vast increase in computing capacity allows us to solve problems of baffling complexity at unimaginable speed. And this is just the beginning. It seems that as soon as we master a skill set or new technology, another springs up in its place. Consequently, the shelf life of expertise is increasingly small. True mastery in any field seems to have the lifespan of a mosquito.

With so much to learn and so little time, how are we to cope? All we know for sure is that the future will be increasingly complex and that it will require ever more sophisticated skills and tools. Is there any way to get ahead of the curve? How do we know what we need to know?

Changing Rules

Education is based on a pretty simple proposition. We go to school to learn useful stuff then apply that knowledge throughout our lives. The more education we have, presumably the better equipped we will be to cope with the future. But new knowledge is created continuously. Indeed, much of what we need to know today did not exist when we were in school, and so of course it could not be taught. Ironically, education brings with it a certain rigidity. The more we know, the less likely we are to adapt to new and different ways of thinking. The old joke is that a true expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing. Being “right” only works until the rules change, and they are changing all the time.

The key to coping with the avalanche of new knowledge is realizing that school is not a place — it is an attitude. Education will always be important, but it will be delivered in different ways in various settings using assorted technologies. Access to information is only one small part of the equation and one we’ve solved remarkably well. In fact, we’re drowning in data. But data is not information, information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom. If we are to keep up, we need to re-conceptualize what it means to be educated and how we go about doing it. It’s a constant process.

Great athletes and skilled musicians understand this concept. No matter how good they get, they still hone their skills every day. If they don’t, they fall behind. They build this repetition into their routines as part of their lifestyle. It’s how they keep fresh for each new contest or performance (without any CEUs required).

A CEU is a CEU

The notion of continuing education has been widely adopted across most professions, from law to medicine to education itself. The American Institute of Architects formalized continuing education unit requirements a decade ago, and most state licensing agencies have followed suit. The drill is pretty simple: Sign up for an accredited course, log the CEUs, keep your registration current. However, the actual process for determining useful content is still surprisingly haphazard. Just about anyone can apply for course certification; the barriers to entry are not high. The usual sources include conferences, publications, professional associations, and seminars given by manufacturers, suppliers, installers, and consultants. Perhaps this plethora of sources this is a good thing since you never know where useful ideas will come from. But the system is still pretty reactive and fairly disorganized; there’s nobody telling us what we need to learn or what our priorities ought to be. A CEU is a CEU, whether it deals with process innovation such as integrated project delivery or a technical detail like flashing joints. The lack of a clear roadmap makes continuing education essentially a self-guided adventure.

Which brings up a question: Do all those accumulated CEUs actually lead to better-informed, more creative, more effective professionals? The metrics suggest otherwise. In the aggregate, the A/E/C industry is the second biggest segment of the economy after health care, but its productivity has been in steady decline for the past four decades. By most measures, the design and construction process is at least 30 percent inefficient (representing about $400 billion in squandered value every year). It seems that the more we learn, the dumber we get, despite all the continuing ed. What to do?

Education All Around

First, understand that learning is like breathing. We do it all the time without thinking about it. Every chance encounter, meeting, e-mail, or site visit can teach us something useful, if only we are willing to pay attention. This is especially true when we solve problems. While we are naturally inclined to avoid trouble, the fact is that we learn more from our difficulties than our successes.

The second thing to realize is that learning does not have to be confined to individual effort. There’s no way that a single person can know everything (with the possible exception of Thomas Jefferson). Group learning exposes multiple points of view and enriches the overall experience. Very often students learn as much or more from their classmates as from their professors.

The third point is to choose your altitude. Some things are sufficiently understood from the 30,000 foot level (strategies and concepts) and some from 15,000 feet (processes and protocols), but for others it’s important to get in the weeds. It’s not necessary to know all the details all the time as long you have a firm grasp on the overall conceptual framework. Details can always be provided by additional research, committees, or task groups when needed.

A Learning Organization

With these three things in mind, it’s possible to make your firm into a learning organization, one in which continuing education is deeply ingrained in the culture. The goal is to create an atmosphere in which new ideas are openly sought, presented, discussed, debated, and then adopted or discarded as appropriate. This kind of open source atmosphere energizes the staff at all levels, creating a buzz that drives the organization. Here are a few techniques that will help:

•  Publicize the problem of the week. In design and construction, there’s always an issue that needs to be resolved. Pick one each week and throw it out for discussion. What happened and why? How could the situation have been avoided? Given the circumstances, what is the best possible outcome? What should happen differently next time? Should standing policies or protocols be changed? Engaging the collective wisdom of the firm often results in surprising new answers to old problems; everyone learns something.

•  Eat smart. Everyone eats lunch, and most manufacturers, suppliers, or consultants are happy to buy sandwiches for a willing audience to attend a lunchtime presentation on a particular topic. You don’t have to wait for an invitation — just call people who have something useful to say and ask them. Most likely, they’ll jump at the opportunity to spread their expertise. Many firms have created lunchtime programs that are already accredited for CEUs, so this provides a double benefit for staff. The food-for-thought strategy is particularly effective when you’re just about to start a new project. What will you need to know? What are the useful precedents? There are lots of sources with great information that are there for the asking. So ask.

•  Leverage conference attendance. Many firms routinely send staff to professional conferences. The cost can be considerable, not only in travel expenses but also in non-billable time. But firms fail to reap the full benefit when people return. Make sure that the new knowledge gained is shared liberally by requiring attendees to give formal presentations back at the office. Share the conference handouts and keep a library. Three things will happen: You’ll keep everyone up to speed on what’s going on in the profession, you’ll quickly learn which conferences are worthy of repeat visits, and your staff will get great experience making effective presentations.

•  Try a book-of-the-month club. Pick a selection each month and form a group that is willing to read, discuss, and summarize the salient points for the rest of the firm. Put a copy of the featured volume in your reception area so clients and other visitors know what’s currently being studied. (Maybe they’d like to join.) Add the book to your library as a reference for staff. Any subject that is relevant to your work is fair game. If you’re really ambitious, write your own book.

•  Keep a CEU scorecard. Do this not only for yourself but for your entire staff, and post it openly. When you consider the number of CEUs that are earned per year across the firm, it can easily run into the thousands. That’s a lot of new knowledge. Figure out how to mine it, refine it, and distribute it so that it doesn’t go to waste. You might consider giving special recognition or a reward (free attendance at a conference of choice, perhaps) to the staff members who accumulate the most CEUs in a given year. However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking about CEUs only in terms of points. It’s learning that counts more than counting what’s learned.

•  Tap into your favorite consultants and subcontractors.
Ever wonder what it’s like to install sprinkler pipe? Or how to calculate the average wait times for an elevator? People we work with every day know this stuff, and they’ve got great stories to tell. How does their business really work? Invite them over to share their world view — you’re bound to learn a lot (especially how to avoid pitfalls). Storytelling is one of the most effective ways to transmit and store information. Make it part of your firm’s culture so your staff will share their own experiences.

•  Grow your own experts. Every firm has smart people, and most have surprising skills or interests. Find out what drives them. A few years ago, our office sponsored an employee art show. Staff exhibited various projects that they worked on over the years for their own pleasure, and much of the work was of astounding quality. Who knew? For example, one person in particular was an expert at making fountain pens from beautifully crafted exotic woods. Showcasing the skills and talents of your staff is a great way to endow your firm with a culture of curiosity. It also breeds mutual respect.

•  Produce your own conferences.
Every firm is good at something and has useful information to share. Try corralling this knowledge and setting up a mini-conference for an invited list of guests. What were the big lessons learned from your last successful project? What are the implications of new tools and techniques? Better yet, leverage the content by inviting clients, contractors and consultants to be co-presenters. Sometimes the best way to learn something is to become a teacher. It’s also great networking.

•  Invert the pyramid. It’s tempting to think that older, more experienced staff have all the answers. Try flipping this around and inviting younger staff to showcase what they know. They may not be experts in how to specify plumbing fixtures, but chances are that they know a lot about social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Introducing new ways of thinking and honoring younger employees for the energy and insight they can bring to the firm is a great way to plow new ground.

At its essence, design is about discovery — solving problems in different ways with new tools and techniques. For this, lifelong learning is a core competency. It follows that designing learning into your daily routine can only improve results. Firms that understand this basic principle and weave it into their organizational DNA are making a very smart investment, one that will pay dividends for years to come.

Scott Simpson is a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council and a member of its executive board. He is a Richard Upjohn Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. With James P. Cramer, he co-authored the books How Firms Succeed and The Next Architect.