Results from new DesignIntelligence research demonstrate ways that technology has been a friend to professional services firms.

Results from new DesignIntelligence research demonstrate ways that technology has been a friend to professional services firms.

In my consulting work, I have many occasions to conduct strategic planning retreats with professional practices. The agendas at these events are becoming increasingly sophisticated, with the topics of discussion often broad:

•  Will the architecture and design professions have a brighter global future? Why?
•  Will the price of progress be a diminished Earth or a more sustainable planet? What is our organization doing about it?
•  Will technology transform the structures, roles, and responsibilities of the A/E/C industry? Where do we fit and how much should we invest?
•  What will happen between today and 2015? What should we do differently as a result of those changes?

These are some of the deep and puzzling questions professionals are navigating as our industry struggles to be more efficient, sustainable, and successful.

Socially Active

Even the most successful organizations experience paranoia, and this is not a bad thing. For what might be around that next corner? And how shall we make sense of it? While there is plenty of uncertainty and complexity for all who participate in the A/E/C arena, there are some clear pathways to both short- and long-term health to the bottom line of organizations in our industry.

Our latest DesignIntelligence survey on technology and innovation sheds light on strategy, tools, and our attitudes toward various technologies. Who would have thought that nearly 70 percent of professionals now regularly use social networking through such applications as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter? In fact, our study finds that nearly a quarter of professionals (23 percent) believe their participation in electronic social media has enabled new or improved business prospects. That’s up from 10 percent in 2008. It wasn’t long ago that a frequent question at industry events was “What’s a blog?” Now, nearly half of our industry’s professionals (48 percent) read blogs regularly, if not daily, to obtain work-related content.

Apple’s iPad has become a phenomenal tool. When it first came out, I waited. In a hesitant nod to my sons, who insisted that I wanted one, I bought an iPad and started using it on a long flight from Atlanta to Paris and then on to India. I was overly cautious in those first months because I listened to the media. For instance, BusinessWeek had this to say: “People seem genuinely baffled by why they might need it.” Bloomberg panned it, too: “Nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks. The most emotional critique toward the new tool though came from a Gizmodo columnist: “My god, am I underwhelmed by it.” I figured they knew what they were talking about. Not so. The success of the iPad is undisputed, and it’s not just a toy for reading books and playing games. It has become a solid business tool. It is new design manifested in technology, and it is transforming us.

High Standards

Software is diversifying just as the design professions are branching out. There are enthusiasts for SketchUp, Rhino, Revit, and 3ds Max. The majority of professional practices still use AutoCAD. But 65 percent are also using building information modeling (BIM) in a big way, with 61 percent of them applying it on more than half of their projects. Only 6 percent of firms using BIM are not expecting to apply it in a billable manner over the course of 2011.

What is the single most strategic reason firms will use BIM this year? To provide superior services to clients and to do so quickly while building a stronger bottom line.

What are the most tactical reasons firms are using BIM? No surprises here:

1. Visualization
2. Clash detection
3. Detailed modeling
4. Conceptual design
5. Space planning

One of the reasons we’re in a great industry is that the quality of product and software manufacturers is high and getting even better. The best of these have focused not just on client retention but on innovative new products as well. And while there are dozens upon dozens of new products and services in the tech field, our survey found that the standout exemplars offering the most exceptional products and services in our industry are:

1. Autodesk
2. Deltek
3. Graphisoft
4. Newforma
5. Bentley Systems

These are the providers of tools that make high performance possible. In fact, some of these organizations seem to know what A/E/C professionals will ask for before they actually do. The user experience is getting better because providers are measuring the things that architects, designers, planners, and engineers care about.

Thus far, there has been no trend toward outsourcing BIM work. As the economy improves, this may change. But today 88 percent of firms do not anticipate outsourcing BIM work in 2011. Firms are growing their own talent and developing competitive strengths around distinctive technology value propositions.

There are five firms most often mentioned as role models in our survey. These are the firms that have been noticed and respected by their peers. The most admired professional practices for their technology expertise are:

1. Gehry Partners
2. HOK
3. Arup
4. (Tie) Kieran Timberlake
4. (Tie) Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Why? I believe there are three reasons. First, they have become proficient at responding to change. Second, they have cultures that encourage innovation. Third, they have made significant investments of resources to profit from the power of ambiguity. They fill voids. They answer questions with uncanny inquisitive confidence.

There is a radical realignment in the nature of the design professions, and it can transform ordinary firms into powerful brands. The structural shifts are not as confusing as many have feared. Technology has turned out to be a friend. In architecture and construction management, change occurs so fast that once-slow internal design processes are migrating onto the job site. New tools are everywhere.

When it comes to technology, we are both what we know and what we do. How we work and learn, draw and design, and manage and lead will tell the tale of how future years will provide opportunities for alert professionals to reap unprecedented rewards.

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DesignIntelligence Technology & Innovation Survey, 2011


James P. Cramer is chairman and CEO of the Greenway Group, a foresight management consultancy working in the fields of leadership and coaching, brand building, communications, futures invention, and strategic planning. He is the author or co-author of three books on achieving success. Cramer is president of the Design Futures Council.