For centuries, design has been regarded as an individual art and the product of individual talent. Many of clients still view architects and designers this way – and individual talent is no less important now than it was in a less complex time.

For centuries, design has been regarded as an individual art and the product of individual talent. Many of our clients still view their architects and designers in this way – and individual talent is no less important now than it was in a less complex time.

What we know today is that most significant design work, in architecture and other disciplines, is the product of creative collaboration among a number of people and professional disciplines. Most of our work involves various types of architectural and engineering specialization, along with the all-important role of design leadership – the synthesis and integration of many talents and ideas.

The team dynamic doesn’t come naturally and unfortunately many schools develop and encourage that individual, competitive quality or motivation. Competition, while effective for moving people ahead professionally, can be destructive when people need to work together. There have been firms founded on that strong internal structure of competition who now find it difficult to deliver in a new collaborative environment. Business structures are requiring collaboration to be effective.

Collaboration isn’t limited to design. Built work results from collaboration among designers, constructors, manufacturers, suppliers, and other parties to the larger process of design and execution. Some of us are actively exploring “integrated practice” – new ways of working across the design and construction industry to make our work better, faster, more efficient, and ultimately more responsive to the interests of our clients and society. Building information modeling – BIM – is a major enabler of this new industry approach. We believe BIM can also raise the architect’s leadership role in the design and construction process, because the information created during the design process can be much richer and more precise.

Given this industry environment, the importance of effective collaboration has risen to a new level. Personal interaction is critical, and technology plays a key role as well. Many HOK projects, for example, involve teams of people in two, three, or more office locations around our network – so our people must work well together, and our technology must support them.

We can work independently almost anywhere now, in airports, on the road, wherever, so the office is serving a changing role. With tools everywhere, the office is now becoming a place where people come to interact. The role of the office is no less important; it is different.

With clients, with our own spaces and with those of our colleagues, we are gearing spaces more towards interaction and human spaces than technical tools. The focus is not so much on technology but where we interact and how we interact.

Collaboration is basically a human dynamic; technology helps a whole lot in terms of time and distance. In fact, there are stories of design teams delivering products and working collaboratively who have never met. Still, the very foundation of collaboration is the human; it’s the trust established between people. The willingness and motivation to work with someone or a group collaboratively just won’t happen if that trust and respect is not there. The human factor is key. At HOK there is no substitute for knowing each other, and we invest very heavily in groups and links between groups as often as possible; we make tremendous efforts toward facilitating the exchange of ideas between people. While I am no psychologist, despite, at times, really feeling like one, I have learned through experience that people will not, cannot collaborate with people they cannot trust. The trusting professional relationship begets collaboration.

New Knowledge Management Tools

The question then becomes, how do we overcome that tendency for individuals to feel valued based on the knowledge they personally possess, that “knowledge is power” mentality. At HOK we focus on knowledge management by establishing systems to capture the collective experiences and creating tools to make this accessible. There has been much success in the profession towards doing this and toward creating accessible internal knowledge-base tools (ARUP is one example; it has a remarkable knowledge-sharing system). However, there is no technological substitute for the human experience. We strive to link people together who have the experience. The key for us is making people accessible, creating the ability to access and locate others within the HOK network with the necessary expertise and facilitating these connections. There is no substitute for human insight.

Sharing knowledge and retaining knowledge is really paramount to the success of an organization, retaining people and keeping the level of personal dynamism alive. Collaboration is managing people as much as information and is much more about culture than about technology. Like many firm leaders in major offices with massive teams and complex projects, one of our primary occupations is identifying and dealing with personal barriers that crop up. The “one firm” business structure goes a long way in addressing that, keeping everyone’s mission and agenda with the same focus and purpose, working not competitively on an individual level but cooperatively for the overall good of the firm. Streamlining business as a group, in collaborative settings is vital because all of the energy spent on internal conflicts and structure reduces individual productivity and team profitability and ultimately fails to serve the client’s best interests.

Collaboration and Demand

Collaboration is not a workforce capacity issue alone. We are experiencing a relative robust economy, all of us. We are all also experiencing the same talent and workload issues. Everyone at HOK is currently really busy and, due to the delivery and workload demands, is being forced to work collaboratively across locations simply to deliver. So, there is a demand for collaboration in good times as well as lean. Collaboration at HOK is as much about expertise as anything else. We manage a range of extremely complex projects, in major healthcare for example, and we might have professionals from as many as two or three locations working on a project because they maintain varying expertise relevant to the project.

At the Design Futures Council board meeting in Chicago last December, we agreed that collaboration would be a worthwhile topic for our May 2007 meeting in New York, and that we should prepare for it in a thoughtful way. A task group of board members led a survey about collaboration at three levels: within project teams; within multi-office firms; and across the larger design and construction industry. Our survey included questions about collaboration “enablers” and “barriers” in work processes, technology, human culture and behavior, and work environments.