Understanding the Role of Culture

Design firms are increasingly recognizing the strategic value of interactive online platforms. In a profession that tends to cling to existing tools and processes, it’s taken a while for social media to gain a foothold and begin challenging the status quo.

Design firms are increasingly recognizing the strategic value of interactive online platforms.

In a profession that tends to cling to existing tools and processes, it’s taken a while for social media to gain a foothold and begin challenging the status quo.

A few architectural firms were early adopters, jumping in to explore the nascent online communities they believed presented unique opportunities for recruitment, market positioning, thought leadership, and business development.

The vast majority of practices, however, have approached social media with a healthy dose of skepticism and trepidation. Despite the negligible out-of-pocket cost required to participate, many practice leaders initially resisted the pleas of online-savvy, often younger, colleagues. Fueling their apprehension was a lack of clarity about how to manage the inherent risks or comprehend the potential rewards.

What’s more, social media didn’t comfortably fit within the existing infrastructure of an architectural practice — not within the project design and delivery process, not within the marketing and business development function, and not within the recruiting and people development strategies.

In short, experimenting with new, unproven tools during the most challenging economic environment in decades held little appeal.

But as the role of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and corporate blogs evolved from a fringe fad to an encompassing mainstream trend, the potential role of social media has been virtually impossible to ignore or deny — even within a cautious, conservative profession.

Today, virtually all design firms maintain a presence on at least a couple of social media platforms, although specific strategies, activity level, resource commitment, goals, and expectations vary dramatically. Firms believe it’s important to have a presence but continue to struggle to demonstrate a tangible, quantifiable ROI and to understand the long-term potential of social media to advance their practice.

Understanding the Role of Culture

HOK — the social media pioneer among large firms — put a public stake in the ground in 2008 with the debut of an employee-authored blog (hoklife.com) and branded channels on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, and LinkedIn.

HOK’s early exploration required the firm to grapple with the challenges of managing the risks of participating in these emerging open social platforms. For an architectural practice, these risks extend into the realm of legal (copyright and privacy issues), information technology (security and bandwidth issues), and human resources (employee participation and supervision issues).

Beyond establishing policies and rules of engagement to support its efforts, HOK readily acknowledges the role of its entrepreneurial culture in enabling the firm to participate effectively in social media.

“Having an open, transparent culture makes social media efforts come alive,” says John Gilmore, HOK senior writer and social media leader. “Otherwise, people are smart — they know when your stuff isn’t authentic.”

The term “corporate culture” can be a nebulous one. Yet it is repeatedly cited as a critical factor in determining whether — and to what degree — a firm can leverage the potential of social media.

Webster’s dictionary defines corporate culture as the shared values, traditions, customers, philosophy, and policies of a business. Essentially, it’s the personality of an organization, shaping employee beliefs, expectations, and behavior. Whether a firm employs two people or 2,000 people, that business embodies a unique culture that shapes and influences its employees. Culture helps determine who is attracted to work there, who is ultimately hired, and how they behave once they’re on board. There will be renegades, to be sure, but the vast majority of employees will respect the norms of the organization and err on the side of caution.

Culture is fundamental because one of the primary tenets of social media is that it be driven and sustained by people — real people, not company mouthpieces disseminating sanitized corporate messages. Social media also requires a willingness to allow unexpected voices to emerge, which challenges the traditional convention of limiting a firm’s public face to a senior principal or single signature designer.

“If a brand is built on the mystique of the designer, the unknowable creative professional — and some are — then a social media campaign will probably not benefit you because you’re not going to want to give too much away,” says Katie Sosnowchik, communications director at HDR Architecture. “Also, corporate cultures that want to control the flow of information from the top down aren’t positioned to respond to the demands of social media: the immediacy, the interaction, the sharing.”

Share and Engage

Another foundational expectation of social media is an active willingness to share content. For a service business whose commercial livelihood depends on the development and selling of creative concepts, the idea of giving stuff away may not be viewed as beneficial or even feasible. Beyond the obvious competitive concerns is a built-in apprehension to share any imagery or materials that wouldn’t be considered suitable for a traditional design magazine.

In other words, there’s often an inherent discomfort about serving up details or images about the (often messy but fascinating) design and delivery process, including missteps and lessons learned. Yet these insights provide some of the most fertile opportunities for broadening awareness of the value and relevance of architecture, both to individuals and to society at large.
“In a culture where many firms are unaccustomed to the open sharing of their expertise and knowledge, social media engagement can feel like they’re giving away valuable information. But if you’re hiding everything, there is not much to share,” says Sandra Knight, director, public relations, at SmithGroupJJR. “Social media is not just about listening; it’s about being a part of the conversation and adding value. This means being open.”

Of course, a commitment to openness must be balanced with the need to respect client confidentiality requirements and sensitive, proprietary information about projects.

Another prevalent dilemma for architects has been the hesitancy to engage in real-time online discussions about topical issues that naturally intersect with the practice of architecture: climate change, health care costs, urban renewal, affordable housing, the changing workplace.

This general unwillingness to engage with others publicly around important societal and business issues just reinforces the common refrain that the profession is increasingly marginalized and commoditized. Without question, architects can take an important step toward greater influence by more actively engaging with others about important issues in online forums, which increasingly intersect with mainstream social media platforms.

A growing number of firms are recognizing the value of social media as a valuable platform for sharing thought leadership.

“Given the scope of experts we have and the pervasive nature of architecture/design in daily life, we can position ourselves in a very large and diverse range of conversations,” says Brett Bellas, director of knowledge and media at Perkins+Will. “A simple editorial piece can translate into a circuit around the viral blogosphere. An interview with a thought leader can translate into key introductions or an invitation to a conference. An opinion article can spur a true public dialogue.”

Blurring the Lines

Social media both contributes to and benefits from the blurring of the lines between personal and professional. Technology has enabled everyone to stay connected around the clock and around the world, a reality that renders obsolete the traditional notion of the 8-to-5 workplace.

Younger generations in particular aren’t honoring the conventional distinctions between work and home. They expect to have access to social media sites at all hours of the day and night (and do have access via their smart phones regardless of whether such connectivity is allowed on company equipment).

They also seek opportunities and platforms to share their work — as well as their life at work — with others without the need for official approval or oversight.

This has presented numerous challenges to companies across the spectrum: Who can access and participate in social media? Where do you draw the line between company time and personal time? How much control can a firm have over content posted on an employee’s personal accounts?

Although the answers are seldom clear cut, most firms have recognized they need to create guidelines that support the needs and preferences of employees while guarding the assets and productivity of the workplace.

“We view social media in the same way we view casual conversations in the office — people regularly need breaks from their work,” says HDR’s Sosnowchik. “Getting on Twitter and Facebook for 10 minutes is no different than an employee getting up and talking to their cubicle mate or walking down the street for a cup of coffee. It’s kind of become a digital way to take a breather in the office.”

Interestingly, a 2011 study conducted by two researchers at the National University of Singapore revealed that Web browsing actually refreshed tired workers and enhanced their productivity compared to other activities such as making personal calls, texting, or checking email. Web surfers also reported lower levels of mental exhaustion and boredom as well as higher levels of engagement. “Browsing the Internet serves an important restorative function,” the authors concluded.

Is It All About Marketing?

When firm principals consider how social media might be most valuable to a practice, they frequently cite aspirations of positioning the firm to win new work.

While the traditional processes for pursuing most architectural projects haven’t changed dramatically with the advent of social media, they are gradually evolving to include — and sometimes welcome — social networking. This involves identifying and taking advantage of opportunities to forge relationships before and after a formal RFP is issued.

“Many of the challenges and best practices of real-life networking are applicable online,” says Holly Bolton, who serves on the Board of Directors for the Society for Marketing Professional Services. “Just as in face-to-face networking, the key is to approach social media as a way to listen so that you build and strengthen relationships. The more interactive, attentive, and engaged you become — while remaining focused — the more effective it becomes for your firm.”

Most agree that social media is unlikely to ever become the primary vehicle or silver bullet strategy for winning a job. And no amount of social media savvy will make up for deficiencies of capabilities or experience.

“Winning work is ultimately based on quite a few factors, including expertise, design portfolio, client relationships, team chemistry, and of course fee. Social media can’t fake those things for you, but it can give smaller firms more of a voice or make large firms more human,” Sosnowchik says. “It’s refreshingly merit-based. If you can reach more people, you can find (or create) more opportunities.”

Despite the very narrow audience of individuals who will ever hire a commercial architect, as the A/E/C industry continues to explore new ways of structuring contracts, teams, and projects, social media can cultivate fruitful connections.

“A firm still has to have the resources and expertise required to take on a particular project,” says HOK’s Gilmore. “But social media enables all kinds of new collaboration and interaction within the design and construction industry. Everyone can have an equal voice in the conversations.”

Outside the marketing discipline, firms also are discovering many other opportunities to leverage social media to advance their practice:

  • Recruiting. A Google search is a candidate’s quickest way to learn about the projects, people, and culture of a potential employer, and the most telling sources for this information usually reside outside the confines of the corporate website.
  • Internal communications. Both publicly accessible and password-protected online platforms can effectively facilitate two-way, real-time communications among a dispersed workforce. These organic tools can prove to be more effective than formal communications vehicles like a traditional employee newsletter.
  • Client relations. Existing clients are usually the most fertile (and efficient) source for new work, and social media can provide unique opportunities to stay close to them. Demonstrating an aptitude for social media will likely impress a client, as they inevitably aspire to leverage social media within their own organization. 
  • Public engagement and community building. The community engagement phase that is part of many public projects naturally lends itself to social media (and vice versa). Even if a formal engagement process isn’t part of a project, social media offers an efficient way to reach out informally to a community to gather input and identify key issues. 
  • Media relations. Social media can support and supplement traditional public relations strategies by creating opportunities to share news with the growing segment of online and non-traditional media, as well as to connect with traditional reporters and editors (who increasingly use social media tools for their own benefit). 
  • Primary and secondary research. Social media can be an effective tool for gathering real-time opinions about an organization, person, or trend. It also offers a quick and effective way to learn more about a specific municipality, industry, sector, or organization. 
  • Project team communications. Project teams are increasingly leveraging online communities to foster real-time collaboration among architects, engineers, contractors, consultants, clients, and other important project stakeholders.

Journey and Destination

Without question, one of the most challenging aspects of devoting time, energy, and resources to a burgeoning discipline like social media is not knowing where it all will lead.

The good news is that there are abundant opportunities for firms to experiment, stake a claim, and distinguish themselves within the sectors, building types, and regions most relevant to them.

“Participating in the real-time conversations that are happening around the topics that are important to our world helps demonstrate the value of the architectural profession and the importance of design,” Gilmore says. “People can see that architects have a unique ability to make the world a better place — and a passion for doing that.”

The bad news is that no one can deliver a set of CAD drawings or a BIM model that accurately depicts the social media landscape of the future. The only certainty is that interactive online platforms will continue to increase their influence on people — including the future clients that design firms will inevitably pursue.

While these online platforms continue to adapt and evolve, architects have a unique opportunity to help design this new world that will shape the way we communicate, get information, make decisions, and live our lives.

Mike Plotnick is a freelance writer and social media consultant. In his previous role as vice president and communications director at HOK, he led the communications team that developed and facilitated the firm’s Life at HOK blog and social media platform. He tweets as @SomeChum.