Last week we had a really fascinating discussion about how Architects are using the Internet, hosted by Honest Buildings at the Open Data Institute.
We live blogged the event here, and you can search an archive of the conversations on twitter here. You may also have seen the very useful contributions in the comments on my last blog post.
I thought it would be useful to reflect on four key points from the discussion, mull them over a bit and encourage you to give us your own perspective.
1. Architects are clearly using the internet to learn.
This was a really strong feeling I had from the contributions; learning is the main thing architects are doing with the internet right now. Be it looking up information online, looking for advice about people, subjects or buildings, or looking for people who are debating topics they want to know more about. Key to this function of the internet as an information provider is its social nature – how architects and other professionals can interact with each other, learn from each other, help each other.
I’ve always seen the internet and social media in particular, as a tool for business development, that is for growing your business, getting more work, finding clients and helping clients find you. But this isn’t necessarily how architects today are using it.
This doesn’t really surprise me at all, because as you may know if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, getting business is one of the things architects can find a chore and a challenge in any case. In their day-to-day life lives architects tend to concern themselves with their current projects and information gaps, rather than marketing and business development.
What is more, social platforms haven’t focused on business development (for example helping members get commissions). Those of us who want to use social platforms in that way have to adapt them to this purpose.
One thing that social media platforms like Twitter and Linkedin have done is to bring the human element into the tasks of seeking information. I can tweet a request for a light fitting and have an expert find my tweet through search and provide the advice for free. This is the benefit these tools provide, but they are still unwieldy and imperfect.
Right, so if information is what the internet is about for architects, why are all the forms of finding information currently so imperfect? Why are things not joined up? Why do we have to rely on other people’s limited skills at search engine optimisation and wading through reams of Google results to find what we are looking for?
2. For Architects, the ROI of social media is still a moot point.
In spite of concerns about measurable Return On Investment of social media, which concerns are pressing for many of our contributors, the architects who participated in our discussion do feel they are getting quite a bit of value from the availability of data online, even in its current, not-very-well-connected state.
One of the ways we can make the internet better for finding information and better for business development would be if better, more interconnected ways were developed to get our projects online and build credibility, ways of creating and curating data that is useful to prospects. This is something that Honest Buildings is developing, something that could dramatically change the way the internet can help us get new business.
Honest Buildings has a free service that takes your need for such information, carryies out the research and provides you with alternatives much faster than you could do researching online yourself.
For example if you need to find a contractor with certain core capabilities, in a particular geographical area, HB has the data to find potential companies, and help them curate their expertise, weight them according to your criteria and provide you with a ranked list and links to all the information about each company all on the HB Network so you can act on it.
This process (called HB Match) can find you not just a contractor, but professional services in architecture, engineering, contracting and technology. HB Match can find you energy auditors, workplace consultants, planning consultants, software. Want to try it – just fill out this form.
Honest Buildings set up HB Match as an effective way to grow its network of property related projects and solution providers, built around geo-located buildings and professionals. The ultimate aim is to improve the built environment by saving professionals time finding each other’s expertise and matching it to the right problem. There are other tools that can help construction professionals get value from their online activities. Lets share them.
3. Bridging the Generation Gap
Panellist Mark Stodgell started one of the really interesting threads in our debate. He pointed out that senior people now running architect firms (often those in their 50s) do not see the value of social media.
Unlike their predecessors, in their 60s and older, most of whom are now retired, they were not in charge when the CAD revolution came in during the 1990s, but were of an age that didn’t have to learn CAD because they were already in senior enough positions when a culture of CAD didn’t change their working lives very much.
As a result this generation of managers are actually more conservative about change than their older predecessors. These are the people, many of whom Mark suggested, are now running larger firms of architects.
In the meantime, use of social media is growing from beneath, from those people on the coalface whose job it is to seek out information. Many of these people in the larger firms are online interacting (many on twitter) though they may well be ‘under the radar’ and not overtly associated with the companies they work for. They are getting huge value from social media, but senior people in the organisation don’t understand it, and probably wouldn’t approve. What a wasted opportunity!
The point brought up by Mark was expanded upon by three professional women in the USA who were joining in the debate via twitter – Andrea Learned, Sarah Markley and Tara Imani. They pointed out that we need to learn how to demonstrate the value of social tools to this constituency of senior managers in architect firms. If these managers are preventing their employees from benefitting, this could be the death of their practices.
One way of educating senior architects is the potential for senior, experienced partners and directors to become thought leaders in their fields of specialism, Andrea suggested. They could use social media to impart their expertise and therefore demonstrate the expertise of their firm.
Whilst being very useful for promoting the firm, publishing their expertise online might also appeal to this constituency as a valuable (and rewarding) thing to do. Perhaps they should be learning how to blog, or writing for the DesigningBuildings Wiki, where their expertise can be easily found and linked back to their company homes online. The Designing Buildings Wiki is a brilliant way to share the expertise of professionals in construction for all to benefit.
4. Data must be open and transferrable
Having Paul Fletcher on the panel was hugely entertaining. I’ve seen him speak before and his presentation then left me breathless – not just because of the different slide transitions he used either!
Paul is a hugely influential thought leader in the field of Big Data. He’s interested in how we could really harness the data we have about buildings. This moves beyond the clunky, frustrating conversations about BIM and copyright, to a wider mission about helping ourselves all learn how to make better buildings.
I’ve been interested in this subject from the periphery for some time, and we are seeing it change how some big clients do business. For example, British Land (a client of mine, one of the largest landlords in Europe) is using dynamic energy monitoring software to save money and carbon for themselves and their occupiers. The software creates hugely important data that can teach them and us how buildings, and cities, should be designed better in the future.
British Land use Honest Buildings to showcase their portfolio of buildings and projects. You can see their profile and all their buildings in London here. The provider of their dynamic energy monitoring software, EP&T Global, are also on Honest Buildings, and you can see a case study of a project on British Land’s HQ building here.
“We believe transparency drives better performance. The Honest Buildings Network promotes this transparency and will help us drive continual improvement in building performance and operations. We hope that HB can help drive market transparency which in time delivers market transformation where occupiers stipulate a landlord energy rating as a prerequisite for a new lease.”
Justin Snoxall, Head of the Business Group, British Land
At our debate, hosted by the Open Data Institute, we were always going to be talking about data openness, transparency and transfer. One of the questions asked about Honest Buildings was, why should I put my projects up on another site, why not just on my website? And it’s a good question. The answer is that data is more powerful, and it is transferrable, on Honest Buildings.
Honest Buildings is developing a service called HB Portfolio. It enables architects (and others) to use HB as a content management system for their project portfolio. After adding your projects to Honest Buildings, you can then embed them back in your website to show your portfolio of projects. This means that by updating Honest Buildings (where a wider audience, including prospects, can see them – in a marketplace for goods and services in the property market), you are also updating your website portfolio.
Once the data is there different people can use it in different ways. Someone visiting a building to learn about it can find the project you did, can find its energy data, can find a team of professionals who know the building, can visit your website and find out more about you. If someone visits your website and sees your HB portfolio, they can visit the project on Honest Buildings, find out more about it and the other firms who worked on it, and perhaps look for advocates for your work.
I feel the transfer of data brings us full circle to the real power of the internet and information, the ability to find and use information in different ways. The only way that this can happen is if we can connect everything up – join the dots.
One of my comments that I was surprised to hear attracted so much attention afterwards was the suggestion that architects websites (which we all acknowledge are largely pretty bad) should include a ‘people’ page where profiles of the real people who work in the company are shared, including links to their Linkedin profiles or even Honest Buildings profiles. To me this is obvious – why not use the power of these networks to humanise your website? I didn’t think this was such a radical idea, but perhaps it is for some.
Is my interpretation of the debate correct? Do you agree with me? Is there something that I (no doubt) missed? Where have the conversations been since? Do let us know in the comments below. If you use the #webarchitects hashtag on twitter, your comments will be added to the archive too.
I notice that many online architects and engineers I know are joining Honest Buildings. Please do share your profile links in the comments to encourage people to find and connect with each other there too. Here are a few that have joined recently, their profiles and projects are already getting traction on the site.
- MacKay + Partners
- Child Graddon Lewis
- Rutherford Harvey Architecture LLP
- Pollard Thomas Edwards architects
If you’ve added your profile and projects to Honest Buildings, why not add a link in the comments below so we can start joining the dots?
Image: Drawama, created during the debate