posted 7 Sep 2005 in Volume 9 Issue 1
Using communities to drive performance and innovation in Arup
Mobilise knowledge or be outmanoeuvred.
By Dominique Poole and Tony Sheehan
‘The wealth of new knowledge, new materials, new processes has so widened the field of possibilities that it cannot be adequately surveyed in a single mind. To cope we must create the organisation, the composite mind.’ Ove Arup 1942
Founded in 1946, Arup is a global firm providing engineering design, planning and project-management services in all areas of the built environment. With nearly 7,000 employees dispersed across 70 offices worldwide, the ability to deliver global skills locally is key to Arup’s knowledge-management (KM) approach and business performance. Any failure to deliver the full impact of our global knowledge leaves us vulnerable to smaller, more agile competitors with lower overheads. We have a simple choice – mobilise our knowledge effectively, or be outbid and outmanoeuvred.
Arup’s knowledge-management tradition can be traced back to the founder of the firm, Ove Arup, who had a very strong belief in the importance of sharing knowledge. Principles set down by Ove and the culture that continues to draw from his values enabled various good KM practices to evolve within Arup at an early stage. Lessons learnt, for example, have been routinely captured and shared since the 1960s, while a culture of sharing and knowledge reuse has become a key feature of the firm.
Since formalising its knowledge management practices in 2000, Arup has recognised communities of practice (CoP) as a key vehicle for success. While the firm was still small, people were able to recognise experts in different fields through their personal networks, but with growth and global dispersion, personal networks became less effective, making it impossible to ‘know who knew’ across a range of individuals and their specialist areas. Combining this with a culture that deemed mandated approaches as unsuitable led to an approach to knowledge management where knowledge has always been volunteered, and where communities of practice remain the most appropriate approach to sharing knowledge.
Although Arup’s goal is generally to achieve value for its clients through innovative and creative projects, the nature of design means that some element of repetition is present on each project. Arup’s KM approach reflects this by maintaining an element of standardisation, procedure and IT, but it focuses on these elements far less than many organisations. Instead, Arup generally seeks to combine people, process and technology to support a less structured approach, encouraging innovation and flexible working practices across many sectors.
Arup’s ability to deliver value to its clients is enhanced by the company’s communities and business sectors working closely together to ensure that the right skills and knowledge are developed in response to business sector and ultimately client needs. Without these communities, we would offer little more than an organisation ten per cent of our size. The communities are the primary means for provoking and enabling continuous cross-group technical activities to promote and sharpen Arup’s competitive advantage. Activities revolve around supporting technical skills through providing training and guidance, nurturing a culture of sharing innovative work and experiences that help to deliver excellent projects, avoid errors and maximise the value of expertise for the benefit of Arup clients.
Our communities are expected to exchange knowledge, information and facilitate learning in their skill area. Each community is tasked with reflecting on and learning from project experience, acting as the custodians of the Arup knowledge base by looking across project experiences and reviewing external knowledge to distil out best practice. They are expected to identify, absorb and re-apply best practice, and help us to share knowledge by encouraging mentoring and learning. Why should communities do this? One of the key challenges faced by our designers at present is the sheer volume of information that is available in the public domain. Our communities are a method by which Arup can filter content into accessible, reliable content that designers can use with confidence.
In order to maintain enthusiasm and integrate knowledge sharing into the way our communities work, Arup has found that a balance of both virtual and face-to-face facilitation forms the best approach. Given that we are trying to deliver the best of Arup globally, it is critical for our communities to have some form of intranet presence. Virtual working is essential for dispersed communities, whether they are small regional offices or working on site. Standard intranet templates have been made available to enable community members to focus on the business of sharing knowledge and to minimise duplication of effort in designing and developing separate sites. These templates offer standard key components (eg, a threaded discussion forum, powerful search engine) based on our assessment of what makes for effective communities, but the templates can be customised to some extent to enable each community to develop some sense of ownership and buy-in from its members.
Face-to-face meetings and workshops are also essential, particularly at the formative stages of community development. It is also good practice to continue such meetings at regular intervals to maintain enthusiasm and involvement.
Whether community activities are virtual or face-to-face, it’s vital to retain a sense of fun to ensure involvement and build the enthusiasm required to sustain initial efforts. Competitions are a powerful tool that can cut across technical and experience silos. Arup’s Structural Skills Community ran a bridge-builder competition last year. Although it was primarily aimed at targeting the younger structural engineers, the initiative managed to engage and enthuse many of the more experienced staff, drawing participation from a range of disciplines.
Communities tend to evolve organically, driven by a genuine desire of the people who participate to share knowledge. In an emerging community the application of knowledge shared may be speculative in nature. Consequently, the value of community activities is often undeveloped in a new community, but it becomes increasingly important to articulate that value as communities start to mature and grow. It is common for the source of value to alter over thelifecycle of the community. However, once members cease to perceive value in their participation community, activity will inevitably decline.
Arup recognises two main drivers for the formation of a community:
Market-driven communities – where a community is coerced into existence by the industry or market needs. An example of which is the ‘Extreme Events Mitigation Taskforce’ that formed following 9/11. The community evolved after client concerns required us to bring people together with the range of complementary skills needed to address a previously unknown problem. (eg, vertical transportation, structural engineering, risk, fire engineering, materials technology etc.);
Skill-driven communities – where the advance of technical knowledge in a specific sector reaches a level where it may create opportunities for new services by sharing global experience to add value. An example here is the development of capabilities in tension structures, emerging from skills in materials science, structural engineering and computer analysis.
Strategic goals of communities
Within Arup, we don’t apply formal measurements to assess the effectiveness of communities. Of foremost importance is recognition of what drives community activity and the nature of how they work. An understanding of the organic way in which they grow, people’s motivation for sharing and the essential element of trust are all critical factors towards achieving success.
In the past, we have felt little need to measure community performance. Communities have developed and thrived on trust, together with the general goodwill of participants. As the number of communities increased, however, there has been increasing recognition of the need to review community performance, to set goals and review progress. A delicate balance is required, but according to certain characteristics and stages of development, there are certain indicators that can inform the path for future development. Rather than imposing formal measures that are unlikely to apply equally to different communities, Arup prefers to assess effectiveness through open discussion to enable recognition of where they are now and where they should be in thefuture, which is driven by development objectives.
Arup recognises that its communities have different strategic intents. It is critical for some skills to be developed in the context of a specific business driver in order to shape resourcing and skills development for the business. Others focus on preserving fundamental skills in order to apply these to a range of different business areas. In reality, most networks will demonstrate a balance of these three activities, but this balance will vary.
The characteristic and functions of a skills network relate to the stage of development it has achieved through its lifecycle. As communities move through a lifecycle from initiation to maturity their focus on specific activities tends to change. In the early stages, facilitation and support is essential to ensure that momentum isn’t lost. As they continue to develop they become self-supporting.
Six broad categories (see Figure 2) of network have been identified, reflecting each network’s stage of development and strategic focus.
We use this to encourage appropriate performance of communities in the same way as our appraisal process helps to encourage appropriate behaviours of our people. The analysis is largely through discussion and debate rather than fixed measures but, in this way, community leaders are able to engage in the process and understand what is expected of them in the coming year.
Altruism versus ambition
Over the past few years, communities have migrated from an optional extra to a critical component of global business delivery. With this transition, Arup has had to explore how best to embed best practices in community development, delivery and maintenance into a global project-based organisation. At a community level, we can drive performance against organisational priorities, but communities are driven by individuals, and we must recognise the conflicts that exist when participating in communities.
It is important to recognise that teams and communities have different priorities. Over management of communities to the extent that they are treated like teams is a sure route to failure. What holds them together is a common sense of purpose and a real need to know what each other knows. What sets these apart from teams is that communities are defined by knowledge rather than task. Nonetheless, there is a risk that task-based pressures will inhibit community involvement and may undermine our ability to share best practice.
Given that our communities cut across business and geographies, participation has traditionally been more about altruism than ambition – a behaviour implied and indeed expected by the culture of Arup. In the early stages of community activity, this was sufficient, and people became involved because they enjoyed sharing experiences and learning lessons from their peers. In many ways, this is a cultural matter – a need to reinforce that many activities (although of value ultimately to the firm) will be a task in addition to workers day jobs. There is, therefore, a need to recognise the different demands of teams and communities, and to actively encourage the development of appropriate behaviours.
Our communities need to encourage a range of behaviours. We need to ensure that our experts are willing to teach others, to share best practices and to provide bespoke advice when asked. We also need to ensure that our client-facing staff demonstrate an eagerness to learn from experts, to find answers from within our best practices, but also to know their limits and ask for help. For leadership of communities, a combination of different skills is required. Some benefit without actively participating, but others observe, actively participate, facilitate or indeed lead. From a network-leadership perspective within Arup, we have found that a variety of leadership forms emerge within an individual network. These have included a political leader (to gain funding and support), inspirational leader (to enthuse and engage knowledge workers), activity leaders (to drive performance) and technical leaders (to assure quality of content).
It is rare to find all of these qualities in one person, but the leadership of a community needs to blend these behaviours from different people to be effective. The balance of these roles is significant – all are visible in the best communities, and we have found their absence to be a good way of planning improvements to under-performing communities. Of all these qualities, we have found that the two most critical are activity and technical leadership – people demonstrating these elements are vital to developing and maintaining an active community, and if such people are absent the community may well be theoretically valuable, but it will never realise its full potential in practice.
Whilst voluntary participation remains the ideal, we have now also embedded community participation into our appraisal process to ensure that appropriate behaviours are recognised and rewarded. As ever, however, we fall short of mandating community involvement and recognise that sustained success results from creating a network of communities that fit people’s interests, match clients’ business needs and facilitate business delivery. We consistently seek to link community performance to what motivates people – make them effective and fun and people will want to be involved.
Agilty for the future
Arup recognises that to compete effectively in the future we will have to demonstrate:
Consistency in established markets, and;
Continual innovation to provide answers to ever more complex design challenges.
Organisations will have to be ruthlessly efficient, but also agile in reinventing themselves to exploit new opportunities. Communities within Arup are increasingly seen as an essential tool for delivering the full impact of our global skills base to local clients. Rather than our skills developing in local silos, communities help to support innovation by bringing people together to review complex designs, and to help deliver efficiency by sharing complex calculations in the most accessible manner.
We have also seen that communities have become a low-risk way of exploring new business areas, allowing a group to form and explore possibilities before taking our services to market. In the sculpture market in the UK, a small community has grown to provide a global capability that has contributed to projects such as the Angel of the North with Anthony Gormley and the Marsyas sculpture at the Tate Modern. There is considerable potential to take this model further, with communities helping us to take a broader view of skills, bringing together multiple interests to explore the potential for business growth.
For Arup to thrive in future, we rely on continual reinvention, continuously combining existing skills into new capabilities that can create value for clients. New capabilities need to emerge rapidly both in response to market needs and by pushing new products and services to the market. This will occur by mobilising and combining skills from across the organisation and beyond. To make this happen, organisations like Arup will have to network better than ever before, sharing knowledge globally – both within organisations and between them – such that knowledge can be applied to add value to clients. Internally, communities within organisations will enable combinations of skills to deliver new capabilities. By participating in external communities organisations will be able to supplement their existing knowledge base with business insights from competitors, clients and other industries. Such communities will help us to listen, understand and better articulate clients’ problems to provide informed solutions and anticipate client and market needs in the future.
Our future business will have to compete in a connected world where knowledge flows readily. We have already seen considerable growth in the availability of answers on Google, or open source content in weblogs and wikis. Communities are a critical vehicle as they can collectively perceive the value of knowledge and recognise how it can be applied to the benefit of the business.