posted 24 Nov 2006 in Volume 10 Issue 3
Case study: PRP Architects
Building KM brick by brick
PRP Architects needed to develop a knowledge-management strategy to help it cope with continued growth.
By Cathy Blake
Increasingly, the most progressive organisations are recognising that they need to differentiate themselves not only in the way in which they handle knowledge but, more importantly, how they recycle and re-use the knowledge that resides within the organisation.
In 2004, PRP Architects (PRP) acknowledged that need by appointing its first-ever knowledge manager, with responsibility for devising a knowledge management (KM) strategy and, following on from that, implementing the tools and techniques to support that strategy within the practice.
PRP was originally founded in 1963 as Phippen Randall and Parks – hence the name – but converted from a partnership-based organisation into a registered limited company in 1992 to facilitate growth.
Today, PRP has more than 320 staff based in four offices across the UK – in London, Surrey in the South East, Milton Keynes in the Midlands and Manchester in the North West – with an annual turnover in excess of £20 million in 2004/5. While architecture remains its core discipline, the skills and services it offers have grown enormously, to encompass all aspects of design and planning, including architecture, town planning, master-planning, sustainability, project management, urban design, landscape architecture, technical services and even interior design.
PRP is currently responsible for some 3,000 residential units, together with healthcare, education, mixed use, commercial and leisure projects.
The original vision for PRP’s KM programme was straightforward enough: the implementation of a systematic approach to KM enabling the organisation to differentiate itself from its competitors and help to create value for the business.
Key drivers for the KM programme included:
- The need to become a learning organisation by disseminating information to the right people at the right time;
- The desire to develop greater connectivity between people with similar business interests;
- The importance of better communication of feedback, best practice and lessons learnt from PRP projects;
- The need to create and inform staff of learning opportunities.
A whole programme of KM projects, both large and small, have been developed to meet these objectives.
Some have required significant investment, such as the implementation of an electronic data management system (EDMS), while others involve incremental improvements to existing systems, such as the intranet, adding new features and functions to help people do their jobs better or more efficiently.
Others have yet to be implemented, but are lined up ready for roll-out when the time is right. This case study will highlight just a few practical examples of KM being successfully implemented within PRP.
Knowledge management is often described as a ‘journey’ along which organisations travel, and PRP has only been travelling down this route for two years. There is still much to do, therefore, but it has already proved to be an exciting and rewarding way forward...
When embarking on a KM programme within any organisation it is essential to have a thorough knowledge and understanding of the business and, more importantly, the culture of the organisation. As with many change initiatives, one approach is not necessarily appropriate for all organisations. It is not necessarily what is being proposed but how it is proposed and implemented that is key to success. The following three examples demonstrate how PRP has applied KM to three specific initiatives intended to help staff:
1. Find people;
2. Find information;
3. Connect people.
Skills and expertise
People finders or ‘Yellow Pages’ are repeatedly cited as one of the most important KM tools that an organisation can provide on its intranet, but at PRP all we had was a mere phone list.
We carried out a staff survey to establish what employees thought of the intranet, how they used it and what could be improved. One of the key findings (perhaps not unsurprisingly) was that this phone list was nevertheless regarded as the most useful tool – that was no surprise as we already knew that it was one of the most used features of the intranet.
The phone list merely enabled staff to search for a name and find their relevant office contact details. That was all very well when the company was small, but with an increasing number of staff in the four different offices, alongside a rapidly diversifying portfolio of work and expertise, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find the most appropriate person to contact.
The results of the survey uncovered the fact that listing contact details via a phone list had, quite simply, become too basic a resource. What staff needed was a phone directory that could also provide additional information about colleagues, ranging from their skills and expertise, to their biography and previous projects and experience.
In response, in conjunction with the human resource department, we established a database of staff skills and expertise, including professional, IT and language skills. We asked people to indicate what level they had attained (basic, a thorough knowledge, or expert). This functionality was added to the phone list and is presented on a ‘person profile’ that everyone can view. All new joiners to PRP complete this as part of their induction and it can be updated by individual members of staff, too.
There is also a ‘free text’ section on the people profile to add a short biography of professional experience – projects undertaken and completed, particular areas of expertise and so on – again this can be edited by individual members of staff. Finally, people can also personalise their profile by adding their hobbies.
The success of this system was graphically illustrated when we were in the latter stages of testing. An ‘all staff ’ e-mail was sent by our chairman asking if there was anyone in the company who could speak Russian and whether they could therefore assist on a particular project.
Normally, such pleas for help would either be ignored or the sender would be inundated with well-meaning e-mails, but not quite the straightforward answer the sender wanted. However, our new search engine revealed in seconds that we did, indeed, have a Russian speaker in the office – and not only that, but who he was and where he could be found, too. Such a demonstration certainly helped to illustrate the value of the system to senior management.
The survey also indicated that staff wanted an intranet that was easier to navigate. Staff felt that the information provided was not presented in a suitably user-friendly format and wanted an improved appearance and a search-engine facility that would make the intranet and directory easier to navigate. We therefore ran some workshops to establish how the presentation of search results could be improved and we now offer a variety of formats, including:
- A drop down menu giving selections by office, directors, associate directors and associates;
- Search results shown in test format, that is to say, a list showing name, number, office and position;
- Search results displaying mini-details – giving the same information as above, but including a photograph;
- Search results showing photographs only;
- All results sorted alphabetically or by role.
The search engine
We also wanted a full-text search to be available in addition to a simple name search. This would make it possible for staff to find people even if they did not know their name or if they needed to speak to someone with particular expertise. For example, if someone needs to find an EcoHomes ratings assessor, they can now search using the term ‘EcoHomes’. This search function proved so useful that we extended it to the whole intranet.
The key to the success of this project was to identify the areas most in need of improvement by asking the staff – even if it was obvious to the knowledge manager – and to fully engage the staff in developing and testing the solutions prior to launch.
Where’s that information?
Our marketing manager is often asked questions like, ‘Do you have that profile for that project we did two years ago? You know, the one with the postman on the cover.’ Our marketing manager has worked for PRP for many years and no doubt knows exactly what this person wants and where to find it – almost instantly. However, what happens if he wins the lottery and abruptly leaves?
We have more than 600,000 files on our servers, stored in more than 77,000 folders. Uncovering the required information in this environment is a challenge. We wanted to make information easier to find and to reduce the amount of paper we consumed printing documents, particularly e-mail correspondence, which contributed up to one-third of PRP’s filing volume.
What PRP needed was an EDMS to reduce its dependence on paper files, not to mention the memories of long-serving staff. We researched a number of systems on the market and decided that Microsoft SharePoint Server best suited our business needs.
So where to start? An EDMS requires significant investment, not only in terms of the upfront capital cost, but also the resources required for implementation. Our approach was to identify the largest ‘pain point’ experienced by staff and to develop an appropriate system to ease that pain with a phased implementation intended to minimise upheaval:
Phase one – Implement a search engine on the intranet;
Phase two – Establish a taxonomy for all PRP electronic information;
Phase three – Develop and implement an EDMS for e-mail;
Phase four – Implement an EDMS for all electronic documents;
Phase five – Conduct a feasibility study on document scanning;
Phase six – Executive dashboard. Scope to be defined.
Phase one – Implement a search engine on the intranet
The benefits of this have already been discussed. We began on a small scale with the EDMS project, as this involved only a handful of people and would serve as a technology review to assess the integration of the software with our existing systems without having a detrimental impact on staff. It also helped our IT people familiarise themselves with the technology and the potential pitfalls we might encounter in future phases. This approach has enabled us to understand the timescales required and gave us confidence in the technology solution we selected.
Phase two – Establish a taxonomy for all PRP electronic information
Our approach to this was to run a series of workshops facilitated by a consultant to inform staff of the taxonomy concept, followed by live sessions looking for real documents. We noted how staff searched for information and spent time researching how they really filed their information, both electronically and in hard copy. This formed the basis for our taxonomy development work. This work was completed earlier this year. However, we recognise that the taxonomy will need to be constantly refined and that this needs to be managed to prevent individual systems re-appearing.
Phase three – Develop and implement an EDMS for e-mail
Currently, e-mails for projects get printed, the action taken recorded and then filed in the project file. A well-developed EDMS will enable this process to go electronic, reducing the amount of e-mail that is printed out and improving efficiency in the process. This phase is currently in progress and we are collaborating with a consultant to develop the system, testing each stage prior to implementation.
Phase four – Implement an EDMS for all electronic documents
Following the completion of phase three, we expect to be ready to implement the solution across all our electronic documentation. This will enable anybody in the practice to find information without having to be familiar with the structure of 77,000 individual folders.
Phase five – Conduct a feasibility study on document scanning
Having put our own house in order with respect to document management, we are going to review how we deal with incoming documentation. The use of scanning and workflow software solutions will be assessed.
Phase six – The dashboard
The vision is that each individual member of staff within the practice will have their own knowledge ‘dashboard’ on their computer. The dashboard will be personalised to provide access to relevant information such as ‘my projects’ and reminders of actions to be taken using workflow technology. The full extent of this phase has yet to be defined.
It was imperative from the inception of the organisation’s KM strategy in 2004 that we would need to be clear on the improvements that could be made and the benefits that staff could enjoy as a result. Technology for its own sake would not succeed in an environment as individual as an architectural practice. Also, we were aware of the need to avoid the temptation of apparently quick fixes, tempting though they were, not to mention the ever-present pressure to move a project on before either the staff or the organisation were ready.
Quick fixes often require continual maintenance, which can be a wasteful drain on resources. It will have taken us about 18 months to implement the chosen EDMS within the organisation, having been careful to try and meet staff requirements as closely as possible by consulting them at every stage in the project.
Got something to say? Perhaps you want to share it with the office? PRP’s lunchtime continuing professional development (CPD) presentations give staff and others the opportunity to share knowledge face to face. It also provides an example of a KM-like activity that PRP was operating well before it had a defined KM strategy. It is an example of old-fashioned common sense.
The CPD concept stands in contrast to the technology-centric (intranet and EDMS) projects within our KM programme. But PRP is a peoplecentric organisation and connecting staff through knowledge sharing will always be a key activity. The CPD presentations are conducted once a week in each of our four offices during lunchtime. Food is provided (which is an added attraction) and everybody is invited to attend by the CPD co-ordinator to share in the experience.
There is a rich variety of knowledge-sharing activity on offer, from individuals who have been on trips overseas who want to share their experience of a country’s architecture and culture, to staff updates provided on the latest building regulation changes. Presentations can be given by staff, external consultants, product manufacturers and industry experts. The informal atmosphere created by hosting the events in our café areas promotes discussion and knowledge exchange.
To support the CPD concept, PRP has appointed CPD co-ordinators in each of its four offices. Their role is to book the events and to advertise them. Advertising is done by a combination of posters pinned up in the office, to the promotion of the events on the corporate intranet.
PRP is committed to its knowledge management strategy and this case study highlights just a few of the projects the organisation is implementing. I am reminded of a quote from naturalist Charles Darwin. He wrote: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
I believe that the implementation of a robust knowledge management strategy and programme can help an organisation to become more adaptable to the ever-changing competitive environment in which all businesses operate today.
Cathy Blake is knowledge manager at PRP Architects. She can be contacted by e-mail, email@example.com.