The Rise of the Knowledge-Driven Architect July 10, 2010Posted by randydeutsch in change, collaboration, management, questions, survival, transformation.
Tags: AIA, American Institute of Architects, evidence-based design, information, KA Connect, knowledge, Knowledge Architecture, knowledge management, knowledge-driven
In fourth grade the same dentist came to our elementary school gymnasium and showed the entire student body how to brush properly: side to side. He did not acknowledge the fact that the method had changed.
In fifth grade the dentist came to our elementary school and showed the assembled students in the gymnasium how to brush properly: in a circular motion. Again, no reference to the method changing.
Having moved on to middle school, I didn’t stick around to find out what they recommended the following year. One can easily imagine them gathered at the assembly year after year recommending another method.
This varietal display of effective brushing technique did not bode well for the dental profession. Nor, for that matter, for elementary school.
But because the gymnasium had daylight, according to researchers, I have managed to retain this vital information all of these years.
Knowledge: The Podcast
In the AIA podcast, The Knowledge Agenda: Transforming a Profession, Markku Allison AIA, ever-resourceful Resource Architect at AIA talks with Walter Hainsfurther FAIA, President at Kurtz Associates Architects, Vice President at American Institute of Architects and chair of the AIA Board Knowledge Committee, about this much-anticipated change to the profession.
Warning: This post raises as many questions as the podcast seeks to answer.
Markku fires the first shot by stating that knowledge is the most valuable asset of the architect.
In other words, defining what knowledge actually is and how is it differentiated from data and information.
And if in fact knowledge, what kind is it?
Academic knowledge (defined as what practitioners don’t find useful) or practical knowledge (defined as useless to academics.) Theoretical, logical or semantic?
Systemic or empirical?
Direct or indirect? Procedural or intuitive?
Explicit or tacit knowledge?
When Walter says in the podcast that we gain much of our knowledge anecdotally – through habit, similar to oral history – is this just another way of saying much of our knowledge is tacit, which is by definition highly personal and hard to formalize, making it difficult to communicate or share with others? Will doing-away with our anecdotal approach to design and building impact our tacit learning and implicit sharing of knowledge?
And is this all just a new way of reformulating the architect’s special burden of proof? That we design subjectively but explain and justify rationally? However ill-advised and indefensible, since architecture is both an art and a science, it is something most great architects have practiced for millennia.
Architects’ Ways of Knowing
It may just be a case that architects know what they know in ways that can’t be served by a giant, knowledge-filled clearinghouse.
Anyone who has recently read one of the four extant versions and editions of How Designers Think by Bryan Lawson (which shamefully is almost no one) will be familiar with his companion piece, What Designers Know, exploring and detailing the knowledge that architects work with, how they use this knowledge, whether design knowledge is special and where design knowledge comes from. It’s a life-changing good read.
The bottom line is that architects – by training and experience – gain knowledge in multiple ways: by way of drawings, site visits and travel, interactions with computer software, increasingly with the internet and through late night caffeine-fueled conversations. Not to mention learning by doing. 80% about what I know about architectural practice I know from eavesdropping on 20% of a particularly vocal project manager’s forceful, voice-carrying phone conversations earlier in my career (a vastly underrated knowledge-gaining method.)
Show Me the Data!
Knowledge in this case is based on results – not reasons. You want to design something one way – you show me the data, the metrics, the analytics.
Evidence-based design, an approach to healthcare design giving importance to design features that impact patient health, well-being, mood, and safety, as well as staff stress and safety, has a growing body of research showing that proper design of the built environment contributes to improving key outcomes. This is what clients would like to know. This area of study has gone on to impact other building types that involves creating better, more effective designs by using an approach based on evidence and outcomes rather than intuition and anecdotal information.
In the podcast, Walter alludes to there being a lot of knowledge on the web. Whether this is information or knowledge is a question worth asking. As is how much on the web is useful and how much dross.
How do we decide what knowledge to utilize in our next project? Someone – an early adopter – tries something out, returns for a post-occupancy and uploads the results.
Do you use it? What worked in Santa Cruz may not play in Peoria.
And the knowledge – in these fast-paced times – may have to be easily digestible, the equivalent of sugar-coated. How the knowledge is marketed becomes of critical importance.
How does this differ from CTRL+C: Copy, CTRL+V: Paste information out of such “knowledge guides” as Architectural Graphic Standards and Time-Saver Standards for Architectural Design Data, with contributions by world authorities and specialists reflecting essential changes and new knowledge in the field of architecture where one size never quite fits all? If you were to make a suit jacket by averaging all the suit sizes of men in Chicago it would result in a suit that fit no one.
Perhaps architects ought to Whispersync onto their Kindles, once and for all, in less than a minute for $9.99, the Architect’s Complete Knowledge Companion?
Or create a complete online source for information and insight on architectural planning, design and detailing that will get your clients the results they are looking for.
Architect’s Special Burden of Proof
Evidence-based design bases design decisions on the best available current research evidence. Just as online question and answer sites identify the best answer, one can imagine the AIA’s Knowledge Agenda site having architects vote on the best answer. Or, in lieu of democratic voting, one can imagine using something like Ask.com’s AnswerFarm™ technology – their proprietary method of crawling and extracting question/answer pairs from hundreds of thousands of sources, including user generated content, FAQ pages, news/blog articles, and structured/semi-structured data.
There are knowledge-driven organizations that emphasize the people side of knowledge management – what it takes to get employees to contribute to a knowledge system including ways to orchestrate the required culture change, explaining how organizations can move from “hoarding” knowledge to “sharing” it, building a global strategy that allows them to respond faster to client’s needs.
Architects have a special burden of proof. For it is not enough to place windows in classrooms in order to get better test scores (cited in the podcast and in a million other places.) Architects are challenged to always consider the big picture – the little clients and big clients, the paying and non-paying.
Architects knowledge is a special type of epistemology. Architects may access research knowledge but they also have designerly or tacit knowledge.
Architects acquire their knowledge in myriad and unusual ways: from magazines and blogs, webinars and lectures, reference books and websites, manufacturer’s literature, heresy and hunches. Gut punches from path-narrowing options of previous decisions and lessons learned.
At every critical juncture of a project, architects ask 4 Questions:
1. What is actual?
2. What is necessary?
3. What is desirable?
4. What is possible?
What sort of knowledge results from asking these pertinent questions?
For knowledge-driven architects to come about, what will it take for us to change our thinking? To put results and results-oriented thinking first?
We’re told again and again that natural daylight in classrooms improves knowledge retention in students and improves test scores. A study found that the use of skylights, for example, improved test scores in reading by 8.8 points and in math by 12.3 points. This translates to a 19% faster learning rate for reading and a 20% faster learning rate for math.
Whether skylights or windows, were they operable or fixed? Was this location specific? Could the students see out the windows or was the day light indirect? Were students distracted by views or were the windows largely clerestory? Was this data taken before the prevalence of classroom computers and their opportunity to create glare? Were the windows tinted or clear, south facing or north, and did this matter?
Can anyone name one result in architectural knowledge besides the daylight-to-test-score relationship or how seating arrangements at work increase performance and reduce sick days?
12 Questions the Knowledge Agenda ought to consider:
1. What will it take for architects to be able to change from a knowledge-is-power mindset to one of open-book collaboration and sharing? More importantly, will senior management be able to overcome their knowledge-is-power-trips in time to train and promote the next generation of emerging talent?
2. Will architects be able to create the culture that supports knowledge sharing before others – including their competitors – do so?
3. Will architects have the discipline to become research-driven professionals in lieu of anecdote, folk-wisdom and other subjective means of architectural justification?
4. Will 24/7 access to a shared communal knowledge base help architects to resolve technical problems quickly and make immediate, informed decisions to help solve client issues?
5. How will this knowledge be attained, retained and in what form that is usable to the vast majority of architects in the planning, design and documentation process?
6. If we can agree that architects gain knowledge, at least in part, tacitly, and that tacit knowledge is highly personal and hard to formalize, making it difficult to communicate or share with others, then how exactly will this knowledge be stored and made accessible for architects to download and share?
7. The AIA all-too-well understands just how diverse the make-up of the profession is. As Bryan Lawson points out “It is quite possible to find two people who call themselves architects and yet hardly share any of their daily tasks.” Will the shared knowledge made available to architects take this inherent diversity in mind?
8. Is this idea of a knowledge clearinghouse the equivalent of building one big, loosely organized planetary brain for the architecture profession? Would the site serve much the way as Robert Wright recently proposed, where the point of evolution (in this case of the profession) is to create social brains and to weave them into a big brain?
9. If architects are being nudged, encouraged or prompted to share knowledge with one another – how far do we take it? Shouldn’t we also then share information with our professional counterparts, including interior designers and construction managers? Or will the big brain be card-carrying members-only? Or is this what Markku meant when, in the podcast, he says the outcome will be “a stronger focus on research, higher degrees of rigor and validating the resources of knowledge available to the profession and others?”
10. Is it fair to say that the web contains information and by collecting it we store knowledge? If true, then let’s stop saying that the internet contains lots of knowledge.
11. Data, information, knowledge and understanding all relate to the past: what has been and what is known. Architects must certainly acknowledge the past and address present needs, but as innovators, we must focus on the future. Had architects through time only utilized past knowledge there would have been few of what we enjoy and take for granted today: innovations of our built environment.
12. Is this really just another way of saying Albert Einstein’s oft-quoted “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand”?
But then again, in order to recall this, you would have to know that.