Thursday, September 29, 2011

Watch Your Language, or DAM It

Let’s wrap up our serialization of Doris Pulsifer’s article, “Watch Your Language: Five Information Management Terms I’d Like to Replace.” Doris has shown why terms such as “archive” and “document type” do a disservice to the ideas those terms represent.

Today we will pick on “document management,” a term that made sense in the dusty past of the 1990s, but is out of date today.

Term No. 5: “document management” is really “digital asset management”

Paper-based definition: “Document management” was really about keeping track of all project documentation (e.g. drawings and specifications) through basic workflow management. Documents were worked on sequentially. People took turns revising drafts of letters and issuing updated copies of plans.

Digital 1.0 definition: Workflow engines captured the rules set to govern the linear sequencing for handling paper-based documents. However, because businesses must constantly adapt to changes in staff, priorities and external forces such as economic conditions, rules often become obsolete as quickly as they’re formulated.

Digital 2.0 definition: Databases allow information to flow between people and departments as needed, without the restrictions of a strict sequence. The term digital asset management, which until now has been relegated to the management of images and video files only, actually deserves a much larger definition. This macro definition of digital asset management encompasses all of the knowledge captured in the firm’s global repository. Use of this knowledge evolves as the business evolves.

Note that experts in digital asset management – DAM – treat it as a broad-based term applicable to all digital files, not just to pictures and videos. This perspective is not surprising, given that all people understand the importance of their work more than the world usually does.

Similarly, Doris asks us to recognize that common terms corral our thinking along common lines, and that uncommon success demands that we think in broader terms.

Doris Pulsifer, the leader of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s knowledge management team, published “Watch Your Language” at the website of the American Institute of Architects.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Navigating Fragmented (yet Connected) Knowledge

Collaboration is essential for society to move forward. So says Matt Ridley in a Wall Street Journal article From Phoenicia to Hayek to the ‘Cloud’ this past weekend (

Here’s a little piece of what he had to say:

“Human technological advancement depends not on individual intelligence but on collective idea sharing, and it has done so for tens of thousands of years. Human progress waxes and wanes according to how much people connect and exchange.”

Whenever merchant ships plied the Mediterranean Sea in past eras, the entire region prospered. But when trade was disrupted due to marauding pirates or the Dark Ages, social progress faltered and often even moved in reverse. The self-isolation of China and North Korea contributed in no small part to their people missing out on revolutionary developments that swept the rest of the world.

Sure, this is an oversimplification. Bubonic plague and brutal political regimes certainly play key roles in these historic shifts. But haven’t you experienced this idea firsthand when a workgroup comes up with an idea that none of you could have dreamed of alone? The organic interaction of teamwork and the contribution of each person’s knowledge create something larger, something inherently more valuable than any solitary effort.

I am reminded of efforts to trap “corporate knowledge” inside Lessons Learned databases, or to lock up project information in tightly-controlled ERP systems. In this article, Ridley refers to economist Friedrich Hayek’s theories when he says that central control of knowledge is futile because true value is found in “a distributed and fragmented system of localized but connected knowledge.”

This is an apt description of Newforma Project Center. NPC is an unobtrusive tool that helps teams find the knowledge that already lives within the interactions between team members: email conversations, design evolution contained in updated drawings, decisions recorded in meeting minutes. The information may be dispersed around the network in various formats, but NPC can find it and show the context that gives it value. Newforma Project Network takes this discovery a step further by facilitating the connections between the companies that form the full project team.

Cumbersome, structured document management systems are destined to drain the life out of project teams. We need to let our project information breathe and give our teams space to interact and connect.

Then we can trust Newforma to be the tool that explores "the space between." Between our companies, between our people, between our brains--this is where the magic takes place!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bar bets and knowledge management

In 2009, Google surmised that smartphone users were whipping out their iPhones to settle bets over such diverse topics as which body part is most amputated, who starred in what movie and how many ounces are in a half pint. They dubbed this search trend the Bar Bet Phenomenon.

This trend bodes well for the future of AEC knowledge management. Seriously.

Think of it: For knowledge to be propagated in an architecture, engineering or construction firm, people need to be in the habit of searching for information they do not already possess.

Imagine you are working on a stairwell for a school in Poughkeepsie. Imagine you need to know the fire code or lighting specifications or structural steel load capacity. If someone in your company has already documented the answer to your question, you can cut your workload by opening that intelligent file and reaping the harvest of its knowledge.

This is the sort of thing Doris Pulsifer thinks about in her role as leader of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s knowledge management team. I’ve been revisiting her article, “Watch Your Language: Five Information Management Terms I’d Like to Replace,” and this week’s installment addresses the topic of bar be—I mean, knowledge management.

Term No. 4: “central filing system” is really a “global repository”

Paper-based definition: The central file was the place office librarians created to store anything and everything that came their way. Once filed, information was unlikely to ever again see the light of day, because so few people knew where the information existed, and it was hard to retrieve if you were anyone other than the librarian!

Digital 1.0 definition: To replace the central filing room, document management systems create digital vaults – highly structured electronic filing repositories – to store corporate information and control access. Users were required to follow strict filing hierarchies to allow information to be retrieved when needed. The firm’s knowledge was safely locked away!

Digital 2.0 definition: Good search trumps good filing. When you have flexible tagging and index-based search capabilities, anyone in the office can – and will – benefit from the collective knowledge of your organization by searching a global repository for whatever information they happen to need at the moment, just as they might ask a colleague, “What do you know about this challenge I’m facing?” Importantly, information is no longer restricted to those who already had knowledge of it. Instead, it benefits everyone in the organization and can be re-used to help advance the business.

The key to recycling knowledge in a firm, then, is good search capabilities – and the habit of using them to seek not just what you’ve forgotten, but what you never knew! Doing so could help you win more than bets.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Expanding our reach to the Middle East

Rob Kirk joins the Newforma roster as business development manager for the Middle East and knows firsthand the blood, sweat and tears of being a former practicing architect and project manager.

Rob’s worked on his share of notable projects including the Centro Hotels by Rotana brand, the Bahrain City Centre and Index Building (shown below), and the Mall of the Emirates (shown below) but just as important is Rob’s project delivery experience. He’s dealt with the tedious, frustrating and often confrontational aspects of project work and as a result is a huge fan of Newforma (which I’m sure helped him in the hiring process!)

Rob recently commented that “Newforma differs from other systems I’ve used because you get all the benefits of accessibility to project information without having to do much up front. You have all this information at your finger tips so you can make better use of it; you become more knowledgeable about the project, make more informed decisions and produce better designs. And here in the Middle East it’s not unusual to have project teams spread across not only different countries but often different continents. As you can imagine this creates unique challenges making an effective PIM solution even more important.”

Rob is based in the United Arab Emirates and is responsible for the Middle East-North Africa region. It’s not all work and no play though for Rob. He loves spending time with his two children enjoying outdoor activities including sailing, windsurfing, and relaxing at the beach in Dubai (who wouldn’t, it’s gorgeous!) Contact Rob via the Newforma Middle East website at and welcome him aboard!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Adding Humanity Through Connectedness

In the grizzled world of construction, I get used to conversations being extremely pragmatic and matter-of-fact. So one reason that I enjoy Lean Construction Institute’s workshops is that I’m challenged to re-examine how project teams interact. And sometimes these discussions can even strike an emotional chord for me.

Just such an occurrence happened last week at the CURT/LCI Summit in Buffalo when Will Lichtig of The Boldt Company opened the session with an overview of Lean Construction’s main principles. I’ve heard these ideas several times before, so it should have been a simple review for me…a time to slurp down my second cup of coffee before we got to the meat of the day.

Suddenly I heard Will talking about the idea of “Increased Relatedness,” and it actually tugged on my heartstrings! I’m paraphrasing Will, who was quoting someone else:
“In our projects today, so often teams start out as complete strangers...and finish as perfect enemies.”
Is it possible that we could structure our projects differently to deliberately create a less adversarial environment?

We need to build true personal relationships that crisscross the self-imposed boundaries between companies and roles. It’s knowing each other as individuals that enables teams to weather the inevitable storms that will surely brew between the first conceptual estimate and the final punchlist item. That could be as easy (or as difficult) as front-loading the staffing of a project to create time for the team to gel as a unit before the pace gets frenetic.

So to shift back from the metaphysical to the practical, I wonder if a piece of software (like Newforma Project Center) can contribute to Increased Relatedness. Sure, nothing can replace co-located project teams and spending hours face-to-face in the Big Room with stacks of Last Planner sticky notes. But more often teams are coming together from multiple companies, geographies and time zones.

I believe that technology can play a large role in shrinking those distances, creating networks between co-workers, and smoothing the bumps in the road. Then we are able to concentrate more energy on building the authentic relationships that are the secret sauce to any high performing team.

Here at Newforma we'll be keeping Increased Relatedness top-of-mind to drive more humanity back into the most basic of human interactions: teamwork!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Tech 2.0 phenomenon, or chuck that paper and give me electrons

Software predictably takes us through two stages of whatever task we’re trying to accomplish. The first stage replicates tasks we were performing with paper. The second stage allows us to perform tasks that would only be possible with electrons.

Consider software used to design structures. Initially, computer-aided design software replicated drawing as it was being done on paper or mylar. But now it is likely you are using software that permits you to design in three dimensions. Try that with paper!

A similar progression is happening with the software used to manage project information. You might start by using it to file email electronically, rather than print emails and file them in drawers. But before long you’re using it to view product documents and manage action items in the field, using your smartphone. You just could not do those tasks with paper.

SOM’s Doris Pulsifer thinks about these sorts of issues a lot, and wrote about it in an article at, “Watch Your Language: Five Information Management Terms I’d Like to Replace.” She takes the position that our language can prevent us from discovering and utilizing these Tech 2.0 advancements, and proposes some changes to overcome that barrier.

I've been posting excerpts from Doris’ article here at the Newforma Blog. Here's term No. 3: “project folders” are really the “project repository.”

Paper-based definition: A project folder originated as a manila folder that served as a single location in which to aggregate any and all information that pertained to a specific project. Hard-copy duplicates were made when information needed to be used for different purposes or by different people.

Digital 1.0 definition: Digital files are saved in an electronic folder with, not surprisingly, graphic icons that look like manila folders! As with paper-based information, digital files require correct filing for future retrieval. Typically, far too many duplicate copies of those files exist in multiple locations on the company’s computer network.

Digital 2.0 definition: The project repository embraces all project information wherever it resides, whether in drawings, documents, emails or their attachments. Using project information management (PIM) technology, people who need subsets of information from the project repository can assemble collections of project-related files in “virtual” folders. SOM has adopted a PIM solution that supports this concept of virtual folders in the form of document sets.

This expanded thinking is highly utilitarian in an age when project teams and the files they’re manipulating are scattered across time zones. A project repository does not depend on physical colocation.

I’ll post another of Doris’ observations next week. Or see the full article here.

Doris Pulsifer leads the Knowledge Management department at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM).

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Why a “document type” is really an “intelligent file”

More from Doris Pulsifer’s article at the “Practicing Architecture” area of, “Watch Your Language: Five Information Management Terms I’d Like to Replace.” Doris leads the Knowledge Management department at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), so she’s always thinking about information and the ways people turn it into knowledge.

Term No. 2: “document type” is really an “intelligent file”

Paper-based definition: Documents were all on paper and their “type” was defined by the role they played. Quick notes to share with offices or teams were memoranda. Correspondence with clients and external team members took place via letters. Drawings on large sheets of paper were plans.

Digital 1.0 definition: First-generation digital files mimicked their paper origins, replacing letters with DOC files, memos with e-mails, drawings with DWG files, and so on. These file types were still defined by their purpose and output, because most often they would be printed or plotted.

Digital 2.0 definition: Intelligent files are complex file types which accept embedded file types such as pictures, tables, nested drawings or hyperlinks – even movies! Architects can embed specifications, material types and properties inside a drawing file, engineers can assign values and embed calculations. In order to capitalize on the new possibilities at hand, we need to start thinking of a file as being an “intelligent container” – an intelligent file – rather than a specific document type.

Note the last sentence above: In order to capitalize on the new possibilities at hand, we need to start thinking of a file as being an ‘intelligent container’ – an intelligent file – rather than a specific document type.” Doris is saying that the language we use to describe something influences the way we use it. Do you agree?

Could calling a file a document limit its use to the ways we may use paper? People may not put pictures in a paper document, nor link to information on the web. So we may not think to do so even when that document exists as electrons, and may never be printed on paper.

’ll explore this idea further in coming posts.