Cultivating a learning-based culture

by Michelle Mantegna

The ability to quickly access information and identify who knows what—and who needs to know what—can mean the difference between life and death in medical situations. To this point, the healthcare industry relies on patient records and charts to track and manage individual care. It’s a holistic approach where no one person is responsible for “knowing” it all. Rather, many hospitals use sophisticated knowledge management systems that capture information from all subject matter experts in one place.

Similarly, in architecture the difference between a successful and unsuccessful design project can be the team’s ability to draw on each other’s experience. Like medicine, our field is comprised of experts, generalists, and everything in between. The design documents we develop are our most common means to capture critical information, but even the best drawing sets can only portray a moment in time. For example, how many different setups must a certain operating room allow for? If the bathroom in a hospital room moves from the headwall to the footwall, how does that affect the patient’s likelihood of falling? The answer to these complex questions requires experienced evaluation across a huge range of criteria, from technical to operational factors. We turn to our experts for help.

At Shepley Bulfinch we are invested in developing people and playing to our individual and shared strengths—fostering a culture of mentorship and leadership. In doing so, we’ve realized how important it is to have a clear knowledge management system and transfer of information that is wide and deep. Spearheaded by Jim Martin, vice president and CIO, several members of the Healthcare Practice Group (HPG) have led an initiative to help systematize, synthesize, and share knowledge within the practice.

Starting with Healthcare Principal Jennifer Aliber, FAIA, FACHA, we conducted a series of leadership interviews to create a set of criteria clearly outlining tasks we do on a regular basis. The collection includes: How to ask “dumb” questions, How to prepare for a user group meeting, and What to look for in a client walk-through. The goal of these guidelines is to help build firm-wide expertise, consistency, and grow the next generation of leaders in an efficient, easy-to-use system.

To reinforce the tool, HPG has added fun, interactive training including a book club featuring Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, and “I Spy” simulation games where photos are flashed on a screen, and viewers use the guidelines to identify items that could be resolved through design. Informal gatherings like these not only create opportunities for team members to further share and exchange information, but also provide the opportunity to exercise skills in a non-threatening, low-risk situation.

Knowledge surfaces through dialog. By building an infrastructure that supports engagement, both our firm and our clients benefit—faster delivery of construction documents, enhanced relationships, ample innovation and creativity, and informed solutions. Just like in medicine, the expert may not always be in the room, but it takes a village to deliver care. The same is true to produce careful design, which is why we’re cultivating a learning-based culture.