A/E Firm

Architecture and Engineering firm. Often includes interior designers and in larger firms, landscape architects.

“What Content?”- An opportunity for firms, use the fourth key to unlock the secrets of a quality education program.

Firms that are serious about professional development can use the fourth key as a framework for ensuring that their staff receives quality professional education. Firms are in a unique position in that they often are the source of knowledge; they have the subject matter experts (SME). This positions the firm as the leader and potential source of content. They are an excellent source to develop project based courses built from lessons learned from their own projects. At a minimum, these studies can be used in mentoring programs and establishing a firm culture of learning.

Let me begin with small firms, I define this as any firm with under 25 staff. Smaller firms should collaborate; work with other similar firms or even some client firms. When it comes to professional development your firm will benefit more if you cooperate with other firms on mutual interest topics. Remember, there is strength in numbers. Individuals from small firms usually rely on trade and professional association meetings, workshops, and conferences for much of their education. This is a great source for broad based professional education and includes the added benefit of networking. But for a more focused approach of obtaining education that is also related to addressing your business needs consider setting up some type of education “collective”. As a collective you increase the number of eyes that are scanning for that reliable source of new continuing education content and materials that is right for your business. The source of the education content may now be internal from anyone within the collective, or external as is common, or a blend of both.

It should be noted that all successful continuing education programs develop a systematic approach to identify, obtain and monitor the quality of the education material, how it is processed, designed, developed and delivered. A consistent approach to how the content follows a process flow enables the firm to establish and maintain checks and balances. As a firm grows in size, more effort should be placed on establishing a work flow process that monitors these elements.

There are a multitude of education formats and delivery models from which a firm can choose. According to ASTD, in 2010 for the first time in history the number of online education courses had passed the number of traditional classroom style courses. So ask, which model is best for the firm and the clients that they are trying to serve? (Yes, include your clients s some of your internal education activities).

“What Content?”- The fourth key to unlocking the secrets of a quality education program.

Photo on Flickr by cogdogblog Alan Levine

The fourth key to unlocking the secrets of an a quality education program for an organization is for the organization to develop a systematic approach that will identify the appropriate subject matter content and support a consistent work flow process. Regardless of the type of organization, the organization will need to have a reliable source of new content and materials to be in a position to offer a supply of continuing education courses. The source of the education content may be internal, external or a blend of both. Successful continuing education programs develop a systematic approach to identifying, obtaining and monitoring the quality of the education material, how it is processed, designed, developed and delivered. A consistent approach to how the content follows a process flow enables the organization to establish and maintain a quality checks and balances.

There are a multitude of education formats and delivery models from which an organization can choose. Which one is best for the organization and the customers that they are trying to serve? Developing clear course learning objectives, when done at the beginning of the process and when done properly will guide the education administrators in selecting the appropriate subject matter experts (SME), the best course design and format, and the most effective delivery method for a course. When this process is repeated following an established yet flexible system the quality of the overall program increases. If there are any special requirements such as CEU’s, ILU’s license or certification standards that need to be met then it is critical to insure that the system checks to insure that they requirements are matched.

The established system can be as simple as a check list or as complex as a sophisticated computer metrics. The organization administrators can determine what works best for them, as long as they establish a system.

The third key to a quality education program for product manufacturers

A great opportunity for product manufacturers in the architect/engineer/construction (A/E/C) and design industry is to provide product and service education to the professionals in the industry. This opportunity is most frequently offered on site at the professional’s office. Less often the product manufacturer will offer their education courses on site at a local chapter of the professional such as the American Society for Interior Design (ASID), or Construction Specification Institute (CSI), or the American Institute of Architects (AIA). And like the associations, the third key to unlocking the secrets of a quality education program: planning and performance projection. If the product manufacturer offers education to professionals they are likely to have commitment and support of senior management. Based upon how the product manufacturer do an education needs assessment and analysis, that results will greatly determine the actual education product that they deliver.

The product manufacturer should plan their short term education goals at a minimum of two to three years. Creating, changing or adjusting education programs in today’s economy will take at least 2 – 3 years before you begin to see the serious results programmatically or financially. Since the product manufacturer will incorporate sales projections into their goals, they should include additional time to what would be considered short term return on investment (ROI). Product manufacturers such as CertainTeed, USG, and Custom Building Products offer excellent examples of how developing comprehensive quality education programs built around the needs of the professionals they serve also helped the companies achieve sales objectives. These three companies designed courses based upon needs assessments that helped professionals understand the right product to use and under the right conditions to reach the maximum results. Better installation of products equated to more satisfied customers. Each of these companies created multiple interrelated courses which evolved into a comprehensive, award winning education program. These companies built in a continuing process and a system that provided them with the flexibility and ability to make course adjustments over the years.

Firms find the third key to unlocking the secrets of a quality education program

Professional firms would not consider skipping planning and performance projection when developing their business operations. Why then do firms suddenly forget this critical element when it comes to the development of their staff? Just like a business, the third key to unlocking the secrets of a quality education program is planning and performance projection. To get to this level we must assume that senior management is committed to the development of their staff and are willing to support internal efforts. And that firms use the same sound business practice of developing measurable short and long-term goals with performance projections when setting the firm’s education goals.

Firms have an opportunity here to incorporate education into job performance projections when developing annual staff revues. This creates a more knowledgeable staff, helps create an internal career path and, and builds a better business. Architecture firms such as FreemanWhite Inc., HOK, and Cannon Design have employed this approach for years to improve the skills of their staff, improve recruitment and retention, and expand their business. These firms and others like Turner Construction and Perkins + Will spent two to three years each developing measurable short term educational goals before they saw key education results. All of these firms continued on their long path toward developing quality education curriculum that support their staff and business plans.

Because the social, economic, and global environments are changing firms need to incorporate these changes and adjust education their goals. In these tough economic times it is important to develop realistic budgets to support the continuing professional development to stay competitive. Review of long term education goals need take place both prior to and during senior management’s annual strategic planning sessions.

Remember that professional education and development should not be an add-on or after thought. Take a look at the fortune 500 companies and you will note that professional education and development is incorporated into their overall business strategy. The size of the firm should only influence what resources address the solution.

The third key to unlocking the secrets of a quality education program

Photo by Brooklyn Museum on Flickr

The third key to unlocking the secrets of a quality education program include planning and performance projection. We will assume by now that you have the commitment and support of senior management. Now based upon your needs assessments and analysis it is time to develop measurable short and long-term educational goals with performance projections of key education results. The short term goals should be between one to three years. Creating, changing or adjusting education programs often take at least 2 – 3 years before you begin to see the major results programmatically or financially. Individual courses may take 6 - 18 months but entire curriculum or certificate programs need time to grow. You should have built in a continuing needs assessment process and a system that will provide you with the flexibility to make course adjustments. The better your needs assessment processes the few adjustments you should need to make – maybe.

In today’s Internet and technology environment, 3 years can be a lifetime for some products or service media’s. That stated you should still plan long term of at least 3 -5 years. Expect that the social, economic, political and education environments will change during this time period. Plan on those changes and plan on the possibility that you may have to adjust your goals. Review of long term education goals should take place both prior to and during senior management’s annual strategic planning sessions. It is important that the education program projections also tie into the overall business strategy.

Depending upon the magnitude of the education program long term plans, you should consider some to be as long as a 10 – 20 year program. The larger the audience that you are trying to affect the longer the program will take to design, plan and implement. The medical, accounting and architects set out to change the education structure for their entire professions. It took more than 20 years, and the professions are still adjusting. Higher education and government have used distant learning models for decades and even pioneered the early models of the internet in the 1980’s for education. But even these early users have to adjust to the current models of knowledge exchange via the worldwide web. Today they need a vision that looks out 10 -20 years.

“Where’s the data?” – The second key for product manufacturers to unlock for quality education

Education offered by a product manufacturer usually originates from the marketing department. From the point of view of the product manufacturer education is used as a tool to open the door to the professional’s office, to gain access and face time with the professional. As part of the marketing department, access to market research about the product is given a high priority. What is often lacking is a needs assessment related to the education development of the product based upon a systematic approach for gathering trend data related to the target market audience that the manufacturer is trying to reach. Relying upon feedback of a marketing representative (reps) is too often the only assessment that a company may use to obtain education type feedback. If this is the primary method, the company should at least train the reps as to how they should collect data so that it can be assimilated into the larger marketing research data and development of courses. It is important for the product manufacturer to determine how the needs for the education programs, products, or services are identified and how the supporting courses are developed and designed to address those needs.

“Where’s the data?” – The second key for firms to unlock for quality education

The Chief Learning Officer (CLO) or Director of Education better be prepared when the CEO or COO asks the question, “Where is the data?” The senior leadership of the firm is business oriented and generally feels uncomfortable with gut feeling reactions. The firm’s education leaders need to develop a systematic approach for gathering both external trend data and internal staff development data. Professional development within a firm should not be limited to just making employees feel good. It is critical to the success of the firm that staff professional development be focused on the firm’s strategic goals. This means that the collection of industry market trends, client needs, and staff development information all be tied together.

Christopher Clinton a landscape architecture student at the Boston Architectural College provided a thoughtful summary in a recent LinkedIn landscape architecture professional discussion group. Christopher stated, “The first of three main techniques to help facilitate an awareness of the market in relation to the firm’s strategic plan is to explore new technologies and fresh perspectives related to the firm's strategic plan such as through attending seminars, classes, discussions with other professionals from around the world online, at trade-shows or reading articles/studies. The second is feedback and conceptual discussion of internal firm design work as well as other firms design work and concepts between professionals of related fields. Third, is to take these new concepts and have group design exercises consisting of drawings/models/etc...To incorporate what is learned in the first two parts and bring a new level of raw skills to incorporate into future work.”

For firms the intended of professional education is generally for internal use of the firm’s staff. In such situations it is important to match the assessment approach to the firms’ culture, operational structure, and short and long-term strategic goals. The content outcome could relate to technical, conceptual, and/or personnel related needs. It is important to focus on the details of professional staffs’ participation in the needs assessment process. Determine how the needs for the educational program and products/services are identified, how the programs are developed and designed to address those needs.

“Where’s the data?” – The second key to unlocking the secrets of a quality education program

Photo by Dennis Crowley via Flickr

The question I always heard from superiors and peers, “Where’s the data?” I believe that the seeds for needs assessment should be planted with the establishment of the strategic goals. Early on the organization should develop a systematic approach for identifying and analyzing the educational needs that relate to the overall strategic plan. Planning and analysis are simultaneous and should be ongoing.

As defined by Wikipedia, Needs assessment is a process for determining and addressing needs, or "gaps" between current conditions and desired conditions, often used for improvement in individuals, education/training, organizations, or communities. The need can be a desire to improve current performance or to correct a deficiency.

For education and training assessments there are a growing variety of models to from which to choose. Select a model or a blend of models which most closely match your goals, operations, personnel and budget. Methods and techniques for gathering information can vary from formal focus groups, to telephone or mail surveys, to online surveys such as survey monkey. The intent should be to gather timely information to enable those in the organization to make smart decisions based upon relevant and appropriate information.

If the program is intended for internal use of the organization’s staff education then it is important to match the model to the organization’s culture, operational structure, and short and long-term education and professional development needs. The content could relate to technical, conceptual, and/or personnel related needs. It is important to focus on the details of professional staffs’ participation in the needs assessment process. Determine how the needs for the educational program and products/services are identified, how the programs are developed and designed to address those needs.

If the education program is intended for external use, the assessment should relate to the business needs, support the organizations need for delivering training; ensure training delivery design relates to customer’s needs; verifies effective performance; and provides guidance into the evaluation process.

Product Manufacturers - First key to unlocking the secrets of a quality education program

To be right up front and put it out on the table, most product manufacturers develop and offer continuing education to professionals as part of their overall marketing plan. Regardless if the professional that the product manufacturer is trying to influence is an architect, an accountant, a dentist, or a nurse, their education programs are still a major part of their marketing plan. Generally these programs are managed by the marketing and sales department. And now that I have put that out front I want to add, and that is OK, as long as the product manufacturer follows the guidelines that are set out by the professional associations and government regulatory agencies. This means that there is a commitment from the companies top management to support education when offering education to the professionals.

Every award winning product manufacturer, such as CertainTeed, Pella Windows, and Whirlpool - that incorporates continuing education into their marketing plan has support at the highest decision making levels of their business. Regardless of the size of the manufacturer, when the support from above waivers, so too does the content, quality, and delivery of the education product that the manufacturers representatives deliver in the field. To achieve a level of delivering quality product education, the company leadership must think strategically. This means that they commitment long term, through the highs and lows of the business cycles. Most product manufacturers' commit a lot of time and money to offering such programs, even poor ones. Many companies stop short of how the course is designed and delivered. Professionals should ask the questions: Was the course designed in an educational format with legitimate learning objectives? Did the design of the course include results of industry research? Were technical staffs included in providing content? Was this material vetted by the sales force to insure it is what the clients were asking for and not just a push of a product? And did the company provide a train-the-trainer course for those who were presenting and representing the company?

Committed companies are aware that there are continuing professional education requirements in place and that the professionals are relying on these courses to maintain their requirements, license and certificates. The product manufacturer is a partner in the educational process and needs to be a reliable source. Commitment to produce a reliable, quality education program from top management is the first key to success.

Firms -First key to unlocking the secrets of a quality education program

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At first glance it should be rather easy to determine if professional development and education is really supported by the firm’s leadership. The leaders from every firm that I have ever worked with say that staying in business requires that the staff is continually learning. These leaders state that they must learn just to stay current. I would agree with all of them, just by living and being exposed to new experiences – you will learn new things. Living as your learning model however does not mean that you have learned the right things or that what you learned will improve your business. And this approach to learning does not support the practice that the firm has a learning culture.

I generally divide firms into one of three categories. Most professional firms are small frequently 3- 5 persons. If a firm has less than 50 employees – which is the majority of professional firms - they are lucky be able to assign education duties to a staff member on a part time. When the firm reaches between 50 - 250 staff that part time person becomes full time somewhere at the point where the staff reaches about 100. A second staff member may be assigned full or part time when the staffing level reaches about 150 -200. Both of these firm categories are finding some relief in the growing use of online learning options that are now available.

Then there is the professional mega firm, those who have a staff of over 250. Those mega firms that are truly committed to a professional development culture will bring in a learning management expert to head the professional development department. These positions are often found under HR or marketing. Both of these firm categories are finding some relief in the growing use of online learning options that are now available.

However, regardless of the size of the firm, an education program will not work effectively or efficiently if it is just an afterthought or an add-on program. Only by involvement of a firm partner or firm principal participating at the highest decision making level will education play an appropriate key role in the overall business operations of the firm. To achieve a level of delivering quality education, the firm leadership must think strategically. This means that they commitment long term, through the highs and lows of the business cycles. Continuing professional education is not free so integrating staff development into the business plan is critical. It should not be about just meeting hours to fulfill a license or credential requirement. There must be clear education goals and objectives since the firm is already investing dollars to meet the basic requirements.

Professional firms were making advancements in the development of strong internal educational programs until the down economy hit hard. With continuing professional education requirements still in place these same firms still need to maintain their requirements, license and certificates. Firms of all sizes have had to cut their internal staff those they had to support their education efforts. With strong leadership the firms do not have to cut back on quality, they just need to be smarter. Now more than ever is the time for visionary leadership and commitment to learning.

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