Bridging the Gap: Fostering Trans-generational Working Relationships
Coping with Loss of Institutional Intelligence as the Baby Boomer Generation Retires
In the design profession, a generation gap separates the thought processes of traditionalists—the traditional pen-and-paper and 2D CAD users—from the thought processes of most of the younger employees, who are accustomed to instantaneous feedback and 3D/BIM processes. The dichotomy exists on both the owner’s side of the project, as well as on the design team side—but it does not have to be divisive. In fact, mutual respect between the younger and the older employees for their counterpart’s ways of thinking can be a powerful unifying force.
Respect can lead to what we call “bridging mentorships”—mentoring in both directions, and among all parties: architects, engineers, subcontractors, and owner and stakeholders. The entry-level team members often are adept with the software, but they don’t have anywhere near the practical experience of their seniors. Senior staff members usually know how to put a building together, but are frequently uncomfortable with modern software.
But when a symbiotic mentoring relationship emerges that bridges the generation gap and combines a strong technology culture with practical expertise on a foundation of mutual respect, projects are positioned for enhanced levels of success. Here are insights into bridging the gap.
Architects and Engineers
Cultivating bridging mentorships has become an express goal at our firm. In the next five to eight years, a generation will be leaving the industry, and their real world experience and construction knowledge of how buildings come together will not be an active perspective influencing project work. This senior generation has been on the site, worked in job trailers, dealt with contractors and subcontractors, and has a working understanding of what is needed to get the job done.
At the same time, newer generations increasingly are focusing on technology and dealing with buildings virtually—not actual construction. As a result, they aren’t always gaining the level of real world detail or hands-on experience needed to both creatively and practically solve a problem.
Therefore fostering trans-generational working relationships by establishing clear mentoring relationship goals can benefit all parties, and that requires senior staff and newer, technology-oriented staff to have this conversation.
How does this unfold? Management makes a long term “mentor” relationship for high level conversations. A staff member could be identified as a Code expert. The staff will know to discuss Code items with this person. At the same time this Code expert knows who the Revit expert is for the department. These two can work on making workflows and processes that take advantage of the technology while making sure the code requirements are calculated and reported properly.
On a project level, technology and technical partnerships are created. Leadership makes sure that a technical architect or engineer who does not have strong Revit skills is partnered with a Revit-knowledgeable architect or engineer. This way a project has all the required tools and the two staff members can exchange knowledge and mentor each other’s weaknesses.
As management strives to be technology and technical market leaders, “Subject Matter Experts” are identified in all areas of the practice groups. The teams work internally to strengthen each other through “Lunch-and-Learns” or “Just-in-Time Project Training” lead by the Subject Matter Experts. This allows the ability to reach the masses with the information needed for day-to-day tasks.
How are challenges dealt with? As with all working relationships in an organization, a further look into the true issues would be required. As the industry is requiring new technology utilization, it is vital that senior staff implement company processes on their projects. At the same time, architects and engineers need to implement technical best practices on projects. Yet, personality and compatibility issues can emerge as there is such a generational gap in the industry. This underscores the importance of involving Human Resources as part of this process. Personality surveys can help management identify good mentor relationships. Lunch-and-Learns can be valuable for staff on how communication tools can be used to bridge gaps. It is also critical that the executive leadership clearly support both parties equally.
Consider an example of a curtain wall or a façade, and the intricacies of how it is actually constructed, sequenced, and built. In the model, it’s just one element, and questions don’t immediately arise about how it will be shipped to the site, lifted into place or its connections. An architect or engineer sitting at a desk working on a virtual model in an A/E office is not prompted with those critical questions related to construction, but they need to be considered. Only a person with hands-on, construction experience would know to bring up these issues in design meetings.
All Disciplines, Contractors and Subs
And, mentorship is not just for the architects and engineers. All parties can benefit from this approach. For example, when contractors hire new employees, perhaps they have to stay on site for their first six months to get that experience working with the trades in the field. Or when a new facility manager is hired, they work with the building operators to receive firsthand experience for what it takes to operate and maintain a building.
An example of the benefits of bridging mentorship can be found in day-to-day project meetings. Planning and scheduling meetings that allow both knowledge groups to participate means that when questions arise, all aspects can be addressed. Thus, experiences are expressed from both sides of the spectrum—technical and technological. Ordinarily in a traditional 2D workflow, it would be only senior staff—architects and engineers—attending the meeting. It is critical that there is more than just technical knowledge in meetings as technology implementation directly impacts the success of project budgets and schedules.
And, with scheduling, having both sides represented keeps everyone on the same timeline page. For example, someone experienced in only traditional 2D workflows would estimate a certain amount of time for a task, when in reality, through BIM-enabled processes, it could take a completely different amount. Having an experienced BIM user to complement the technical architect or engineer brings validity to task assignments and project schedules during design or construction. On the other hand, having an experienced technical person leading the construction document set development assures the set does not become bloated with meaningless drawings just because the software can produce them—a common way teams underperform. Just because you can does not mean you should.
Contractors experience a similar issue with 4D and 5D technology implementation. Having a technology expert who can create construction animations and link schedules or cost to BIM models does not always mean value has been added. If this expert does not know how a project is really going to be sequenced or constructed, all that has been produced is a pretty marketing tool. Technology does not replace experience or knowledge. Uninformed data in, is uninformed data out.
Owners and Stakeholders
Yet, arguably the most important trans-generational working relationship to foster is mentorship among the generations representing the owner and stakeholders linked to the project. This commitment includes planning the adequate time and investment in training to bridge mentorship. Recently, at Woodward, Inc., a leader in control solutions in the aerospace and energy markets, the project team and owner forged such a mentorship as this manufacturing leader is focusing on three new campuses in the US: Rockford, Ill, Niles, Ill and Fort Collins, Colo. Several aspects of the design process demonstrate the mentorship.
To increase awareness of Woodward’s brand, owner leaders sought a stronger, more clearly delineated identity that could reinforce the company’s image in a technology-driven market. The entry vestibules at Woodward convey this brand through the high-tech precision of these very crisp and clean spaces – which involved incorporating all dimensions of design.
Fostering trans-generational working relationships through mentorships among project team and owner, the multi-generational group was able to develop a highly refined design solution using visualization tools, as training and mentoring enabled everyone on the team to navigate in a 3D environment. Significant design analysis went into these vestibules, and many items would not have been able to be communicated to the owner/stakeholders or members of the design/construction team without training and mentorship in using the BIM model.
The model became a non-traditional communication tool for not only the owner/stakeholders and but also members of the project team who were not initially technology oriented. Training and mentorship in the technology enabled them to see the project outside the confines of a 2D plan. In a real time, updated 3D environment where everyone could see and analyze the project, these valuable views brought clarity and prompt decision making as, together, everyone could see surfaces, finishes and material transitions, way-finding and flows, security turnstiles and checkpoints, even seemingly miscellaneous items—like outlets, for example—that factored into a design solution expressing this high tech brand.
In addition to vestibules, daylight was also a key design strategy. “Pop-ups” and translucent panels were used on the exterior to promote daylight throughout the facility. The pop-up—a vertical extension of the roof incorporating several translucent panels—results in both a uniquely appealing exterior aesthetic and an inviting quality of interior illumination. These elements combined provide a diffused light throughout the space, reducing shadows, letting in natural light and creating a natural indoor glowing effect that permeates to the exterior.
The project team worked with the manufacturer of the translucent panels and reviewed all metrics and illumination models to determine the best distribution of light throughout the space. The project team reviewed these models with Woodward to decide how best to use the product without disrupting process or production flows. Light was a focus in both the production and office areas as a unifying element.
Without the mentorship and partnering of knowledge groups these projects would not have been nearly as successful. Having the right mix of technical and technological team members assured that design would not be affected by lack of understanding or implementation of BIM-enabled processes. It also allowed the focus on technology implementation to not be the limiting factor in the design process.
Scott Adams is Manager of Practice Technology with Ghafari Associates. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.