This is a guest post written by Jeremy Fretts. Jeremy is a registered architect and holds a M.A. in Education and Human Development from The George Washington University. He is a senior project architect in the Virginia office of Niles Bolton Associates, designing multifamily and mixed-use projects, and developing a team of recent graduates.
Develop Your Staff… Everyday
Running a small firm requires you to play many different roles. You already know that you need to be an architect, a businessperson, a marketer, an accountant and a manager — and you’ve likely been trained in only one of those disciplines. If you have staff, you also need to be an educator. Fortunately, we’ve all been educated or mentored, so we know how to do that, right?
On-the-job training is a hallmark of the architectural profession. While our new graduates may be great designers, they often have only rudimentary skills in producing construction documents. While they may be BIM masters, they are likely ignorant of BIM as a production tool. It is entirely possible that new hires have never read a building code or zoning ordinance. All these skills are assumed to be learned within the context of professional practice. The problem with the traditional apprenticeship approach to architectural training is that it is entirely dependent on the skill of the apprentice’s mentor (despite the best efforts of NCARB to establish a baseline standard).
In this short article, I can hardly cover a full course in adult learning applied to architectural settings. Instead, I would like to suggest a mindset, and then name a few concepts for further study. Rather than suggest an elaborate professional development program–even large firms struggle to implement this–I encourage you to seek opportunities to “seize the moment.”
By “seize the moment,” I mean that you should be alert for those moments when you can guide your employees. Rather than answering a question, guide them through the thought process or the resources that will lead to the answer. Then, as they mature professionally, they will need less and less guidance.
One of my staff recently needed to know how to detail a granite slab attachment to a concrete wall. It was an unusual condition, but not a critical one. Knowing how many more opportunities we would have to review the detail prior to installation, my first hurried response was “draw something like this.” This was not helpful. Even if she drew what I sketched, my colleague would have no understanding of it. My second response was “look at this detail in Graphic Standards.” This is better — I pointed her to a reputable resource. But it still wasn’t good enough for her learning – or for the specific condition we were addressing. Our final conversation was by far better for the detail in question, and for her professional development.
First, we pulled a senior architect into the conversation for additional expertise. Then, we discussed the intended purpose of the wall assembly at this unusual condition. We discussed the way in which water would move through the assembly, and the benefits of certain insulation products over others. I “tested for agreement,”¹ asking both the senior architect and my colleague whether they agreed with the final decision. With a better understanding of the necessary performance, we still needed to identify a specific anchor product. Next, we looked to our specification, prepared by a seasoned specification writer. He had already included references to the Building Stone Institute, and a particular product manufacturer. (In a smaller firm, you could look to Masterspec) Suddenly, my colleague’s eyes (and mine) were opened to a world of superior reference material, and we found the product and detail we needed.
This may sound time consuming – it really took about 10 minutes, and now we will not have to revisit the matter in an RFI or shop drawings. More importantly, I modeled an approach which my colleague can use the next time she needs to solve a complex detail with confidence. This scenario actually provides a good illustration of several adult learning (androgogy) concepts.
In workplace learning, “scaffolding” refers to providing just enough structure to guide an apprentice through a task.² What a great architectural metaphor! Simply consider: what support is necessary to help the novice complete the task, without “falling down?” As the novice advances, the mentor can provide less and less “scaffolding.” In this case, I started with inadequate scaffolding: “something like this,” referring to a loose sketch. So instead, I provided a full scaffold: a process which involved consulting others, identifying reputable reference materials, and considering technical requirements. Note that I even verbally explained my thought process regarding moisture control. Next time, the scaffold might be only reminders of this process: “have you asked Marc? Have you looked to the industry association? Have you checked the specs?”
Learning from Examples
It is almost always better to learn from actual examples with real consequences. The learning that occurs trying to solve a real problem with real urgency is better than a randomly timed lecture on an esoteric topic. For people who learn best through active experimentation and concrete experience,³ working through an example with hand-drawn sketches and realistic considerations (“where does the water go?”) can make the task a little closer to “real.”
Community of Practice
We were fortunate to have a more senior architect in the office to consult. Whether internal, or external to your organization, it is important to have a “community of practice,” a group of people who you can contact for advice or critique, and through which you can be introduced to new or alternative practices. This might be your local AIA chapter, college classmates, or former co-workers. Make sure you and your staff are taking advantage of the informal learning opportunities from your networks, not just the planned events.
There is one other hidden benefit from our granite-detail story, within the context of a community of practice: I was transparent about the fact that I did not know the answer. There can be a lot of anxiety about not knowing how to do something, and my colleague was visibly frustrated by her perceived shortcoming. There is a lot to learn in the profession of architecture, and it is important to admit to ourselves and others when we do not know the answer. The sooner we admit this, the sooner we can reach out to people who can guide us to a solution.
Architectural Graphic Standards was originally created as a job aid, though its current incarnation is an imperfect and underused example of one. Ideally, a job aid provides a clear concise method to make a decision or solve a problem. It should be the first place you look for guidance. It might be a page on your company intranet explaining best practices or company standards. Or, it could be a checklist of items to include in a drawing set.
The more you learn about learning, the better attuned you will be to opportunities to guide your staff in the midst of your daily work. But this is your starting point: seize the moment, and guide the development of your staff in your day to day interaction with them. Your staff is your most valuable asset.
Photo credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 James Mitchell
¹This is one of the emphases of Roger Schwarz in his book, The Skilled Facilitator. I highly recommend Roger’s writings. To “test for agreement” is to restate what you have heard or concluded, and have others confirm that you have correctly summarized their position(s).
²The concept of scaffolding comes from the larger theory of Cognitive Apprenticeships. See LeGrand Brandt, B., Farmer, J. A., and Buckmaster, A. “Cognitive Apprenticeship Approach to Helping Adults Learn.” In D. D. Flannery (ed.), Applying Cognitive Learning Theory to Adult Learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no.59, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.
³People learn in a variety of different ways. Concrete experience and active experimentation are two of David Kolb’s four stages of learning, and related to four learning styles.