Digital Transformation: How Integrating Technology Can Change Design Culture
by Nirva Fereshetian
Technology plays a critical role in what a firm can accomplish today It is now the framework to distinguish firms and their value propositions of enhancing processes to deliver more insightful services in shorter time frames. It has an impact across the board, including on how we do business development and recruiting. It changes how we think about providing the best experience to both our employees and our clients, old and new. Ultimately, it needs to enhance the experience of users in the spaces and environments we create.
In my tenure as a chief information officer, changes in technology have been constant. From my college days to my first internship to my current role, there has been explosive growth and advances in technology.
After receiving an undergraduate degree in architecture, I attended UCLA for a master’s degree in architecture with a specialty in design technology; at the time, programs offering this specialty were limited, but UCLA had a faculty with pioneers in Computational Design like Bill Mitchel (who later went on to found the MIT Media Lab), Charles Eastman, George Stiny, and Terry Knight.
In the summer of my first year, I worked as an intern in Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s (SOM) Los Angeles office. SOM had formed a collaborative partnership with IBM to develop a software called Draft. A familiar practice now, this type of partnership—design companies incubating technology concepts/startups and/or collaborating with technology companies—was a unique and fairly new concept then.
That summer was eye-opening. SOM was using technologies that no other architecture firm was using, including color plotters and tape backups. I was working as part of their technology group, a department rarely seen in an architecture firm.
This enforced my desire to combine technology with a creative architectural design career. After graduation, I worked for a few different firms—disappointingly, very different from my experience at SOM. Shortly thereafter, I moved to Boston and responded to a position at CBT, a company that was interested in my technology background. My role initially focused largely on CAD management, but extended deeper into incorporation of other technology tools as CBT adopted early business technologies.
The design/construction industry seemed to lag in embracing digital thinking compared to other industries. The first shift was moving from analog to digital: we digitized and converted the analog drawing with pen and pencil to actually drawing in AutoCAD. But unlike other industries, the thought process, culture—even the deliverables—did not change.
The personalization, democratization, and availability of technology was in the background of every industry, not just architecture. The fact that our small cell phones have more power now than computers had decades ago demonstrates the rapid change of technology across every industry and firm.
For us, what began as the digitalization of the analog process of drawing eventually spread to other non-design-related technologies. Beyond introducing and understanding Auto-CAD, the industry turned to expand capabilities of 3D modeling and rendering/digital presentation tools, to revamping email systems, archiving systems, disaster recovery, unified communication systems and cyber security. BIM, Data, Cloud Migration, and Digital Transformation have revolutionized the responsibilities of my role. From a back-office support responsibility, my position as CIO has evolved to full-on integration with business, client, and employee experiences.
As technology has changed and grown, we have had to change and grow with it. One way we’ve moved forward in this position is by exploring how to promote our tools and ways of thinking, both internally and externally. Creating a culture has become an important part of the discussion. Making sure that we are well-informed internally and externally and focused on sharing the story behind of what we’re doing and how we’re delivering. Our goals are less about actual technology execution and more about research and understanding how we can change the culture internally to make all of this happen.
Integrating technology into an organization’s culture should stem from a connected vision. It’s important to look internally and see who can be part of this change. Change management alone is a difficult task, and adding a digital element can make it even more challenging. The top priority needs to be buy-in from management, affirming that this integrated vision is really something they want to pursue.
Once management has bought in, the next step is to expand the understanding and aptitude of those tools to the next organizational level of the company. Failure is a certainty in this process, and human nature can often cause us to fall back and use what we know. Deadlines and project delivery processes are not very conducive to experimentation and research. This incites a cultural change: to understand how to fail fast, move on and properly manage expectations all around. This means shifting the focus from the tools to the practice of collaborating and joining forces in the industry. What we want to deliver is a highly collaborative effort and we need to work with those who have the aptitude in technology.
Consequently, profound changes are happening in the way the firm is managed, and the way we hire, with a primary goal of developing a culture that sustains this overall effort. It’s important to focus on the overall messaging, while at the same time delivering evidence that this is a better way of thinking and working. The transformation has to show ROI that’s beyond financial profit.
Beyond basic knowledge of software tools, we need digital savviness. We need a workforce of super integrators: technology with content and problem-solving skills, elevating the capabilities of our employees and situationally understanding the necessity to expand our collaboration efforts outside of our walls into the gig economy.
Even though the term “digital transformation” suggests an emphasis on technology, the movement is less about the digital and more about the people and cultural transformation behind it. Internal integrators, who understand the general vision, are necessary to the success of the initiative. Unlimited options of tools or processes make it apparent that collaboration with the right partners on the road map is required in order to transform. No longer just an internal functionality and understanding of technology, digital practice extends outside to different parties and thought leaders who are really pushing forward in this field.
This is an exciting time for the industry. Where demands can vary at different times, digital integration is very much clientcentric and client driven, and firms must decide for themselves whether upcoming technologies will effectively make a difference in delivery, or possibly develop new service deliveries. Opportunities that were not available to smaller firms previously are now accessible because of the democratization of these tools, concepts and processes; historically larger firms had a much greater advantage. The competition landscape is changing, and the new paradigm for innovation exists on all scales now—not just your own size and type of firm—and extends beyond industry boundaries to new innovators like WeWork and Katerra.
For a long time, technology was considered only a tool, and was left out of business conversations—it is certainly part of the discussion now. Still, this is very much the result of technologists’ efforts to reach out and ask to be part of these conversations. Lack of awareness in business decisions and practice road maps can often negatively affect execution of a firm’s digital evolution. The balancing act has many pillar needs—a vision, a culture that follows that vision, development of a digital culture, development of a change culture, and consistent communication.
There are many possibilities on the horizon for this industry’s integration of technology into our systems. The promise of AI and machine learning will completely change the landscape for designers. Our goal is to deliver thoughtful design and data for process improvements in the construction phase, when owners take over the building, and the building’s entire life cycle. We are interested in post-occupancy analysis, and bringing that data back to our design phases to learn from it. Design firms are now involved in a much larger ecosystem than before. We’re now using technology to work in common cloud platforms with all collaborating parties. Work flow is ripe for change, and technologies are maturing at an accelerated rate, but the rest of our contractual and business processes need to catch up.
Collectively as an industry, we have to make drastic changes; the onus is not on one firm at a time. We are seeing some sharing within the technology arena, such as computational approaches. That is fundamentally the right direction; while we don’t necessarily compete on what technology we use, we all agree on establishing tools and connected platforms to better product delivery and overall industry efficiency. We need technology tools/platforms that are interconnected and provide smooth transition at different phases of a project and data flow through design, build and operate lifecycle, avoiding duplication of efforts all along.
Together we can open our work up to realities that were not possible before.
Nirva Fereshetian is an associate principal and the chief information officer of Boston-based design firm CBT, where she leads the Digital Design Practice Group and is responsible for aligning business technology strategy to meet primary business objectives. Nirva is experienced in managing projects and people with an interdisciplinary background in architecture/construction/technology and a capacity to bridge that knowledge to enable informed business decisions and increased productivity. She is a board member of WITI (Women in Technology International) Boston Chapter and a member of SIM (Society for Information Management).
CBT is an award-winning, Boston-based design firm working nationally and internationally on projects at all scales, from multi-family residential, workplace, building repositioning, academic, hospitality and civic projects to large-scale mixed use developments and urban district master plans. Over 250 awards recognize excellence and creativity in the firm’s design and planning work. Clients come to the firm for its recognized ability to provide strategic design services in a broad range of project types and styles; its proven real estate acumen; and its skill in blending high-quality planning and archtecture with practical goals of building performance, budget, and schedule. The core values of the practice are innovation in every design commission, social responsiveness in the community, and the continued advancement of research and discovery in all that the firm undertakes.