This interview with James Kent, Chief Marketing & Communications Officer at Thornton Tomasetti, a leader in engineering design, investigation and analysis serving clients worldwide on projects of all sizes and complexity, was conducted and condensed by Christopher Parsons.
Christopher Parsons: I’ve looked at hundreds of architecture and engineering intranets over the last year and a half. I’ve never seen this much content. This is really exceptional.
James Kent: Thank you. Our intranet is divided into two broad areas: links to firm-wide resources and what journalists would call “the news hole,” that is, various kinds of editorial content. The news hole is divided into four kinds of content: We have a lead feature story front and center, with a big image; below that we have three news stories with smaller thumbnail images; below those we have four elements you might call “departments” and in the right rail are very short, newsy items, including an “image of the week,” which employees across the firm submit. We update the site once a week, unless there is something really urgent, which goes up right away.
The feature is usually the longest, most important, and most timely element. News stories generally run shorter. We have five “departments:” Sustainability features anything related to our green efforts; Tech Talk is the most technical engineering element, like mini-seminars; Project Spotlights generally feature two key projects per week in 200 words or less; Media Mentions is what others are saying about us in the press and on blogs, etc., and Talks & Papers is presentations we have made or papers published. Nearly all the editorial content is generated by one editor, with help from another part-time writer, so it comes from 1.5 writers.
Taken as a whole, this is our corporate knowledge, right? We’re generating all this stuff, and capturing all this information. What else can we do with it?
What we do every week is sit down, the three of us — the intranet editor, the web manager and me — and say, “OK, of all this stuff on the intranet, what should we boil up to the public site, to our Facebook page, to YouTube? What should we tweet about? Which should go on the public website?”
We basically share everything that is not proprietary or confidential. We don’t share information that we think is a competitive advantage. But we share all other information that we think may help clients, business partners, students, and anyone else interested in learning about our work or the AEC community.
JK: If you go to our Facebook page, you’re gonna see some of the same content that started life on our intranet. A few weeks ago, for example, the leader of our Building Skin practice presented a paper at a conference on glass performance. We featured it in Talks & Papers on the intranet, and recycled the feature on our Facebook page. On the intranet we had an Image of the Week of Brigham Young University students visiting the construction site of Shanghai Tower, one of our projects. And we posted the same picture and caption to Facebook.
The same goes for the Facebook story on our forensic work in New Zealand. That started life as an intranet news story, became a press release, and we asked the engineers to take a look at the intranet version and scrub any proprietary information so we could post it to Facebook as well. So we took out the names of clients, we took out specific building addresses, we took out engineering ideas still being developed. It took maybe an hour to clean up and we posted it to Facebook and the press release to our website. So that story was a kind of triad: one editorial effort; three manifestations.
CP: In a perfect scenario, then it gets picked up by a couple of external blogs, or Architizer, or ENR, or something and then its spread even further?
JK: Ideally, yes. So it becomes viral. Or even better, people will comment on it on Facebook and we broker a discussion.
JK: People will Like it. It will develop some legs.
CP: So far you’ve discussed examples of an internal story submitted by an employee on the intranet, sent out to Facebook, out to a press release, and then out to the public web. Do you have an example of something going the other way around, from the outside coming back in?
JK: Recently there was someone who tweeted and then retweeted our content about our efforts in Joplin [Missouri, after the May 22 tornado.] It turned out it was a client, so we took the tweet and forwarded it to the project manager and said “Hey Paul, you might be interested that so-and-so at such-and-such a firm noticed this story and then tweeted this. If you’re in touch with him you may want to thank him.”
So is that is an example of something external coming in being used for business intelligence and to enhance client relations.
CP: I’ve actually noticed that you were a journalist and writer before going into this industry, correct?
CP: You’ve been with Thornton Tomasetti for how long now?
JK: Three years.
CP: So was this idea of investing in one and a half people for editing and internal communication pieces all your doing, or were any of the pieces and parts in place before you started?
JK: The only thing that was in place was the intranet, called TT World, but it looked only vaguely like this. It was very slim, didn’t really have much fresh content, and wasn’t updated regularly. The web programmer was trying to wear the hat of programmer and of editor and it was not possible for her to generate enough material to really keep pace with what was going on around the firm.
The great advantage I inherited was that the culture was primed. It was an opportunity that landed on my lap and I thought, ‘This thing can take off at a really incremental cost increase.’ Most importantly, management recognized the value of communicating across the firm. None of this would have happened without management support.
The idea of using the internal content engine to fuel external communications is newer and we’ve adopted the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which is, we got permission to experiment with social media. As long as nobody says “stop” we’re gonna keep going…
JK: Initially people said: “Oh it’s a waste of time. The only people on Facebook are 16-year-old-girls comparing zit medicine.”
JK: Now, every time we get a client that retweets us, or comments on Facebook, I send it to the managing principals. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I’m noticing less resistance to social media, so it’s probably time to take the next step.
CP: What’s the background of your full-time internal communications editor?
JK: Her background is in journalism and in the real estate business. When she first got here, she was a little intimidated by engineering and by engineers, and I said: “Don’t worry, they’re bewildered and frightened …by verbs. So you are on even ground here. Their first language is calculus; your first language is English.”
CP: Two aliens walking around each other nervously…
JK: Right. And they’ve established a truce. In fact, she’s made lots of friends. When she started here, creating content, people saw this and said, “Wow, we sound really articulate.”
They would come to her with all kinds of other writing projects: “I wrote this letter to a client, could you give it a look?”, or “I have this presentation, would you mind looking over my PowerPoint?” And so, she’s made friends that way, because they recognized her skill. This is a good thing about our culture: people know what they don’t know. They recognize that they’re not good at expressing themselves, and that she is. And so that leads her to more stories, when she helps people, sort of outside her scope, then she makes friends and asks: “What are you working on? What’s interesting? And that develops more content.
CP: So how do you keep someone who writes well from getting sucked into proposals?
I was hired initially as Director of Communications, which was separate from Marketing and the proposal machine is run through Marketing.
I was a department of one initially, and then became a department of three for a 550-person firm. Then leadership decided to merge Marketing and Communications. We already had in place this idea of Communications is separate but equal with Marketing, and it’s a different track and it does different things. So it’s pretty easy to keep her separated. But I could see in a lot of other firms it would be a problem because the leaders don’t comprehend the difference between marketing and communications.
CP: So why is Thornton Tomasetti making an investment in three-and-a-half-ish people in Communications? What’s the driver? Why do they keep reinvesting every year?
JK: This is the knowledge of the firm made visible, searchable and recyclable. I never use the term “knowledge management” because people will roll their eyes. But it’s really what we do. It’s the whole value of the intranet. This site is what we know and people can mine it.
When I get a young designer asking, “I have to give a presentation on performance-based design, what do you got?” I can say, “Go to TT World, search for performance-based design. There are three presentations on performance-based design, and a twelve-hundred word introduction.”
Multiply that by 50 and I don’t have to argue the value of the intranet. I’ve worked in organizations where I spend 80 percent of my time trying to explain what I do. Here, I never have to do that. Here, people understand the value of sharing knowledge.
CP: In this case, I would theorize that Thornton Tomasetti was culturally primed to have a collaborative sharing culture platform across the offices, they just didn’t have the infrastructure or someone with your experience and background to execute. They were trying to get it started before you came in, and then you threw gasoline on the fire. Is that true?
JK: Yeah, I would say we knew what we wanted to do, we just didn’t know how. I worked in another culture –an academic research center that was defined by scientists – and it was completely the opposite. There it was “all about me” and the institution was really a phantom organization that just kept the lights on and provided various necessary evils, like HR and accounting. Scientists didn’t work for the institution; they worked at it. Polar opposite to Thornton Tomasetti.
CP: So what’s next? It seems like you’re having a lot of success. What does 2012 and 2013 look like for Communications?
JK: I think a lot of it, at least internally, will be more collaborative online tools. Too much of our interaction is conducted via email, which is often mistaken for a communications medium. We overuse Excel as a data management tool. We are already moving toward more online data sharing and data management tools. Our next big step, which is underway now, is to transition the intranet from a home-grown backend to SharePoint. The design is done as is much of the programming. We’ll start data migration in September.
Editorially, I’d like to move away from what I call “the voice of God” editorial content because virtually all of TT World editorial content is the voice of “the organization,” not the personal voice of individuals, with all their human foibles, uniquenesses and insights. The Web editor’s job won’t go away. You still need someone to plan, edit, cajole, coordinate, make informed judgment, and so on. But my hope is she will be writing less and guiding more. The idea is to democratize the editorial process over time.
JK: Meaning we’re not yet ready culturally for it. Very few of us grew up in an organization where “official” messages were not centrally controlled, so distributing that control, or allowing multiple voices to be published feels awkward and there is some fear. But when collaborative information-sharing tools are in place, I think they will be a catalyst to change that.
CP: So fear…I definitely have heard this before, but in your work, what is the fear? That they’ll say something wrong technically? That they’ll say something wrong politically? Where is this fear coming from?
JK: There are two fears. The first fear is that they’ll say something wrong, or that isn’t our policy, or isn’t our position and then it will get propagated as wrong and will require correction. It is much harder to correct a misperception than to prevent it from propagating in the first place.
I tend to be an optimist and believe that if our community of engineers, architects, modelers, etc. are smart enough to be hired by Thornton Tomasetti, and trusted with enormous responsibilities, they’re smart enough to understand the value of a self-correcting community. They already do it within their own project communities—there is frequent and frank exploration of ideas to arrive at an optimal engineering solution.
JK: Do we want them smart but clueless? No, we want them smart and clued in.
JK: That’s one fear. The other fear is that what you say on a social media channel is discoverable in court and can only increase the firm’s exposure to risk. Conversations, debate and conflict that used to happen around the water cooler or on the telephone can now be part of the digital record and that is a risk.
So if somebody writes on a blog, you know: “I was on this job ’til 11 o’clock at night, then we went on a pub crawl until 3 a.m. but I drove back at the office at seven in the morning…” You wouldn’t want a lawyer pulling that blog up during a trial.
We’ve developed a simple but practical list of social media do’s and don’ts and a social media policy. But we haven’t widely implemented them yet, as you can see we still have the voice of God content. We’re not involving employees much in postings. We just haven’t gotten there yet.
CP: Do you think it’s a matter of time?
JK: I think so. We see a willingness and aptitude for it among younger employees and new hires. They want to do it. They understand how it works. At the leadership level, there is openness to new ways of doing things, and at the same time wanting proof that the tool enhances productivity, brand recognition or brand value. So the burden falls to the younger generation to provide that proof to the older generation.