"why didn’t anyone teach us ‘business skills’ in school?"
if a nickel were deposited in my bank account for each time that phrase has been uttered the past 4+ years, i’d be… well… mark zuckerberg (or at least as wealthy on paper. at the ipo.). what that phrase implies is entirely dependent on who’s asking: students and young interns may be lamenting a body of ‘missing’ knowledge they perceive as vital to landing a job. a 45+ year old architect may be wondering how fend for themselves after being laid off. employees (and even the employers) of a struggling firm may be trying to understand why their situation has come to be.
part of the answer to that question lies in the demographics of the profession itself: over 60+ of the firms are 1-2 person entities. the balance largely work for 50+ person corporations. (something we’ve noted before). the gulf between how each is successfully run is staggering. if undertaken at all, how should the academy approach the topic? broad overviews don’t seem to be what’s desired as much as the nuts and bolts capacity to ‘run a firm.’ yes, it’s easy enough to teach the fundamentals of accounting, managing a firm and understanding how to market your services. and teaching these skillsets is something that should be deeply integrated into any professional practice course (which have, largely because of naab’s own critera, focused on ethics or broad frameworks than practical fundamentals). but, if we’re going to teach nuts and bolts, which sizes are we teaching? quite literally, there’s no ‘one size’ solution even possible to collect and transmit.
part of the answer is cultural – beyond the academy’s unease with the messiness of practice, there’s modalities built into the profession itself that help keep business secrets…well, secret. For example, the cost of entry (how much it takes to start a firm from scratch) for architecture is very low. we’ve documented this before as well. so, if you’re an enterprising young architect and you’ve developed an ability to have clients entrust you with leading their projects, the only real aspect you need to know is how to keep it all together as a business. how many small firms are willing to risk training a rising star to become their potential competition? to be fair, many do but logic dictates they would want (rightly) to do their best to ensure that training and knowledge will be used to help their undertaking, not to be taken and used against them. and really, would we expect Coke to entrust the entire secret formula to their entire company?
mostly, though, i’m convinced that it’s a commentary about the insecurity, instability and exposure this recession has placed upon almost all professions. in the case of architecture and our own self-loathing, it’s partly a commentary of our own ineptitude. bluntly put, most of us simply don’t know how to run a successful practice. period. my experience over the years is that most people, no matter their profession, simply don’t REALLY want to own or run a firm. they’re quite content to be a part of a larger vision (and there’s nothing wrong with that). and if most people had any idea how hard it really is to run a successful business (or one with the pretense)…well, we wouldn’t get so many new firms that, statistically, are doomed to failure. so, what’s the lesser of two evils? passing along worthless bad habits or letting everyone figure this out for themselves? and it’s also a commentary about how we’ve let our profession become so susceptible to forces well beyond our control, ones which cause so much disruption and pessimism when moving the wrong way.
now, I’m personally not that concerned about having to teach the gamut of business specifics in school. for starters, most of the information that could be transmitted would lack any real context to help push it beyond any other ‘theory’ that’s being learned. in other words, it won’t mean much until you’ve gained some experience in a firm (however good or bad). and, for the limited amount of time available, i’ve argued before that a focus on the technical development is a higher priority. in the end, for most professions, the transmission of business acumen and best practices seems like the sort of banner the aia and other organizations should take up and maintain (and having co-led a topic on starting a firm at the 2007 national convention, alongside one and another amazing firms, i can verify there are opportunities to get that knowledge). in that regard, there are a number of resources available here, here, here, here and here.
finally, though, it truly is important to remember the context we're in: all the amazing business skills in the world couldn't have predicted or saved firms from a 40-60% drop in construction related work over so short of a period of time. it's literally unfathomable for most people who've practiced over the last 50 years. this doesn't obviate the need to learn these skills, but just keep in mind there's no panacea for this kind of fall.
so… what does it mean for you?
Central to the blog is a long running interest in how we construct practices that enable and promote the kind of work we are all most interested in. From how firms are run, structured, and constructed, the main focus will be on exploring, expanding and demystifying how firms operate. I’ll be interviewing different practices – from startups to nationally recognized firms, bringing to print at least one a month. Our focus will be connecting Archinect readers with the business of practice.