An Entrepreneur Who Helps A/E/C Firms Share Knowledge

Christopher Parsons, Knowledge Architecture

This is the eighth in a series of posts featuring insights from professionals who work in the architecture, engineering and construction (A/E/C) industry.


Christopher Parsons, founder and CEO of Knowledge Architecture, came to the architectural profession after he lost his job in the dot-com implosion of the early 2000s.

“Like many, I got laid off when the dot-com bust happened,” he says. “I’m not from the A/E/C industry, I’m not an architect. I was working at a technology consulting firm here in San Francisco during the dot-com boom.”

Parsons took a job at SMWM (which merged with Perkins+Will in 2008), thinking he’d work there for a year and return to the tech space after the recession ended.

“I fell in love with architecture,” says Parsons, who wound up staying at SMWM for five years. “I loved the creativity, art, engineering and science of it. I liked the community engagement element, and I loved the business part as well.”

He was especially intrigued by the technology aspect of his job, including design technology and knowledge management, which led him to start his own bootstrapped enterprise.

“You’d have to be crazy to get bored with A/E/C,” says Parsons. “There were so many interesting things that were changing and it was fun, so I’ve been in the industry ever since.”

Starting His Own Venture

Recognizing that he wanted to take his career to the next level, Parsons initially hoped to become the Director of Knowledge Management at a large company.

Then he had an idea: instead of taking a traditional job at one company, what if he started his own firm under the name Knowledge Architecture? What if he could help architects and engineers share and manage information more easily?

Parsons launched his company in 2009 while maintaining employment elsewhere, knowing that if his startup didn’t work out he would still have an income. After 10 months, however, he realized that it was time to give his full attention to Knowledge Architecture. The company has grown into a $3 million enterprise and is on the verge of hiring its 11th employee. Nearly 100 A/E/C firms currently run Synthesis, Knowledge Architecture's social intranet software. 

“A/E/C firms are being challenged by an industry that is getting incredibly more competitive,” says Parsons. “That’s why I think firms are so interested in knowledge management now. They need to continue to pick up the pace at which they learn.”

Parsons believes that firms cannot only rely on the informal, serendipitous knowledge transfer that happens when people bump into each other in the hallway.

“That is still incredibly important, but we think firms need to get more intentional about it, and they need to formalize that approach,” he says. “I think that’s one of the core challenges and a lot of firms are rising to meet it.”

To highlight knowledge management best practices at architecture and engineering firms, Parsons also started an annual conference called KA Connect in 2010. Coming to San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on May 1 and 2, 2018, the ninth-annual KA Connect is an opportunity for leaders of top A/E/C firms to share insights on knowledge strategy, learning and development, best practices, internal communications, intranets and more.

 At KA Connect 2017, Parsons interviewed Julie Weston (HGA), Erika Eklund (HGA) and Dorothy Leonard (Leonard-Barton Group).

At KA Connect 2017, Parsons interviewed Julie Weston (HGA), Erika Eklund (HGA) and Dorothy Leonard (Leonard-Barton Group).

“The origin story is that I was talking to clients about knowledge management and they hadn’t even heard of it,” says Parsons. “There wasn’t anywhere to go to learn more.”

Parsons was a big fan of community-building and wanted to provide a place for industry players to come together, share ideas and learn new concepts. He targeted no more than 15 individuals, hoping they’d meet in a hotel room for a series of roundtable discussions. Roughly 80 people showed up – an impressive start for a conference that is now attended by 250 A/E/C leaders each year.

“Our inspiration as a conference was much more like TED, where it’s an ideas conference,” says Parsons. “You can just relax and have it be about learning.”

   
  
   
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    Parsons developed a periodic table of common knowledge management program elements at A/E/C firms. Introduced at KA Connect in 2016, the graphic aims to simplify the topic and establish a common vocabulary for the industry.

Parsons developed a periodic table of common knowledge management program elements at A/E/C firms. Introduced at KA Connect in 2016, the graphic aims to simplify the topic and establish a common vocabulary for the industry.