Behind the Scenes: How DLR Group Drove a Professional Development Grant Program Using Synthesis

DLR Group PDG Winners

The culture of knowledge sharing at DLR Group goes back over a decade. In fact, it was 2006 when the firm launched its most high profile peer-to-peer network — DLR University (DLRU). Hosted at the IslandWood center on Bainbridge Island, just outside Seattle, DLRU brings together the firm’s senior leaders with rising stars and younger staff for three days of face-to-face knowledge sharing, learning and team-building.

I had the pleasure of experiencing DLRU first hand in August of 2012. The theme of that event was Technology + Innovation. I was asked to share my thoughts on the state of technology-driven knowledge sharing and introduce the firm to our concept of The Connected Practice. In addition to speaking, I stayed for the entire event and I was able to participate in the social activities which make DLRU work — small breakout sessions, walks in the woods, communal meals, and small group report outs.

From the moment I stepped foot on IslandWood, it was obvious to me that DLRU was about connecting the firm across offices and disciplines long before we started using the term Connected Practice. Over the years, DLRU has served as an incubator of sorts for a wide range of innovative ideas and has become a “sought after ticket” for individuals across the firm. To date, over 350 people have participated in DLRU.

Why a Grant Program? Why Now?

Given the location of DLRU, in a way, it’s not surprising that the firm’s next innovative employee engagement began incubation in the Pacific Northwest. After a number of years testing and refining a regional-scale grant program with Seattle and Portland employees, the firm decided to officially embark on a firm-wide Professional Development Grant (PDG) program in 2014. While the majority of administration and execution of the program occurs offline, the Intranet team uses its Synthesis intranet, known internally as Square1, as the initiative’s communications hub.

The grant program is simply the next evolution of the firm’s approach to knowledge sharing, professional development, and employee engagement. “It’s really a manifestation of our culture of employee ownership. As a young designer, I’d imagine that the idea of being an owner probably feels a bit obtuse. ‘I’m an owner of this firm? What does that mean?’ The PDG program gives us a way to make that ownership tangible. It gives anyone in the firm an opportunity to develop an idea that can elevate the practice of design,” says Andy Ernsting, the firm’s Brand Communications Leader and Synthesis Sponsor.

By opening the door for people to explore ideas they’re passionate about in ways they may not always get the chance to every day, the PDG program is ultimately another way for the firm to drive employee engagement and position itself as a top destination for leading design professionals.

Generating Awareness and Interest

Given its long history of face-to-face knowledge sharing, the firm took an analog-first, digital-second approach to the PDG program. Executive sponsors, Steven McKay and Dan Munn, asked Planner, Lori Coppenrath, to act as the project sponsor.

While Lori worked offline to generate interest and activity for the initiative — identifying regional champions to get the word out, communicating the details of the PDG program to them, and equipping them to act as cheerleaders to encourage involvement through a “grassroots” effort — Matt Virkler, DLR Group’s Knowledge Manager and Intranet Champion, worked inside Square1 to create a home for it and develop firmwide communications.

“We mapped out a very simple plan that started with a basic program announcement on Square1 from Griff Davenport (DLR Group’s CEO) using the #PDG2014 hashtag,” said Virkler. “I promoted the post to make sure this message stayed front-and-center for employees for the first week or two. Then, during the submittal period we posted additional messages from Steven encouraging employees to submit a grant.” Messages were co-created by firm leaders and the communications team.

By the time the application window closed, the combined effort yielded 65 entries from across the firm (a little over 10% of the workforce at the time). Entries literally came from every corner of the firm. They spanned all geographic regions, all disciplines, all demographics and all levels, from Principals to non-titled staff.

Communicating PDG Award Recipients and Sharing the Outcomes

Given the volume and breadth of entries, the firm chose to award 5 grants in the first year. Each grant brought with it up to 80 work hours to pursue the idea and up to $5,000 of funding for any direct expenses associated with it. The projects ranged from explorations into using Google Glass on a jobsite, to developing modular playground systems, to exploring the idea of using shipping containers as portable school classrooms in developing nations.

Once grants were issued, much of the PDG program continued to occur offline. Each grant recipient was assigned a mentor to help guide their project and prepare their outcomes presentation. Along the way, some employees chose to share the progress via updates in the stream (using the #PDG2014 hashtag), but there was no specific requirement to do so.

Ultimately, each recipient was asked to present the outcomes of their work at DLRU2014. To memorialize these presentations and share them with the broader firm, the Intranet team hired a videographer to film them, and then shared them via Square1.

A Look Inside The DLR Group Intranet Team

As the Intranet Champion, Matt Virkler took a central role on the PDG initiative. Here’s a quick peek at the team of people Matt works with everyday to make Square1 a healthy, vibrant Intranet, and to make programs like PDG successful:

DLR Square1 Core Team

The Mechanics of Square1 and #PDG2014

Matt decided to use a collection of wiki pages inside Square1 to act as a virtual home for all aspects of the PDG program. The wiki pages themselves were organized inside the firm’s People community site. Some wiki pages were built to function like a mini-landing page inside the community site for one aspect of the program. The main landing page, coined PDG Central, acted as the program’s home. Other wiki pages were used to house more granular content (the details of a Grant submission for instance).

During the application process, PDG Central served as the information hub for program details and application instructions. Program promotions (shared via posts on the homepage of Square1) included links directing readers to PDG Central, where employees could find all the details on how to enter. A temporary graphic banner on the Home page during the submission period allowed PDG Central to be one click away any time users opened Square1. Once awards were announced, Matt created a new wiki page to showcase the selected PDG projects and grant winners, with links to PDFs of their applications. Once PDGs were completed, he created individual project and grant winner pages for each winner, also built on wiki pages, which served as homes for details on each project — including the original submission, any supporting materials, and eventually a video of the presentation made by the recipient at DLRU.*

*The presentation videos themselves are hosted on Vimeo, using the firm’s Vimeo Pro account, and streamed into Square1 using the video’s embed code (accessible from within Vimeo).

Becoming the Employer of Choice for Design Professionals

In the end, DLR Group sees its PDG program as just one more step towards becoming a talent magnet for the industry’s best and brightest designers. As Matt puts it, “From the earliest days when this was an incubator program in the Northwest, we continually asked ourselves, what is the intent of this? While we hoped it would yield innovative new ideas for the firm, it was first intended as a cultural driver. And more so now as a national program, I think PDG is about connecting talented people to our firm. For years, our firm leadership has been passionate and outspoken about our desire to be the employer of choice for design professionals. While PDG isn’t something every employee gets to do, it’s something that everyone at least has a chance at, it’s easily accessible via Square1, and it’s essentially become part of our benefits package.”

Additional Resources

Below are links to a variety of additional helpful information mentioned in this article:

KA Connect 2013 Griff Davenport DLRUniversity: Design Culture – Culture Connections
By Griff Davenport
KA Connect 2012 Christopher Parsons The Connected Practice
By Christopher Parsons
Example KA Synthesis Intranet Team Diagram What Does a Successful Synthesis Intranet Team Look Like?
By Christopher Parsons
KA Support How to Promote a Stream Item Promote, Remove, and Restore Activity Stream Items
KA Support Article
SKill Builder Graphic Elements Creating and Placing Graphic Elements in Synthesis
KA Advance Skill Builder Video

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