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NBRS PARTNERS - architects of best practice

Author: Jamie Millar
Milsons Point’s NBRS+PARTNERS is an architectural design team shifting to technology-led practice on all fronts. The process of evolution and growth has required the company to improve its agility in its internal and external business vision and structure. The practice has been driving to find technology solutions that can help create alignment between the back-end ‘machine’ and the front-end creative. From increased motivation and creativity to increased invoicing, improved cash flow and staff enablement, NBRS+PARTNERS has realised interesting outcomes in its search for Synergy…

NBRS+PARTNERS - Liz Kernohan Conference Centre Faculty of Vet Science University of Sydney – Photographer Eric Sierin

According to NBRS+PARTNERS associate director James Ward, there are a couple of levers in any design business – its outward persona in the market place (how it does business) and the inward ‘productivity engine’ in support of that.

NBRS+PARTNERS considers itself to be a large middle-sized firm – the upper end of ‘M’ in SME. Without the out-and-out promotional reach of the larger architectural practices, it focuses on developing very distinctive partnerships with its market and clients. Its aim is to deliver design solutions with ‘responsiveness, integrity and control’, what it calls a ‘creative partnership’ with its clients.

James Ward says this creative partnership value system helps deliver in the company’s areas of specialisation like engaging spaces for gathering and public interaction.

“We’re good at designing spaces where people meet… at influencing the life-changing moments in spaces where people gather to do something worthwhile.”

As an architectural practice going through its second to third generational shift, associate director Rodney Drayton said they have become better at identifying the outward facing elements of the business and needed to find a system that could reflect that internally.

“We’re aligning our internal mechanisms with how we serve our clients,” he said.

“In its 45 plus years, the company has organically developed its own internal mechanisms. Once we decided to build an engine under that to align how the business works outwardly, one that allows other pieces of the business to plug into it, we desired greater clarity and forward thinking with design management so we’re able to service our clients with our processes, the same way we service them with our design and creativity.

“That was the driver – to find a system that could help with the outward-inward balance and one that understood the nature of the architecture profession such that it could reflect that balance.”

NBRS+PARTNERS at work

SUPPORTING GROWTH

In the process of establishing the need for architecture practice management software Rodney Drayton said NBRS+PARTNERS identified a three point plan in its practice that it needed to support.

The first was improving time to invoice – the time taken to execute work and send an invoice (and receive payment).

“If you’re a creative professional, all you want to do is the creative,” Drayton says.

“You don’t want to get bogged down with admin… if it becomes a big road bump in your monthly journey it just gets in the way of everything else.”

The second was creating greater visibility and definition of work in progress (WIP).

“This is about understanding what you’ve actually been doing – what chargeable costs are out there and that there’s a value to what someone’s doing and that they’re aware of this.

“It’s about creating an understanding of the transactional nature of the business that we didn’t have before, where we didn’t necessarily invoice a number of things which we otherwise should have.”

The third objective was correctly attributing all the costs of undertaking a project to that project.

Drayton says there were project overheads being attributed to office costs which were all project related.

“The agility and cost of recent graduates, when compared to senior staff, is quite real. If that cost is concealed in office overheads where you’re attributing general travel or printing costs to projects that have no travel or printing, and you try to spread that across the office, it inflates everybody’s rate instead of inflating the project rates where it’s applicable.

“We were making it difficult to price ourselves in the market as we didn’t have a true, calibrated understanding of staff costs.”

James Ward likens it to a production process where a manufacturer would be able to identify the exact cost of making a ‘widget’.

“You can ask an architect the same thing – what is the process you go through to get from a twinkle in your eye to a design with integrity and sophistication. It’s challenging for an architect to do that, but it can be a straight, easy to understand process with the right system.

“We’re still on that journey but Synergy is part of it… it’s the closet for us to hang all the clothes in.”

CLIENT FOCUS

James Ward says to be truly customer focused you need to be able to say to your clients that you have calibrated the value of your professional services specifically to their commission to ensure they are well served, including programming the right people for the job.


“This is quite a sophisticated idea when you get a team of designers sitting in a room,” he says.

“Conversely internally, assembling it in a way that makes sense to everybody – ‘I’m on this team, here’s the agreed process of getting through’ – is a challenge when you’re not of a scale to have departments tasked with making sure architects sit in the right spot.

“It’s easy if you’re an enormous company, but if you’re middle-sized you need to leverage smarts like Synergy to help manage that process and keep the focus on the customer.”

Another benefit NBRS+PARTNERS has realised from its business management software is the ability to tender more accurately for new work. With fully calibrated staff rates, visibility into real project overheads, “smaller projects don’t cop loading from the whole firm”.

Queenwood Aquatic & Sports Facility – Photographer- Eric Sierins

PEOPLE POWER

Although NBRS+PARTNERS talks about being client focused, it really comes across as being fully engaged with all stakeholders. This is evident in its internal focus and on its less experienced staff in particular.

James and Rodney highlight an improved ability to manage staff in a number of ways.

“It’s true in many firms that the youngest of our generation like to be given an indication of how they’re going to move through [the organisation],” Ward says.

“Recent graduates often want constant feedback – you’re doing a good job, this is how to do it, what to expect next…

“In order to be performance managed, you have to have a defined role, and this role means you know where you fit in the organisation. Synergy allows us to create a shape to a project so people know where they fit, which is healthy from everybody’s point of view – they get responsibility, they can work up through the firm – Synergy is very good at helping create that shape.

“This is particularly important in any business that focuses on bringing young, vibrant graduates in, especially designers.”

CLARITY OF STRUCTURE

NBRS+PARTNERS wants to achieve an agile structure to enable the entire team. In order for this to work effectively, the company’s management has begun to allocate more financial accountability of projects throughout the organisation.

Rodney Drayton says it’s challenging to have accountability without control and more junior staff are starting to draft invoices as well as manage their time. As the system administrator, Drayton has been asked by senior management to give greater financial control to junior staff, allowing them to be more effective to the benefit of projects, clients, teams and the business as a whole.

This greater spread of accountability has also created clarity in individual value to a project as well as in understanding which resources are right for each job.

 NBRS+PARTNERS - Inaburra Performing Arts Centre School

CREATING CHANGE

Implementing any practice-wide business management software requires internal buy-in and a certain amount of organisational change. NBRS+PARTNERS is not new to the notion of capturing time or project data, albeit in separate systems, but what management could do with the data afterwards was a missed opportunity.


The biggest change has been in educating and supporting the organisation on what the notions of utilisation are.

“We wanted to define value around negative space [negative utilisation]… it’s okay to have it, and that it’s used to pour expertise into less experienced staff, for example, or other business critical aspects not directly related to projects.

“In terms of recent graduates and CAD staff, we didn’t want them to simply put down a day’s work for the sake of accounting for seven and a half hours. We didn’t want the notion of utilisation to be seen as an impediment, rather to understand how much real time is being applied to projects.”

Overall, Rodney and James feel there were not many systems barriers to adoption, but there were educational hurdles to overcome – adjusting how the company’s people understand the notions of attributing project overheads and individual value are simple in concept, though challenging to adopt as intrinsic behaviour.

POSITIVE OUTCOMES 

NBRS+PARTNERS has been using Synergy Practice Management for three months. While too short a time to start realising core objectives, which they expect to begin seeing around six months, there have been some obvious benefits in the early stages. With July being the first month of training and implementation, the notable changes began in comparison from July to August with invoice volume increasing steadily.
“We knew there was a bunch of static invoicing,” Drayton says.

“Now that it’s easier and quicker to create invoices people are sending them, which will see revenue and cash flow improvements.

“From a process perspective we’re ultimately flattening our cash flow which is a good outcome if it continues.”

By all accounts, with recognised benefits in people management, attribution of real costs to projects and accurate rate calibration, NBRS+PARTNERS should realise the objective of practice efficiency sooner than later.

OUTWARD VISION

In all of NBRS+PARTNERS’s considerations to adopt new architecture practice management software, they focused strictly on the central point of the company’s goal to align its outward view for clients with its internal mechanisms.

Recognising and harnessing the vitality of youth in its team and basing its market philosophy around a true customer focus is part of NBRS+PARTNERS’ bigger vision.

For them, it’s about finding the right balance – value for customers, more time for design, less time on administration – simple mechanisms for a more creative output.

You might even say they were looking for Synergy…

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