Trust: The New Golden Handcuffs | Life at HOK

Mike Plotnik, HOK, invited me to be the first guest blogger on HOKLife. Here’s the verbatim post. Thanks to Mike and HOK for sharing their incredible platform, one of the most socially engaging architectural sites.

I invited Dr. Cindy Frewen Wuellner, FAIA, an accomplished architect, educator, researcher and blogger, to share some insights on the value and potential of online communities like ours. Prepare to be inspired, challenged and enriched…


How do you build your professional reputation? There’s an old way and a new way.

In the old way, you work for a star firm, build expertise, cultivate relationships, get recognition, awards, advancement, grab a couple of friends, and bolt for the door. Voila, the birth of a next-generation firm where you can spread your wings, design, lead, and develop your expertise.

The cost to the mother ship is enormous. They lose their best people. Project knowledge vanishes, as do friendships, clients, and projects. In short, the most talented people outgrow the firm. In the old way, influence was finite.

There’s a new scenario developing. You can see it at HOKLife. While inside the firm, you build your own brand. You express your views using the firm’s resources. Your brilliance appears on Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. People come to HOK specifically to find you, ask your opinion, and seek your expertise. Your influence can literally extend globally; you are limited only by the strength of your ideas. When your influence grows, so does HOK’s.

From HOK and Me to We’

Paradoxically, by giving you freedom to express your ideas, HOK increases the stickiness of its network. Trust is the new golden handcuffs. You stay with a company because they allow you to directly shape that collective persona. Rather than a monolithic top-down message, HOK becomes an aggregation of many voices and moves the relationship from the firm and me, to we. Those voices bloom every day on HOKLife and change the public face of the business.

Freedom of expression generates greater resilience for the firm and breeds a new type of brand, more inventive and diverse through multiple voices. While HOK benefits by drawing more deeply on the resources of individuals, each blogger gains the HOK presence which lends immediate credibility. The public, including clients, experience the vast levels of knowledge and resources that comprise the entire organization.

HOKLife offers a megaphone to cultivate stronger bonds with the firm’s most precious resource – you. It’s a gamble. Yet I wager that no field benefits more from high-performing social technologies and open leadership approach than the design professions. Because each firm member is a professional expert, it generates a competitive advantage previously constrained by the limits of specific project roles. Digital territory offers every person infinite free space for engagement and consequently influence.

Models for Social Engagement



I recently met one of the leading social technology analysts, Jeremiah Owyang of The Altimeter Group. He identifies five organizational models for social engagement: centralized, organic, coordinated, hub and spoke, and holistic or “honeycombed.” From what I see, HOK works as a coordinated or multiple hub and spoke model. People from Hong Kong to St. Louis across disciplines and interests contribute. Most comments come from inside, with a few external comments on blogs and Facebook. Those blog posts and comments begin the conversation.


HOKLife may evolve to the holistic “honeycombed” approach. Each employee is empowered to experiment. The social portion of the website grows according to each action and becomes the firm’s voice. The result is a seamlessly integrated engagement between employees and clients. Eventually, HOK’s website can merge with LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and other networks. Known as a Freemium business approach, general research knowledge is shared openly to grow influence while clients pay for customized design services. The industry, HOK, and you as an influential expert benefit.

Building Influence and Trust Communities

In some ways, websites didn’t do professional design firms any favors. They set the stage for static sites centrally controlled which freezes social potential. At one time merely having a web presence represented a leap of innovation. Not now. It’s the difference between walking into an empty room versus a room full of engaged people.

Rather than merely broadcasting, social technologies enable dialogue and let the site ebb and flow based on the energy of the conversation. The visitor’s experience shifts from an online brochure to an ongoing roundtable discussion. Firms who still believe in the brochure model will be left behind.

In the new social engagement model, clients and the public don’t visit just to become familiar with HOK. People return repeatedly as though it’s a combination of coffee shop conversation, resource library, television broadcasting, and newspaper stand. You create a must-stop location. While building careers and reputation, you’re cultivating relationships and developing communities based on trust. When people want an expert opinion, they will come to HOK to find you.

What’s Next?

HOK people already blogging are brave scouts; you opened new territory. Here’s some thoughts about your next opportunities to expand your influence and relevance.

  1. Comment, comment, comment. Create a commenting frenzy that builds high quality dialog. That energy and vitality will attract others to the table.
  2. More firm leaders join the conversation by writing and commenting on others’ postings.
  3. Highlight particularly vital conversations so others join in.
  4. Find your clients online; share information at those sites.
  5. Link clients and colleagues to specific blog posts and conversations.
  6. Expose projects on the boards or under construction, which truly are social as much as they are technology.
  7. Think in terms of: what do our clients need to know? What keeps them up at night? Write about that.

The work that HOK does is thrilling; you plan, design, and build cities every day. A website can have the energy and vitality of a job site or design studio. When people begin to frequent the site simply to engage and find expertise, HOK will have a valuable asset. So will each committed person that built it. Using HOKLife to engage people and blur the boundaries of the firm brings richness and experience unique in the design and planning professions.

Instead of bricks and mortar storefronts, the new geography is digital; space is free. Consequently, time becomes the most precious commodity. Can you attract the attention of influencers? Moreover, can you gain their trust? You attract people through intriguing ideas; you capture their hearts and minds by developing real relationships.

Owyang, Jeremiah. “Four Laws of Social Business.” Presentation Slides from Smash Summit, May 2010. (image source for social engagement models)

More Links at key words: socialmedia, socialmediabiz, twitterstories

Image credit: Cadenhead, Rogers, Rcade. “Newseum: Do You Trust Blogs.” Uploaded 19 Feb 2009, Flickr Creative Commons.


Dr. Cindy Frewen Wuellner, FAIA, LEED AP, founded and operated an architecture firm for 20 years before merging it with another design firm in order to shift her focus to long-term strategies for designing and building cities. Example projects are Kansas City Downtown Civic Mall Master Plan for 60 blocks of the central business district; Kansas City, Missouri Police Department Facilities Master Plan; Charles E. Whittaker United States Courthouse Interiors; and the Ilus W. Davis Park, a civic park in downtown Kansas City. She teaches in the Graduate Program in Futures Studies at the University of Houston as an adjunct professor and at the University of Kansas. Frewen Wuellner is currently writing a book on how social technologies are transforming the ways we use and build cities. Web site:; Connect at Twitter and LinkedIn.