If two heads are better than one, then 50 heads are … well, you do the math. At VPCS, we believe so strongly in applying our collective wisdom to all of our active projects that we’ve operationalized it. Relying on a simple shared chat tool, we have created an open-source knowledge base that’s available to each of our employees as a way of finding answers, verifying approaches and honing skills. Every day, our people turn to one another to tap the wealth of professional expertise that exists on our team. In turn, the proficiency of up to 50 people is applied to all of our clients’ projects.
We sat down with VPCS Principal Mark Van Pelt to learn more about this approach.
What internal communication tools does VPCS lean on most heavily?
Mark: Everybody in the company uses Google Chat. It’s like a huge group text but formatted more professionally. It’s just a great way to share information and tap other people’s expertise for any kind of question that comes up. And in this business, questions come up all the time. Our people are so smart; so talented. So much so, in fact, that they know how important it is to validate their assumptions every now and again. Our internal chat system gives them a way to double-check that the answers they come up with on their own are the best ones. It helps us all work as a unified team; nobody is out on an island by themselves.
What other tools does the firm use for information sharing?
Mark: Email, of course, and there’s the good old telephone. All of our people know they can call me with questions about anything, especially when it comes to estimating. I still carry an entire database of construction prices in my brain! And we currently have two people on staff – Kelli [Van Pelt Jurgenson] and Brian [Cameron] – who have been through the very rigorous CASH School Facilities Leadership Academy, so they’re the ones to ask about procurement through the state. (Plus, we have a few more people preparing to go through the CASH program in the near future, which will give us an even deeper bench of people who will be officially trained in the nuances of public school construction in California.) And of course, Eric [Van Pelt] has always been our resident OSHPD expert on top of all that he knows about K-12 and higher education construction. We just have so much talent on our team that somebody is going to know the answer, whatever the question is. And if not, they’ll know how to find it quickly. Beyond that, we have a few other ingredients in our operational secret sauce that help us stay on the cutting edge, but those are in the vault!
Give us an example of how the process works.
Mark: Well, one of our project managers recently posted a question to the company-wide chat related to the paperwork required for procuring a portable building on a school campus. And right away, there were three or four people giving him specific instructions on how to go about that task. It’s so great – an efficient and effective way to make sure things get done the right way.
How does this benefit VPCS team members?
Mark: Since we’re all on the chats, we can all see every exchange, even when we don’t participate in a specific question-and-answer. So there’s an opportunity for everybody to learn something from each case. Just the other day, I heard somebody say that they were puzzling over something but then remembered they’d seen an exchange about that same topic a while back on our Google Chat. So they went into the chat archives, found the discussion and got the information they needed. So it’s become something of a catalog for us.
How does this benefit your clients?
Mark: Our clients have direct access to one or two people from our team – the PMs assigned to their projects – all the time. But what all of our clients are actually getting is the brain power of our entire team because everyone here is constantly drawing from our larger pool of expertise via these chats. It’s all of our PMs, our CMs, our admins; everybody is on chat every day. In other words, an owner might be paying for three dedicated project managers, but they’ve got nearly 50 people helping to tackle their project’s challenges.
As co-founder of the company, how does it make you feel when you see all that wisdom being shared among the people who now form the VPCS team?
Mark: It’s awesome. We have such an incredibly talented group and when they network, we all improve. I’ve never once seen one of our people make an inaccurate recommendation via chat. I’ve also never once stepped into a chat to say, “Hey, I would do that differently.” First of all, that’s not the kind of manager I am. I believe strongly in leaving people alone when they’re doing the right thing and the client is satisfied. Secondly, even if they’re approaching a problem differently than I would and they’re comfortable with that approach, I’m not going to do anything to change that … unless I see someone about to walk off a cliff. So, to answer the question, it’s really gratifying to see members of our team share what they know. It makes us a better company.
February 15, 2022