Interview: Barry Smith's leadership by design at Foster partnership

‘This is an incredibly creative organisation; we are fast paced and operate in a deadline-driven environment,” says Barry Smith, Head of IT at the UK-based but global architecture house founded by Lord Norman Foster.

Lord Foster's architecture firm has given the world some of its most ground-breaking buildings, such as Masdar City in the UAE, and the awe-inspiring Millau Viaduct in France, while in the UK buildings such as the Sage in Gateshead, St Mary Axe, City Hall and the Millennium Bridge have reshaped our city skylines. The London-based firm also designs furniture and yachts, amongst many other special projects.

“We’ve produced some amazing designs in terms of products and buildings and we are incredibly innovative,” says Smith.

“People work really hard here and always want to do better, which makes it a very challenging and rewarding place to be,” Smith says of the organisational and design ethos.

“Creativity and collaboration are at the core of what we do and, therefore, drive the IT strategy. Our role is to develop a very close relationship with people to understand their needs. So we are fast adopters of new technology and have a lot of Beta across the business; we liaise with a lot of software creators, Adobe for example, and we give them guidance. We like to deliver software very quickly to the business,” Smith adds.

Architecture has become a very competitive business sector in the last decade. Lord Foster's organisation has been at the forefront of that competition and intends to remain there. The rapid adoption of technology by the organisation has enabled this, Smith explains.

Building information

“We are massively deadline driven as an organisation as we always want to deliver our best, so there are iterations to a design right up to a deadline. Technology underpins everything we do, whether it is the design, video material or email communications. To do that the organisation needs constant access to software and data, so my team is very used to a 24-seven working pattern.”

On a tour of the Thames riverside headquarters, the wide variety of outputs involved in design and architecture today are all evident. There are detailed drawings, a video walk-through of what a finished building will look like, and 3D printed models all around.

The pressure isn’t just internal, the architecture business has some of the most demanding clients. McLaren, for example, is well known for the levels of detail demanded within its Formula One team and engineering company. “McLaren are a client we work with well,” Smith says. “Clients like McLaren have the same focus; there are a lot of synergies where quality is really important.”

Rapid culture

“We have to live and breathe agile, and have geared the IT team to be able to deliver very quickly and to deal with rapidly changing demands. This is a dynamic organisation and we will make investments if it helps win business. That is the benefit of being privately held, so the decisions can be very fast, with very few people involved. If you make a good business case, you get a lot of support here,” he says of the environment.

As a result, Smith describes his role as being one of transforming the way IT is delivered into the business. But talking to Smith and touring the company, it is easy to see why he does not
describe his role as being a business transformer, in that the projects it delivers transform communities and landscapes.

For the organisation to remain transformative, it needs an IT operation that supports this vision and flexes with demands.

“We are a facilitator for people, so they have a platform to perform their role. What my department does is provide a platform for the business. As an organisation we have specialists in video editing, special effects and 3D modelling,” he says of the varied demands placed on them.

“Sending a job to the 3D printer requires several different technologies; the challenge comes through having the right software, used by skilled people to send clean jobs to a 3D printer,” he says.

“So our role is to develop a very close relationship with the organisation to really understand its needs,” he adds.

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