Jennifer Carrel, Perkins Eastman’s director of knowledge management and manager of the firm’s intranet, says her staff comes from IT and internal communications. “It’s a customer service role.”
Matt Greenslade Jennifer Carrel, Perkins Eastman’s director of knowledge management and manager of the firm’s intranet, says her staff comes from IT and internal communications. “It’s a customer service role.”

Jennifer Carrel was hired eight years ago by New York–based Perkins Eastman to create the firm’s knowledge management department and spearhead the development of its intranet, now known as ORCHARD (Online Resource for the Creative Harvest of Architecturally Relevant Discovery). The Indianapolis native is not an architect but previously consulted for nonprofits and arts organizations. As director of knowledge management, she heads a staff of five within the 650-person firm. “We’re parallel to IT, HR, and operations,” she says of her department. “We sit at that same level and work between and with those groups.” How are intranets organized?

Most are very transactional—a place where you go to get templates and forms and look up information on your HR benefits.

What makes ORCHARD different?

It’s the homepage when you turn on your computer. Our website designer does the look and feel for ORCHARD. Everybody sees firm news when they log in. There are 11 practice areas, and communities are focused around the practice areas and other areas of interest: the IDP program, people who are studying for the LEED exam. There are tons of resources, including study groups. It’s a forum for communication and sharing.

Are some communities more successful than others?

Senior living is very active, with three gatekeepers—experts in that area. They’re in different offices, so it bridges the geographic gap and gets other people excited and involved. Staff submit questions, and there’s a dialogue. Depending on the type of content, it can be built back into the core content, or it can just live as that conversation for future reference.

How do you introduce ORCHARD to new staff?

Everybody has access on day one, but there are different levels of access. New-hire ORCHARD orientation for all staff is about two and a half hours. It takes staff through all the resources that are available—codes, MasterSpec, databases, project management, and our communities, which are unique to our intranet—getting them to understand where they can find information. Then you have more-advanced training based on your role.

How do you interact with IT?

They’re the infrastructure support. If we have ideas or want to implement new technology, we’ll talk to them about our research, what we think is best for the user, and what we already have in place.

Are your knowledge management people architects?

No. They’re mostly from internal communications, with a couple from IT. It’s a customer service and communications role. They need to have a strong background understanding the technology.

How is ORCHARD related to the Perkins Eastman website?

They are two different systems, but they’re tightly integrated. We link back and forth and try not to duplicate information. The press releases on ORCHARD link to the same piece of content on the public website. On ORCHARD, there is an “About Perkins Eastman” section that goes into a lot more detail than the website. The staff can read the strategic plan, things that are just internal.

Is it available outside the office?

You can link to it through your BlackBerry, and you have full access via laptop with employee login. We had a team in India give a presentation. After the first meeting, they got feedback [from the potential client] that they needed to focus on other areas. They spent the whole night pulling down information and images on other projects [from ORCHARD] for their second presentation.

How much does ORCHARD cost?

It’s not so much a financial commitment as one of staff and culture. There are staff salaries—that’s a financial commitment—but in terms of software, we’re very lean. We started with basic HTML. It really didn’t take much. The main investment is the time and culture commitment. It has to be owned by the staff. Figuring out how to make that happen is key.

How is the intranet evolving?

We’re transitioning to a new software system, building in wiki technology and social-networking tools. Facebook is becoming an integral part of the way we all communicate, and ORCHARD is that for the firm. We’re adding blogs to the community spaces and getting people connected to other people who can help them. The wall between personal and professional is breaking down on some levels. It will be interesting.?