The last blog post talked about how physical place is playing an increasingly important role in supporting learning at and through work, and how some workplaces are now looking and feeling like university campuses. It also warns against thinking about ‘the workplace’ as singular. Like campuses, which tend to be a collection of buildings, the learning workplace is distributed across multiples places throughout towns and cities.
Since writing part one of The Campus Workplace, Anne McCrossan (@annemcx) and I had a business lunch at The Petersham Nurseries. I wish my writing abilities could conjour up the atmosphere in that peaceful place. The tables and chairs do not match, the smell of plants and flowers permeate the air, and what you see as you eat and chat is a gorgeous profusion of greenery that is gentle on the eye and soul. Our conversation would have been energetic and engaging anyway but the place we were in was particularly relaxing, inspiring and particularly conducive to creative conversation.
Creativity and abandoned spaces
Many modern workplaces couldn’t be more different. Someone pointed out to me that people are usually conspicuously missing from images of award-winning workspaces. Where’s the creative mess – the tools, post-it notes, files and general evidence of shared thoughts-in-progress? He pointed out that Soho in London is full of cramped, inefficient and messy offices that give rise to immense creativity.
Whereas creativity can emerge from the tranquil surroundings Anne and I experienced, a perhaps more edgy creativity can emerge from abandonment. The French philosopher, Yves Michaud, observes that artistic creativity thrives in “provisional spaces” and within contexts of creative destruction, which in many cases are disorganised and disjointed.
Michaud argues that we should leave time and opportunity for disorganisation; a space for something to happen and for creativity to emerge. This is in complete contrast to the majority of orchestrated, organised, structured, restricted and ordered corporate environments.
Designing ‘for’ and designing ‘in’
Greg Lloyd (@roundtrip) kindly told me about Re-Place-ing Space: The Roles of Place and Space in Collaborative Systems. The authors, Harrison and Dourish assess the role of place and space in collaborative systems and explain space as “the three-dimensional environment in which objects and events occur, and in which they have relative position and direction”. The properties of physical space apply everywhere. As they comment, up is up for everyone.
They say that space becomes place when it is invested with meaning and expectations, for example how people are expected to behave within a place. According to Harrison and Dourish, a sense of place is essentially a cultural phenomenon involving “a communally-held sense of appropriate behaviour, and a context for engaging in and interpreting action”.
It is a community that determines how a sense of place develops over a time. Since places have social meaning constructed by place users themselves, workplace designers can “design for” but it cannot be “designed in”. The extent to which people are allowed to participate in the design and use of their workplaces, or choose which alternatives suit them, is highly dependent on organisational cultures and performance support systems.
Designing for context
As well as workplaces being designed for atmosphere and creativity, the physical environment has to be able to support diverse people engaging in diverse formal, informal, individual and collaborative work activities.
One of the most useful frameworks I came across many years ago is the Puttick Grid, which categorises industries according to product complexity and market uncertainty. The framework of four quadrants (fashion, commodities, consumer durables and super value goods) makes it easy to see that each product category has different process characteristics. This short paper on IT-enabled agile manufacturing is good example of how the grid can be used to analyse business processes, performance indicators, capabilities and strategic responses.
The workplace framework
The Smart Work Framework summarises four profiles of learning workplaces according to structure, global reach, knowledge type, workstyle and social complexity. These broad categories are described and offered as work-in-progress.
Profiles 1 and 2 represent past good practice or where we have mainly got to now. Many organisational cultures and management practices haven’t reached the first base of these profiles. Profiles 3 and 4 represent where increasing numbers of businesses are likely to be heading – a shift to globally-distributed, based on networked collective intelligence, high-value knowledge businesses.
The framework is meant as a reminder that one size doesn’t fit all and that the learning or campus workplace will have to take accommodate and support different business needs. But whatever the specific context and business, workplaces above all have to be places where people can feel safe, comfortable, playful and creative.