“The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together. It is the human friction that makes the spark.” Jonah Lehner, The New Yorker
People share quite a few things in a modern, non-territorial office: meeting rooms, the coffee lounge, even desks are used on a communal basis. However, we are still just learning how to share the most important resource in the modern work environment: knowledge. The most interesting tasks that we confront in our working lives are typically highly complex and cannot be completed by individuals alone – or how many projects have you really completed on your own?
While we previously dealt with our acquired knowledge by simply storing it and then it was “ours” forever, today we must constantly learn new things and adjust our knowledge to the tasks set before us. Access to information and the right handling of it are therefore more important than a brain with large storage capacity. In the final analysis, knowledge work is not about committing unchanging facts to memory and calling them up as needed; instead, we are asked to delve into a wealth of available information, fish out what we need, and use it to solve our tasks in a creative way.
The most ground-breaking scientific discoveries of yesteryear were the result of work done by “solitary geniuses”. But science (and business too) has long ceased to be a discipline for lone wolves; most people work better in a team, and the huge abundance of knowledge even makes collaboration a necessity. The answers to questions are often situated at the interfaces between individual disciplines. An exchange of knowledge is essential for finding convincing solutions that cross departmental and disciplinary boundaries. If collaboration works in a team, it’s an advantage for everyone: the project profits from extensive input, employees share knowledge, and they learn from others at the same time.
In order for this exchange of know-how, experience and expertise to work, companies are called on to create structures and incentives that promote precisely this kind of transfer. This does not focus primarily on the introduction of new technologies and work methods – rather, the company should encourage the genesis of a culture of trust and sharing.
It sounds simple, but it’s not. In most companies, the watchword is “knowledge is power”. The more information I as an employee can possess exclusively, the more questions only I can answer, then the more secure is my position in the company. The “ownership” of knowledge is a unique feature and an important criterion for positioning within the corporate hierarchy. Sharing knowledge is of course unpopular in such structures because sharing information would mean a loss of one’s own power.
Social software promises a possible solution for this dilemma. Relying on the philosophy of collaboration in new media such as Facebook or Twitter, which are based on personal and professional information, communication structures in companies are being made “more social”. Tools such as micro-blogs and wikis, and platforms such as Yammer, convey central elements of digital interaction to corporate communication. Companies hope that this will lead to an improvement in internal collaboration, more efficiency, a more dynamic distribution of knowledge, and higher process transparency. The rules for applying these tools come from social media principles: Information is passed on quickly and directly, and it is accessible and usable by everyone. The transparency of data, facts and processes also prevents duplicated work and sensitises employees for recognising connections. In addition, this type of digital communication makes working together more efficient by reducing e-mail traffic and accelerating formal processes.
To be able to realise the advantages of these social technologies, companies must however want and exemplify the cultural change that comes with it. This means on one hand that structures will become more open and hierarchies will flatten out. Above all, though, a basic trust is required in the abilities and self-responsibility of the employees, as well as a readiness to value the sharing of knowledge.
By definition, a team is a group of specialists, acting on their own responsibility, who come together to achieve a goal defined in advance. There are different reasons why a team can fail: Often the factors that make teamwork so difficult include the absence of planning, non-existent recognition of individual achievements, or the feeling of being without a leader.
In a good team, tasks are assigned to employees based on their competencies. Each member is autonomous in his specialised area yet must also understand that his knowledge is only one part of the larger whole. It is also important to have clearly articulated goals and an open discussion that permits criticism.
In 1948, Alex Gibson, a New York advertising specialist, published his book, “Your Creative Power”, in which he introduced the creative technique known as “brainstorming”. Surely you are familiar with the idea: in brainstorming, a group of individuals work together to generate as many ideas as they can on a given topic. This method clearly foregrounds quantity: everyone is supposed to say whatever comes into their head. Criticism and negative feedback are expressly forbidden so that team members are not intimidated. The hope is that at least one good idea will come out of a wealth of ideas.
In the meantime, however, innumerable empirical studies have shown that brainstorming’s success as a creative technique is questionable; in most cases, individuals working alone in a concentrated manner, or teams that cooperate according to specific rules, can develop better, more valuable ideas. When people work in a team, a fixed body of rules and an open discussion culture are indispensable. Active debate and productive critique can stimulate new ideas, promote creativity, and generate many new, unforeseeable solutions to problems.
A central component of teamwork that we have already mentioned is compartmentalising competencies. The good old rule, “Cobbler, stick to thy last”, also applies to teamwork. A surgical operation team may serve as a clear example for cooperation at the highest level: Clearly circumscribed areas of responsibility and absolute trust in the competence of colleagues are essential prerequisites for successful work at the operating table.
Thanks to modern technology, collaboration is no longer tied to a specific place; video conferences are one example of a technology that can facilitate teamwork across space and time zones. Despite the relief that digital communication brings, the office remains an important social meeting point in its function as the interface between the virtual and real worlds. A group of colleagues only becomes a team if they are given a chance to have a location.
Physical contact is irreplaceable and indispensable for getting to know one another, for teamwork, and promoting trust among colleagues. Studies show that the most successful – meaning the most often cited – scholarly works are those that were written by co-authors who were located in direct proximity to one another. Even if a majority of daily work is done in front of a computer nowadays, innovation requires real spaces and actual human contact.
Another factor for successful teamwork: enough space for informal communication. In the final analysis, the best ideas often do not come up in a meeting, but rather when colleagues happen to see each other in the hallway or talk during a coffee break. Creative knowledge work requires spaces that inspire, that promote interaction, and thereby become centres of dialogue.
A nice example of the innovative power of spaces is Building 20, which even today is considered one of the world’s most creative spaces. Originally planned as a temporary laboratory at MIT, Building 20 hosted an array of innovations from 1943 to 1998, including the development of complex radar systems, the first video game, and the foundations of Noam Chomsky’s linguistics. According to legend, the building was designed in a single afternoon – design and equipment left something to be desired. Thin walls, lots of concrete, and poor air circulation meant that the building wasn’t particularly beloved by its tenants. Nevertheless, over time Building 20 became a centre for ground-breaking research in various disciplines. Why? On one hand because of its interdisciplinarity: offices were shared by scientists, students and craftsmen of very different disciplines, all of whom had no idea or comprehension of what the others were working on. The tenants were constantly running into each other because the building’s chaotic layout and the incomprehensible system of room numbering made it easy to get lost. However, this resulted in lots of informal exchanges and casual interaction. The young Noam Chomsky, for example, drew inspiration from biology, psychology and computer technology, all of which he integrated later into his theory of linguistics.
Also, it was paradoxically the loveless design of Building 20 that was an engine of innovation: scientists had no qualms about redesigning their workspaces as they saw fit, sometimes even tearing down entire walls and fashioning an environment in which they could attain maximum creativity.
Building 20 proved that spaces can be an important engine for creativity. In principle, though, every office can become a centre for innovation and successful collaboration by investing trust in knowledge workers and giving them the freedoms and tools they need for their activities. This calls for a corporate culture that allows creativity and supports collaboration. Yet obviously it also requires the right kind of space: special areas for team- and project-related activities, as well as zones for focused work and informal exchange. Employees use these different places, which are dedicated to interaction and inspiration, depending on their needs and activity profile. In this kind of atmosphere, there’s no more need to tear down walls – good teamwork alone is enough to move mountains.