Physical space and sharing

My eye was caught by an interesting course CILIP are running, entitled “Innovative use of physical space for effective knowledge management”.

The old adage crops up again and again in KM: “The smokers are the best-informed people in the office”, which my information audit work thus far has confirmed. I wouldn’t recommend buying a pack of Benson & Hedges and claiming the costs as legitimate KM expenses, but it’s worthwhile looking at how the work environment affects how people interact and use their knowledge.

Our natural day-to-day habitats have a broad mix of physical environments. There are spaces for quiet solo contemplation. Spaces for group entertainment. Spaces for learning. Spaces for socialising.

Natural habitats have both spaces for full interaction and ‘dens’. However, we spend over a third of our waking lives in working environments that we generally have very little influence over. What is particularly notable is the homogeneity of these spaces – offices, building sites, schools etc are largely similar to one another, and tend not to offer much by way of ‘natural’ variety.

As a result, the working environment has to suffice for all the various tasks we are asked to perform; and the results aren’t always successful. Trying to interpret complex statistics is very difficult while your colleagues are chatting about last night’s episode of 24 – and, on the flipside, if you need to bounce an idea off a colleague who’s up on the third floor at the far end of a tortuous cubicle maze, you’d be forgiven for resorting to an email.

I can think of some obvious steps can that can be taken to overcome these barriers, but I’d be interested to hear of more sophisticated options:

  • Remove cubicle dividers

  • Encourage staff to sit in unfamiliar desks from time to time (something I'm trying to do myself)

  • Hold meetings outside the office, particularly when creativity is essential

  • Create a 'learning space' stocked with periodicals, interesting articles, comfortable chairs, artwork, even music - whatever's required to break the norm

  • Stop using the phone or email to contact someone who's in the building!

  • Provide a 'quiet room' where staff can lock themselves away when their work demands silent concentration.

I shan’t be attending the course unfortunately – space is already at a premium in our office and we’re not in the position to make any major changes. However, it’s an interesting topic with a number of extensions. I’m particularly interested in how the design of space will apply to the virtual world (particularly intranets etc) so I dare say I’ll have some more to say on the topic once I’ve found the time and space for some quiet contemplation.

Cennydd Bowles