Tuesday 25 September 2012

Working out loud on the Online Open-plan environment

Newsroom panorama One of the first steps towards enhanced collaboration in the workforce, in the days before Knowledge Management and social media, was the move towards  Open-Plan  offices.

I don't know if you are old enough, but certainly when I started work I quickly graduated (OK, maybe not that quickly!) to having my own office, with walls on which I could put maps and posters, and a door which I could close. I could go for hours not speaking to anyone. I even had my own plant, growing in a flowerpot. I felt, safe, enclosed, private, higher-status

However, in common with most enlightened companies, the day came when we went  Open-Plan.

The cynics say that Open-Plan is just a way to pack more people into the same floor-space, but nevertheless, the increase in communication and collaboration, and in the efficient of work, was remarkable. What we lost, was the status-indicator of the closed office. What we gained was far greater access to knowledge.

According to a 2008 report

A seminal three-year research project conducted by UCLA revealed that companies who had modified their business processes to encourage collaboration and supported new work processes by moving from private spaces to open, collaborative environments realized performance increases (speed and accuracy of work) averaging 440 percent (Majchrzak and Qianwei, 1996). Research examining human resources, procurement, finance and other functional areas (O’Neill, 2007; Majchrzak et al., 2004) confirms the notion that workspace designed to foster group work has a positive impact on business process time and cost. O’Neill (2007) found a 5.5% reduction in business process time and cost for employees who moved from traditional enclosed office space into a mix of non-assigned and assigned open plan furnishings.
Now, of course, we move to a new level of Open-Plan - the open-plan online environment of the socially enabled Community of Practice. And here we have potentially another order-of-magnitude shift in speed and accuracy of work, and another significant reduction in business time and cost.

I have often heard this new way of working called "Working Out Loud" - implying that our work will be "heard" on a regular basis by the other members of our Community.

I have to admit, I do not like this term. I refer back to the physical environment of the Open-Plan office, and think what it would be like if everyone literally "Worked Out Loud" in an open office environment.

It would be bedlam. The Noise would outweigh the Signal, Bigtime.

Some components of work have to be out loud (phone calls for example), but the issue of noise versus signal is an important one which needs to be solved for the Open-Plan office, and which will need to be solved for the Online environment as well. Adding more communication, does not necessarily add more knowledge-sharing.

There has been a lot of research done on Open-Plan attitudes and behaviours, which will carry well into the online space, and which can steer us towards a better understanding, perhaps, of which components of our work need to be "Out Loud", and which components need to be filtered out. Some of these are

  • The recognition that different people react in different ways, depending on their ability to filter our distraction, and the complexity of their mental operations
  • The recognition that some things need to be out loud, such as asking for help and advice ("Has anybody faced this issue before?") and major announcements that others need to know about ("We just landed the contract!"), while more trivial items do not need to be shared ("I'm just going to the restrooms")
  • The recognition that as soon as a conversation becomes a longer discussion confined to two people, it should be moved to private space
  • The recognition that any Open-Plan community needs a set of agreed ground rules, as there are some behaviours that drive people up the wall

I think the bottom line for me would be "Out Loud when it needs to be, otherwise Offline".

Incidentally, the 2008 report has some interesting conclusions about the move to Physical open-Plan, which would equally well apply to the move to Social Online Open Plan, namely

  • Manage Change
  • Create Dedicated Collaboration Areas 
  • Promote Spontaneous Interaction
  • Reduce Distractions
  • Balance Communication and Privacy 
  • Support Learning and Mentoring 

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