When we sat exams at school, there was a little ritual at the start where everyone unpacked their pencil case: ink cartridges, sharpeners and a collection of mascots, in my case, a plastic dinosaur i think. My first office job also bought my first desk, which i treated in much the same way (substituting a computer for the pencil case and with the addition of an inbox to store unwanted paperwork in). In time, i graduated to having a team, which bought a larger desk, several monitors for the computer and a persistent headache.
This morning woke early and took my coffee out into the garden. At the weekend i planted a herb patch, and i sat there in the sun, admiring my handiwork and clearing some emails on the iPad. It’s a beautiful day here, the sun streaming through the trees, so i decided to walk into the office for an hour.
It’s a rare occurrence: our office is in the loft above a pub, a light and airy space full of energy and activity from the studio, but i find it a disruptive place to write, so, when i’m not travelling, i confine myself to cafes and trains, which are strangely more productive. Still, as i’ve been travelling in Asia for the last month, time to show my face.
Walking in, i heard a shout as Rich cycled past, also on his way in, and we walked the final stretch to arrive in time for the Google Hangout, where our dispersed team dial in for a 15 minute session every day.
After an hour, time to leave: i’m mid way through editing the new book, planning for workshops in the US and Asia and sharing some ideas around a couple of potential conferences. Oh, and i’ll record a new podcast for an Australian Mobile Learning course later today as well. On my phone.
Everyday i engage with multiple communities in multiple spaces, often facilitated by technology, occasionally accompanied by coffee. Some people i know only from my communities, others i’ve met face to face. Many i’ve worked with in the past, some i will work with in the future, all i share with widely and collaborate with at every opportunity. This community offers me challenge and support as well as momentum in my writing and a sense check on my weaker ideas (of which there are many: you have to start somewhere in this first reflective space!).
The office is dead: we still have them, we often inhabit them, they form a place to keep our computers and to meet up in the kitchen, but do they really foster innovation and creativity, do they make us agile, able to respond to constant change, do they make us fit for the Social Age?
When i was planting that herb patch, i found a pot with something in that i couldn’t identify: an unknown intruder into the garden. So i took a photo and shared it to my social network (and texted it to my mother). Sure enough, the answer came back rapidly: wild mint. Why didn’t a look at a book? Because this was easier: i reached into my pocket, took the photo and shared it with a short story. Efficient: fast.
The podcast i’m recording later will be used by students in Australia: people i’ll probably never meet in person, but who will be part of my network, without an office, without a formal relationship, without anything as organised as a structure. United by common interests.
It’s funny how the things that give us status change over time: those large office buildings that organisations love to have, the huge aggregated teams, the IT infrastructure, the process and systems. All of it conspires towards inertia, lethargy, an inability to respond, to react. It’s not infrastructure that makes us agile: it’s mindset.
Process, the very thing we rely on to drive consistency, is the very thing that can mitigate against our success.
It’s not that we don’t need offices anymore, it’s just that we need a more agile mindset towards what we do in them. The office shouldn’t constrain work, it should facilitate it. Our systems shouldn’t restrict our capability, they should enhance it. Social technology, collaboration, agility.
Increasingly the office includes virtual components: social and semi formal spaces where we collaborate and create meaning, and only some of these are owned by the organisation. Time and again i hear stories about people who collaborate in the formally sanctioned and owned spaces of the organisation, but who create real value in shared spaces that sit outside of it. Semi formal, often unsanctioned, sometimes actively forbidden, but strangely magnetic to all concerned.
Why do people congregate in these spaces? Why do they increasingly seem to be the places where we find real value? Because of their very nature: they are sense making communities, places for sharing, for challenge, support, tempo, co-creation. Their magnetism is because of the value they add, which is far more than i ever got from those monitors, comfy chair and large desk.
The new work isn’t just about environment, it’s about the very ways that we work: look at Harold Jarche‘s work on knowledge management and organisational structure, John Stepper‘s work on #WorkingOutLoud and finding value. These, and so many other pioneers, are not cranks out on a limb peddling outlandish New Age ideals of liberalism. They’re engineers, examining how systems perform, sharing stories of what work and what’s broken and coming up with practical demonstrations of how to fix them. And none of them are exhorting the value of four walls and a desk. It’s all about understanding networks, understanding the dynamics of social spaces and communities and being effective. They’re pioneers in the new work (don’t take my word for it: they express their visions best in their own words).
My own work around Social Learning and Leadership is inspired by the changes we see: an evolved nature of work, an evolved social contract, the need for socially responsible and effective business and the need for effective learning methodologies that function across all modalities, be it mobile, social, face to face or eLearning. It’s all tied up together for me: the new work.
And why do i write about it? Because this is a movement, a mandate for change, a call to arms to examine what we’re doing and decide what we can stop, what we can change.
Because sharing is at the heart of social learning, at the heart of social leadership. And because it’s more fun. Because working within these global communities is so much more sustaining and nourishing that it ever was to sit in a dingy office constrained by four walls, dreaming of the garden.