Research about the role of building and workplace design in creating and nurturing organisational learning

Today, I’ve just begun an exercise aimed at building a collaborative body of knowledge about the role of building and workplace design, coupled with the effect of workplace social technologies, in fostering purposeful organisational learning.

As were many others with similar interests, I was attracted to the notion of learning organisations when first learning of Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline (Doubleday, 1990). In it, Arie De Geus, former corporate planning director with Royal Dutch Shell was quoted as saying, “The rate at which organisations learn may become [their] only sustainable source of competitive advantage.”

Pre-dating the emergence of the internet in the workplace, the means to drive consistent workplace learning were for most organisations then most likely either prohibitively expensive, too early stage and experimental for practical use, or the idea simply unknown.

Much may have changed in intervening years, but one thing probably hasn’t changed much at all. Senge suggested that far from being effective learners, most organisations possess learning deficiencies, and he used the parable of the boiled frog to draw the analogy.

Maladaptation to gradually building threats to survival is so pervasive in systems studies of corporate failure that it has given rise to the parable of the “boiled frog.” If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately try to scramble out. But if you place the frog in room temperature water, and don’t scare him, he’ll stay put. Now, if the pot sits on a heat source, and if you gradually turn up the temperature, something very interesting happens. As the temperature rises from 70 to 80 degrees, the frog will do nothing. In fact, he will show every sign of enjoying himself. As the temperature gradually increases, the frog will become groggier and groggier, until he is unable to climb out of the pot. Though there is nothing restraining him, the frog will sit there and boil. Why? Because the frog’s internal apparatus for sensing threats to survival is geared to sudden changes in his environment, not to slow, gradual changes.

Casting forward 25 years and contemplating the pervasiveness of social technologies, both within and without the working environment, we definitely now have the tools to drive fast learning change.

How many organisations will apply them with purpose to monitor and act effectively on the changes occurring in their own competitive environment is another question.

Moreover, as the pace of technological change accelerates, those that do not adapt to focusing more effectively the knowledge their organisations contain can only emerge as losers.

Of course, even the best of building design can rarely enable the impossible if the practices taking place in the workplace are sub-standard, but it can certainly be the enemy of the good and exacerbate the worst.

If learning and organisational development are your preoccupations in, and possibly outside of, your working hours, the last thing you will want to discover is how, despite your best intentions, your working environment is confounding your efforts.

Nevertheless, a greater focus on organisational learning invoked in part by the design of the working environment around the social technologies emerging within it seems one worthy of research. It could change a lot about the modern-day workplace.

If you agree, join me in finding out more.


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