This post and others in our series in our research into workplace strategy and design for the modern workplace can now be found at their new home, on Medium.com: Workplace Strategy.
The rapid growth of a breed of fast-learning, internet-enabled business organisations is likely to have a dramatic effect on our society at all levels, but how will the Learning Economy transform your workplace?
In “systems thinker” Peter Senge’s seminal The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, former Shell Oil planning director Arie De Geus is quoted as saying, “The rate at which organisations learn may become [their] only sustainable source of competitive advantage.”
This prophecy, made originally in 1990, is now coming true.
We are entering an age in which the coupling of computational power and network connectivity with social technologies is already driving change at an unprecedented pace in the workplace.
A whole new generation of fast-adapting, industry-shaping organisations is being born, an inevitable product of an age of accelerating workplace digitisation.
We now have the best tools ever designed for sharing knowledge and disseminating learning across a workplace.
Against the emergence of a Learning Economy, it will be the rate at which companies cultivate their abilities to create and share new proprietary knowledge that will determine their competitiveness and ultimate survival.
But what are the implications of a Learning Economy for commercial building design?
Many companies are experimenting with hot-desking and Activity Based Working (AWB) regimes designed to foster productivity and enhance workplace collaboration.
But in a world where a smartphone app can already let you control your office environment, in a Learning Economy, as the possible performance gains to be driven become apparent to a growing number of businesses, smart occupiers will seek much more from their technologies, their users and their workspaces.
Cost-conscious control of an individual workspace may be appealing, but how can those same tools be used to conjure the new insights and shared learning that drive competitive advances?
Learning as a defining managerial competence
It is becoming clearer that being able to create competitive learning capacities in a business is now one of the most critical managerial competencies of all.
It is also true that the design of workspaces can either be a facilitator of such collaboration, or its hindrance, as collective stupidity is still just as possible as collective intelligence.
What needs attention are the conditions that lead to latter rather than the former.
The problem facing many management teams is that if they have no strategy for learning at any level, their companies risk sacrificing competitive relevance, and eventual obliteration.
Thus, what enterprising chief learning officers need to cultivate are overlapping, inclusive strategies for organisational development, taking into account the physical space and virtual spaces in which that learning can take place, along with the materials and methodologies that can nurture it.
Companies not truly driven to achieve more of their learning potential will never learn as rapidly as those that are.
Increasingly, pain will be felt by managers held hostage by inadequate knowledge-creation and management processes, relative to competitors, their industry or best current practices elsewhere.
Those lacking not just the strategies but also the knowledge and the will to build learning organisations will be most at risk.
Motivations of strategy and culture
Because they directly address the preparedness of a company for its future, decisions to facilitate learning are, by definition, deeply strategic.
They vest not just in the nature and allocation of office space, or in technologies alone, but foremost in the ways in which employees are engaged, motivated and rewarded.
In a Learning Economy, businesses need to change fundamentally the way they think about talent, placing less emphasis on predetermined sets of skills and more focus on the ability to acquire new ones.
To be truly effective, people have to want to come to work and to contribute to the creation of a workplace culture that performs, as, in words attributed to the late management writer, Peter Drucker, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.
Buildings can be potent symbols of that organisational culture, and of the time and attention a company is prepared to give to getting the best out of its workers.
As such, they give off a powerful subliminal signal of expectations, so it is to those who come to work wanting to learn to whom an organisation’s design should be geared as it is they any business should want to attract.
Under-used knowledge exists in any business, but isn’t just lying on the surface waiting to be found, and in many current workplaces, it never will be
Organisations failing to factor this into the design of their premises may be be failing the Learning Economy’s first lesson.
That lesson is that under-used knowledge exists in any business, but isn’t just lying on the surface waiting to be found, and in many current workplaces, it never will be.
Its holders may not step forward, and if businesses design and operate premises without giving mind to the discovery and exploitation of knowledge where it exists, and without a method for capturing it, they will never find it.
Those across a workplace with diverse backgrounds may be more likely to come up with fresh ideas, but if a workplace’s design can’t join the dots between them companies will every day simply keep on wasting the knowledge they contain.
At this point, it seems unlikely that all of our interactions at work will ever be solely digital, and there is still much to be said for face-to-face workplace collaboration.
But when users come to work enthusiastically touting and sharing knowledge using technologies more advanced than those put to use at desktops within the organisation itself, smart managers must recognise which way the wind is blowing.
When they get it, and apply that same enthusiasm to their own organisation’s strategies for learning, this is likely to have a devastating effect on those laggard competitors that don’t.
It is Charles Darwin who asserted, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
Certainly, as we enter the Learning Economy, the challenges of an increasingly potent internet and software-driven mode of existence to incumbent non-digital businesses will play out forcefully on those who fail this test.
And as, through innovations in AWB, work becomes less a place than a process, it should also have an influence on the nature of the physical workplace it offers if a company is able to continue to attract the people it seeks.
The combination of social and building technologies driven by the need to foster learning requires that the workplace be viewed increasingly as an integrated whole, delivered as a coherent experience.
To draw a computing analogy, an effective future workspace is more an operating system built to a defined set of rules than the disparate and disjointed collection of barely related technologies many companies currently represent.
Re-creating an organisation’s physical workplace may be the best place to focus to begin constructing that platform.
About this post
As architects, we aim to get commercial property occupiers, developers, owners and investors a better return on their built space, which means we have to be active observers of technological advances that have impacts for effective workplace design. Many of these parties are of course already acting in line with the inexorable trend towards Activity Based Working-style work environments, but I am conducting unique, proprietary research, to be published here and elsewhere, about what lies beyond this trend. My interest is driven in significant measure by the ways in which social workplace technologies can be engaged in transforming business thinking and practices, as well as in the design of work environments capable of enhancing workplace culture and advancing organisational learning and innovation.
Please also read:
The learning organisation: An interview with Robert Hillard of Deloitte Consulting
Losing fiefdom in the transition to Activity Based Working
Can you compete against the minimum viable office?
Designing for creativity attracts better workers
The challenge of instituting collaborative workplace designs that work across the shop
How will the Learning Economy transform your workplace?
Google wants you to use its minimum viable office. How will you cope?
How might your property be put to better strategic use?