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Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…

Formalising water cooler talk


I’ve been speaking a lot with Brian Moon from Perigean Technologies about the need for KMers to formalise the water cooler;  the talks that happen through not-so-chance encounters that take place at the fount (or font, depending on your preference) of all knowledge, the water cooler.

…Every office space has its expert, its own John of Damascus, s/he stops at the water cooler and is soon joined by desk pilgrims in need of guidance (I would hesitate a guess that we have all done this at some point in our careers).  Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t have to be the water cooler, it can be the stairs, a table at the coffee bar, the vending machine; all lay claim to be the shrine of the modern fountain of knowledge…the idea of a water cooler as a metaphor was just too much to resist… Any venue will work, as long as it visible John will get to work; s/he imparts guidance, solves problems, provides the spark for creativity, acts as an agony aunt (‘the way things get done around here’)…
This isn’t new, and this blog, which we’ve been promising to write for weeks, was brought about by an excellent article in the New Yorker, ‘Groupthink:  The Brainstorming myth’

A few years ago, Isaac Kohane, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, published a study that looked at scientific research conducted by groups in an attempt to determine the effect that physical proximity had on the quality of the research. He analyzed more than thirty-five thousand peer-reviewed papers, mapping the precise location of co-authors. Then he assessed the quality of the research by counting the number of subsequent citations. The task, Kohane says, took a “small army of undergraduates” eighteen months to complete. Once the data was amassed, the correlation became clear: when coauthors were closer together, their papers tended to be of significantly higher quality. The best research was consistently produced when scientists were working within ten metres of each other; the least cited papers tended to emerge from collaborators who were a kilometre or more apart. “If you want people to work together effectively, these findings reinforce the need to create architectures that support frequent, physical, spontaneous interactions,” Kohane says. “Even in the era of big science, when researchers spend so much time on the Internet, it’s still so important to create intimate spaces.”
A new generation of laboratory architecture has tried to make chance encounters more likely to take place, and the trend has spread in the business world, too. One fanatical believer in the power of space to enhance the work of groups was Steve Jobs. Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Jobs records that when Jobs was planning Pixar’s headquarters, in 1999, he had the building arranged around a central atrium, so that Pixar’s diverse staff of artists, writers, and computer scientists would run into each other more often. “We used to joke that the building was Steve’s movie,” Ed Catmull, the president of both Disney Animation and Pixar Animation, says. “He really oversaw everything.”
Jobs soon realized that it wasn’t enough simply to create an airy atrium; he needed to force people to go there. He began with the mailboxes, which he shifted to the lobby. Then he moved the meeting rooms to the center of the building, followed by the cafeteria, the coffee bar, and the gift shop. Finally, he decided that the atrium should contain the only set of bathrooms in the entire building. (He was later forced to compromise and install a second pair of bathrooms.) “At first, I thought this was the most ridiculous idea,” Darla Anderson, a producer on several Pixar films, told me. “I didn’t want to have to walk all the way to the atrium every time I needed to do something. That’s just a waste of time. But Steve said, ‘Everybody has to run into each other.’ He really believed that the best meetings happened by accident, in the hallway or parking lot. And you know what? He was right. I get more done having a cup of coffee and striking up a conversation or walking to the bathroom and running into unexpected people than I do sitting at my desk.” Brad Bird, the director of “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” says that Jobs “made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company.”

This idea of proximal advantage, the idea that we communicate more frequently with those we see face-to-face, has been discussed for decades – see the work on the Allen Curve (Thomas Allen).

So, one of the the challenges for those organisations looking to embed or distribute what they know is to formalise water cooler talk.

However, before we all rush out to buy water coolers….Caveat Emptor!  The water cooler, and its resident John of Damascus, can be good for problem solving, but it can also work as a beacon to pull people to a norm…See my blog on innovation:

Strong-ties are built around homogenous bonds.  There is a focus on conformity, reciprocal relationships, reproduction of the norm, high levels of intimacy, low levels of abstractness, established ways of thinking and there are usually links to status. Weak-ties, to a varying extent, and directed-ties, to more of an extent, are more heterogeneous, have significantly lower levels of intimacy, operate with higher levels of abstractness, appear to encourage deviation from the norm, experimentation and are not dependent on role based actors.

Regardless, at least our desk pilgrims will not be thirsty at the end of their journey.

9 comments on “Formalising water cooler talk

  1. Ros Smart
    February 19, 2012

    David, thanks for this blog. As a part-time researcher in the medical field – both very knowledge intense careers – I consider the field of knowledge management to be particularly significant. This blog has helped me draw the 2 fields together and understand better why some researchers/medical institutions keep going around in circles – or should I say silos??
    Up to now, for many senior executives the approach to breaking this down has been to re-structure personnel-“get rid of the bad apples” and “polish the stars”. But maybe their efforts have always been doomed to failure by leaving the environment static?
    One thing that struck me about the Jobs and MIT stories is that the buildings were in a state of constant flux – creating an interesting new space that forced some degree of exploration. Isn’t it rather change alone that enhances creativity? This may also explain why an intermediate “Q” value results in the most creativity for groups. – I’d be interested getting your thoughts on this.

    • David Griffiths
      February 20, 2012

      Hi Ros… excellent stuff! There is a good argument for change generating creativity; if we look at the work around ‘priming’ we start to understand the tendency for uniformity or for routine to reinforce the norm. I am currently working on the importance of space, not from the Nonaka ‘Ba’ perspective, but from the position of space acting as a prompt, or catalyst, for K-Generation/Sharing – would be interested in discussing further, if you are interested? If so, drop me an email or add me on Skype (DavidALKame) and I’ll make some time for a chat.

  2. Pingback: Serengeti Serendipity? « Connections and Contradictions

  3. Pingback: Formalising water cooler talk | Knowledge Sharing |

  4. Pingback: Formalising water cooler talk | Knowledge Broker |

  5. skills services
    March 4, 2012

    Reblogged this on red rabbit skills services – skills programme development services and commented:
    Some great and practical ideas, thanks for sharing…I think proximal advantage was first studied and made explicit by Sociologists, was Thamas Allen a Sociologist?

  6. Pingback: Formalising water cooler talk | KnowledgeManagement |

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