Why collaboration cannot be pinned down in space

Collaboration is one of the most ubiquitous buzzwords in the modern business world. Collaboration is everywhere. Companies want their staff to collaborate more. Workspaces are designed to support collaboration. You’re frowned upon if you publish an academic paper on your own. Why didn’t you collaborate? Does no one like working with you? While co-authoring is more endemic in some  scholarly communities than others (what with the recent CERN paper with almost 3000 co-authors…), collaborating is clearly becoming increasingly important in a lot of different domains and industries.

Collaboration is a word that is easily said. And it is rather fuzzy – at least people use it in all sorts of different contexts, with different things in mind and in different guises. The frustration around the fuzziness is shared by many colleagues, both in academic contexts (for example in the blog by PhD candidate Andrea Jimenez for the ‘Entrepreneurial Spaces and Collectivities’ group), but also in professional ones. The Workplace Design Magazine recently asked designers to sketch their ideal collaborative space. The outcome is a stunning diversity of all sorts of different concepts. A new lexicon of conditions for collaborative spaces was then developed, featuring the following aspects: 1) degree of openness, 2) location, 3) type of technology, 4) flexible furniture, 5) vertical surfaces, 6) size, 7) food service, 8) privacy and security, 9) internal or external collaborators.

While there is nothing wrong with a nice list and the above one features many good pointers, I did not find it particularly useful in the debate around collaboration. Certain aspects seemed under-represented to me, for example the question how collaborative spaces are embedded within the wider office structure. Other aspects raised question marks, too, for instance whether we can (and should) actually programme collaboration onto a space and assign it to a specific location. Isn’t it more a question of making sure people can do the work they need to do whenever necessary and in a suitable place? Designing a collaborative space by thinking about this as a box (or a special kind of meeting room), in which then collaboration happens seems to follow an outdated and overly prescriptive model.

Modern organisations and workflows certainly do not function with a machine logic anymore. Frederick Taylor is most cited and most well known for introducing the so called ‘Principles of Scientific Management’ to work in 1911. Through detailed observations of workers and time-and-motion studies, Taylor restructured simple tasks (like shoveling) with scientific methods (i.e. what is the ideal weight of a single shovel load to not tire out the worker) to create a new and more efficient workflow. Essentially, Taylorism subjected work processes to the logic of efficiency. He was not the first one to do this, though. Durkheim had written about the ‘Division of Labour in Society‘ in 1893 already, and arguably Adam Smith’s ‘On the Wealth of Nations’ in 1776 also covered ideas about splitting down work processes (for example the manufacturing of pins) into simple components, which could be achieved much more efficiently by employing division of labour principles.

However, in today’s organisations we don’t solder pins anymore.  And we do not shovel sand. At least most of us don’t. Instead we engage in highly complex knowledge work, which is less tangible, but more entangled. We do abstract things. We write. And think. And share ideas. And co-create. And code. And re-organise patterns. And teach. And learn. And debate. And test. And communicate. For all of these activities, machine logic does not work anymore. Machine logic means there is a clear input and output. It also means there is a predetermined process and the output is always the same, depending on the input. You throw in 50p and out comes a hot cup of tea. While shoveling and pin making could be subdued to scientific management principles and turn workers into machines on a production line (if you need a refresher, watch the brilliant Charlie Chaplin movie ‘Modern Times’), knowledge intensive work defies this. So why do we still believe we can prescribe collaboration? Assign it to a location? And design a space containing it?

Let me finish with some definitions and thoughts, some sort of checklist of my own:

  1. WHAT? Collaboration is the process of more two or more people actively contributing to a common goal. It is not communication, it is not interaction. It is not the nice conversation at the water cooler. It means people doing stuff together productively towards a joint output.
  2. HOW? Whenever someone says collaboration, ask what they mean. Look at the context and industry. In academia it often means working on a pre-defined project, writing a paper together or applying for bigger research grants. In advertising, it often means working on a campaign and being part of the project team to deliver it, but then people are often part of different teams in parallel, creating a rich fabric of collaborations within an organisation (see this post on co-location and workflows in an advertising agency).
  3. WHO? Most collaborations involve people from different organisations, divisions, teams or groups. Who is part of a collaboration (and who is not) can change the whole process. Is it in-house or beyond? Do people share the same discipline, knowledge and culture, or bring difference to the table? How big is the team?
  4. WHEN? Work often happens in cycles and phases. The intensity of a collaboration will vary over time. So will the tasks. And the contributions of individual people. It is therefore important to understand the temporality of collaborations.
  5. WHERE? Last but not least, we should ask where a collaboration is accommodated in space. Do people meet face-to-face in physical space or collaborate in digital space? While I would argue that machine logic doesn’t lead us anywhere and collaboration cannot be pinned down to a specific spatial location, our world is clearly spatialised. We live a spatial life. We have bodies. We need to be somewhere. And space matters: it brings people together, or keeps them apart. The network visualisation of research collaborations in an institute of theoretical physics below highlights that different spaces in the institute afford different types of collaborations, such as co-authorship, sharing expertise, or supervising (read my book chapter ‘Organizational Learning and Physical Space’ for the extended argument).
Patterns of research collaborations: driven by various rationales (co-authorship, supervisory relations, joint expertise, homophily, etc) and accommodated in different spaces

Patterns of research collaborations: driven by various rationales (co-authorship, supervisory relations, joint expertise, homophily, etc) and accommodated in different spaces

So in summary, I would argue that a collaborative space is a place that brings people together and accommodates the different phases of a project by allowing everyone on the project to fulfil their individual tasks. This coming together can happen almost anywhere. And that is why collaboration cannot be prescribed, spatially assigned or encapsulated.

4 thoughts on “Why collaboration cannot be pinned down in space

  1. Thanks for this Kerstin. Indeed very interesting argument, and yet it is incredible to think that some workspaces are looking for spatial designs that can enable ‘collaboration’. I wonder whether the same argument can be used to understand other fuzzy words, like innovation, and motivation and I would even think that entrepreneurship. In the case of hubs, whilst many are claimed to encourage all of these fuzzy words, my in-depth observation and interviews are showing me a different scenario. It somehow seems to depend more on culture and organizational practices than the design of the space. But then again, perhaps that is because I have not been trained to identify how the space enables or constraints certain practices.

    As for the definitions and thought, I would even include ‘WHY?’ I have found that sometimes the purpose behind the project can shape collaborative practices within a workspace, if any. Within a hub, for instance, mapping out areas affected by a natural disaster involve very strong collaborations, as the outcome is one that exceeds an individual’s intention. But in the cases where the outcome is for-profit/business centered, then collaborating tends to be more difficult.

    • Hi Andrea, very good points. You’re right – I could have included the ‘WHY’ question. I also agree that often organisational culture and practices are at the heart of whether or not collaboration works.
      I can only hypothesize why spatial design might not feature that much in the case of hubs, but I think it might have to do with size. Hubs are typically rather small (dozens of desks or up to 100 desks maybe) and in those systems spatial design does not necessarily hinder or foster the physical getting together of people as much. In large organisations, proximity and distance plays a much bigger role.
      Having said that, I think the spatial design does come in and either enables or undermines organisational efforts. It’s quite easy to overlook space as a variable and certainly our research field of the science of workspace is just beginning to gain traction.

  2. Pingback: When the buzz leaves the hub | ESCies

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