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What a coffee corner provides, how to call it and a research agenda

Coffee table in Enschede (Office) in a tired mood by Johan Koolwaaij

Coffee table in Enschede (Office) in a tired mood by Johan Koolwaaij

For a long time I’ve been interested in the fuzzy, informal, accidental and non-goal oriented parts of knowledge work – things that we often do implicitly, but that are actually essential to create a foundation to get things done later on. Normally a lot of those activities are happening in and around of the the physical space. For example, think of a coffee corner and it’s role at work:

  • At the basic level a coffee corner provides a coffee (or other nourishments 🙂 and a break from what one is doing.
  • Often the conversations about on-going work continue at a coffee-corner (especially if you go there in a meeting break), but more informally, providing opportunities to deviate from what have to be done and to explore crazy alternatives.
  • It also provides a space for accidental help and knowledge sharing, when colleagues from different groups/projects talk about something interesting they do/read/think about.
  • It’s a great space for relationship building – sharing personal stories, food and drink helps to get to know people and to build trust.
  • It’s a great place to pick up bits a pieces of information (rumours 🙂 that help to build a bigger picture of an organisation, group or project – what’s going on and why, who is busy with it, what are the powers at play.

In the office life there are many other opportunities for similar things: sharing rooms, bumping into colleagues in the corridor, social events or meetings (even most of ‘lets get things done’ meetings have moments – waiting for others to arrive, endings, breaks and other detours from dealing with the agenda points). When we are together in one space, it creates an opportunity and an excuse to talk about things that are rarely worth to focus on intentionally (e.g. plan a meeting for), but are important for creating social and intellectual fabric behind the work.

One of the things I’ve been struggling with is the name for those things – those that provide us with time, space, opportunities and excuses to engage into informal and non-goal oriented interactions. Are they spaces? activities? contexts? structures?

There should be some research on it and I’m slowly digging into it, but so far have only the ingredients, but not the answers I want to have. So far the most inspiring insights come from the work of Jan Gehl on emergence of social activities in urban public spaces (see bits and pieces tagged as life between buildings), but I’d love to hear about other works in that direction.

My bigger interest behind all of it is simple – I want to understand how those things work when we move from a physical space into a digital one. It comes from two sides. First is about understanding what is missing when the work becomes distributed (expect more on it – I’m working on a case :). The second one is about emergent solutions – articulating how exactly tools facilitate things ‘around work’ that enable it.

The insights from my PhD research on how blogging supports the ‘fuzzy’ end of the knowledge work feed directly into that. This is what I say on it in my dissertation when discussing further research needs (p.226 of my dissertation; some context is in Blog as an edge zone):

…the effects of blogging are often accidental and emergent, rather than intentional. Bloggers and their weblogs might connect different social worlds not because they intend to do so, but by writing about eclectic topics that interest them and by making what they write accessible to various audiences. Relations between bloggers and more complex community structures might emerge as a result of individuals serving their own interests in a publicly visible way. Capturing and understanding those effects requires theories that account for practices that might seem to have lack of purpose. In relation to knowledge work that would mean theories that look at knowledge worker activities that go beyond performing specific tasks, or at interactions that look aimless (e.g. as some of those discussed by Nardi, 2005). Using the terminology of Jan Gehl, “excursions” that might have nothing to do with knowledge work on a surface (like drinking coffee together) might be a pretext or an occasion for something that is essential to enable it.

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Colin Milligan November 27, 2009, 16:59

    Thanks for the interesting post Lilia, I’m also interested in the way that a goal or activity emerges or coalesces out of the mass of thoughts and interactions we have. I’m not sure I can come up with a better word for you. To me, I think it’s about the right people coming together at the right time, with the right (recent) experience. This made me think of words like moment, or instance, but perhaps these are too focused on the ‘time’ component. The word intersection seemed good to me, as it captures the meeting point of two independent paths.

    As for your wider interest, a recent post by Martin Weller at http://nogoodreason.typepad.co.uk/no_good_reason/2009/11/how-do-you-connect-the-rise-of-serendipity.html should be stimulating: the way we maintain lightweight connections to others in our networks through blogs/comments, twitter etc. means we can easily activate those relationships to work productively.

  • John David Smith December 17, 2009, 20:37

    One resource is Charlotte Linde’s “Working the Past; Narrative and Institutional Memory” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) http://isbn.nu/9780195140293 . On p 47 she presents a typology that I find really useful. She talks about types of social occasions and types of places: “Occasions for narrative remembering.”

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