Organization Design Blog
Organization design blog- June 2013
Last week I mentioned an interview with Ivor Southwood. In it he brought up the notion of workplaces as 'non-places' which, as I started to think about that, and look around the places I was in, became an intriguing idea to explore further. In the interview Southwood says that:
"Non-places is a term I came across in a book by the anthropologist Mark Augé. He was talking about transitional places, in particular places like airports, supermarkets, and motorways, etc. These, I suppose, are part of the architecture of neoliberal capitalism, in that they seem frictionless although, of course, they aren't. People with long commutes to work, for example, are always coming across glitches.
We're spending more and more time in 'non-places'. People are commuting for longer and longer times. What kind of time is that? It's sort of non-time, in a way. It's time in a non-place. What can you actually do? Who are you with? You're not with your colleagues or with your friends. You're on your own with passengers who are not talking to each other. Non-places are places of solitude and also places where your identity is suspended."
Another aspect of non-places is amnesia. They kind of resist remembering. That possibly applies to a lot of work now. You finish one assignment and then you erase it and go on to the next one."
As happens once something interesting comes my way then there seem to be several more supporting or similar things. There's a particular phrase on this 'reticular activation', which points to the phenomenon that it's brain activity (by the reticular activating system) and not happenstance that leads to being alerted and suddenly paying attention to what is already there. In normal circumstances according to a Sherlock Holmes aphorism 'You see but you do not observe'. Once alerted, in my experience, the observation follows.
The things that formed a pattern this week are all to do with work and power. In the first instance it was actual electrical power. Washington DC, where I live, and several adjacent states suffered a severe storm on Friday June 29 that resulted in a power cut (outage) including, for some, cut off of internet and phone connections. I was out of the country at the time so unaffected but now I am back and traveling down to visit a friend in Southern Virginia who today, July 8, still has no power or water and very intermittent phone and internet. (The water is pumped from a well).
Hearing this I started to think about how most knowledge work cannot get done without access to electrical power or internet availability. A friend told me a story of how when the internet went down in her house one evening at 9:00 p.m. the five residents (who were all on their individual laptops at the time) decided that there was nothing else to do but go to bed.
I've been doing a piece of work where the question of generational differences has come up a few times. There's a feeling that each generation is very different and there are stereotypes being generated of Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials, and Baby Boomers and time periods which mark the start of that generation.
This isn't the right moment for me to talk about why I think the whole generational thing that stereotypes like this tend to solidify in people's minds is overblown, and makes a lot of money for consultants. I've met many older people who are totally computer and social media literate, entrepreneurial, and happy mobile workers, and many younger ones who've got very limited computer skills, no spirit of get up and go, and want a manager who will tell them what to do. But I am happy to say that I think different people whatever their age have different responses to work, the workplace, management style, career progression and so on.
So I was amused this week when I got several articles about aging into my email box. I can't remember now (is it because I am one of those referred to as 'senior') whether someone sent me an article which I forwarded to someone and he/she sent me one in return, or whether getting several is happenstance, or whether a report on aging has triggered journalists to all weigh in on the topic. Of course, it could be any combination of these plus other things. Van Morrison's phrase springs to mind 'There ain't know why there just is.' And now I'm wondering how old Van Morrison is.
A regular part of organizational life are those events called 'off-sites', 'retreats', 'teambuilding' or sometimes 'jollies'. I've been on my fair share of them ranging from outdoor experiential stuff in Dorset where we had to build rafts, scale walls, wade through water and so on to indoor hotel conference rooms, in places close to airports, with no daylight where we indulged in co-counselling and revealing our innermost thoughts to team members while sitting in a circle.
The Dorset thing was fairly early on in my career. I was a novice at that stage and when the trainer asked what activity we would least like to do given a choice of things like potholing, rock climbing, and white water rafting I naively said 'potholing' thinking we would be allocated to something we would like to do. Not the case. I spent a long terrifying day crawling underground in the darkness through wet mud. The trainer thought it would help me face my fears. I've never been near a pothole again.
One of the sitting in circle ones I remember, also early in my career, was where the trainer chain smoked throughout the day. (You can tell how long ago that was). As the room filled with smoke I asked him if he would stop smoking or smoke outside. He lashed out at me for stepping on his 'rights' and said if I didn't like him smoking I could leave the course. So much for a 'safe environment'.
What I learned from these early career experiences was to treat teambuilding events with a certain skepticism. I don't think that was the intention of them. But I was never quite clear what the intention of them was.
This is one of the difficulties with teambuilding events. Getting to some reliable assessment of their value or any return on investment is extremely difficult. This may be because the objectives and intended outcomes are not spelled out in a way that then facilitates effective measurement. This problem came to mind a couple of weeks ago when I was a participant in a two day off-site with my colleagues. This was an event designed to promote ... what?
Each week brings a whole host of new stuff that I can incorporate into my work. Hardly any of it comes from a formal learning environment like a course, or webinar, most of it comes from chatting with people who then say 'have you read this?', or 'you might be interested in this', or 'give this a go'. So my Amazon wish list (for books) gets longer each week, my toolbox of things to use on client assignments gets bigger, my list of movies (films) to watch grows, and the You Tube things people suggest make me realize if I did no work whatsoever and simply worked through what people suggested I still wouldn't be able to cope with the flood of new info. This week was no exception, so here's what I've added.
Problem seeking: an architectural programming primer, by William Pena with Steven Parshall and Kevin Kelly. Someone lent me the third edition (1987) but I see it is now in a fifth edition. I got this recommendation when I was sitting with a bunch of architects and asked why every meeting I went to with them they seized 23 x 14 cm cards with a grid on one side and plain on the other. They don't seem able to have a meeting without these cards. But I learned that they originate from a problem seeking methodology (outlined in the book). They are kind of a pre-post note method of putting ideas down and then being able to re-arrange them. I haven't started to use the cards yet as I'm still reading the 'how to', but maybe when and if I do I will be fully oriented to working with architects and designers. This is one I am now three-quarters of the way through and have ordered version 5 to have a copy myself
Between May 27 and June 10 (today) I've been in various cities: New York, Oxford, Brussels, Paris, Los Angeles, and today Chicago. I've been in Union Station (Washington DC), Penn Station (NY), Newark Airport, London Airport, Brussels Airport, a coach to Paris, the Dover-Calais ferry, Eurostar, Gare du Nord, St Pancras Station, and Oxford Station, LA Airport, Chicago Airport. I've been in several different hotel lobbies and public areas and countless cafes and restaurants.
I'm not writing this list to illustrate my current insane nomadic life but to ask a question. Why in all these places I am forced to listen to one or all of piped music, television broadcasts, and public service announcements? This noise is competing with people talking to each other (conversational pitch), on their cell phones (extra loud 'phone voices'), EMS and police sirens, traffic noise, additional noise from repair or construction work sites, and street buskers.
I have a particular fury with piped music which seems to be everywhere except the quiet coach of the Amtrak, the Eurostar, and an aircraft once it has taken off. The effect of having to shout my coffee order to a barista because she cannot hear above the music has now led me to write my regular order on a card and hand it to my server.