The Future of the Future: The future workplace

This article appears in the issue June 2006, [Vol 15, Issue 6]


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Everything about work--where we work, how we work, what tools and information we work with--is changing. Change is accelerating due to a continuous refinement of business processes to stay competitive. However, business process and organizational changes are sometimes implemented without fully understanding the disruption the changes may have on work patterns and social networks that are the informal bedrock of the workplace. Often unintended consequences create knowledge bottlenecks and broken processes when initiatives to optimize one asset (say office space costs) cause a sub optimization to another asset (say the breakup of community work patterns and IT support infrastructure).

For example, firms with workspace reduction initiatives underway are focused on making the "most out of space" and expecting IT capabilities for fast access to content and collaboration to continue to help them make the "most out of people." The reality is that face-to-face time and impromptu interaction with co-workers in a common office environment are difficult to duplicate remotely and virtually. Even though the disruption to worker productivity is not well understood, organizations are doing it anyway to reduce costs. That is why a larger perspective is needed.

What is needed is an integrated, systems-thinking approach to the workplace that ensures a more balanced and optimized perspective when changing the work environment. This perspective proposes that the future workplace not be viewed as a single monolith, but as consisting of four interdependent parts, or spaces. It is believed "the new workplace" requires the design, balance, integration and care of four spaces: physical space, information space, organizational space and cognitive space.

Physical space research has shown that the physical layout of the workplace is important in affecting team performance, individual learning and overall job satisfaction. To positively impact those attributes, the workplace must provide a distraction-free work area while at the same time support impromptu worker interaction. Surveys show that interacting with others is the number one way workers learn what they need to know to perform their job. If physical space is constrained or eliminated, the other spaces will need to know how to pick up the slack.

Information space provides the tools, systems and information applications that help workers manage their work more productively. Generally this space has been supplied by IT with a one-size-fits-all approach. Over time it must provide a more personal knowledge workspace drawing from some of the following emerging capabilities:

  • dashboards that consolidate multiple disparate information streams into integrated user interfaces,
  • personalization tools and filters that refine the content of information streams to ensure personal relevancy and timeliness,
  • smart agents and documents that "take action" on behalf of the worker for reducing/eliminating low-value work,
  • look-ahead scanning systems that scan for potential problems before they become a crisis, and
  • enhanced personal social networks made more useable and accessible through collaboration and team support systems.

Tools in the information space will go a long way toward helping raise the value of work by affecting quality, speed, innovation, collaboration and the elimination of waste.

Organizational space is associated with governance, hierarchy, projects, teams, communities, social networks and more. Because organizations are continually going through change to adjust to external pressures and internal goals, disruption to some of the more informal organizational expressions, such as communities and social networks, is often overlooked during the change. For example, a large service organization found that its high performers relied more on social networks for problem solving than formal documentation and solutions databases. Low performers on the other hand were more apt to use the formal information sources supplied by IT. By neglecting to care for the informal aspects of organizational space, firms risk hurting the very workers they value the most, the high performers.

Cognitive space supports the individuality of the worker. Many disciplines continue to research ways to improve the illusive knowledge worker productivity goal by focusing on such themes as learning through work, mental modeling, collaborative/solo work patterns, accelerated decision making, to name a few. In addition there are other important dimensions to consider. For example, workers approach thinking and problem solving differently, so the one-size-fits-all approach to IT infrastructure has limitations on the technology dimension.

Another dimension to the cognitive space that is growing in importance is the role of personal social networks as a way of extending the "useful knowledge field" of a worker's portfolio. Physical space is resurfacing as another dimension which has important implications on the cognitive as well as we observe the neuroscience field teaming up with architects to study the affects of physical space on the individual workers performance. In a way the cognitive space is perhaps the least known of the four spaces, but it can be argued that it is probably the most important to be more deeply understood.

The "four-space model" was grown out of experiences gathered in KM practices over the past several years. It is believed to be a promising framework for helping enterprises of the future prepare for building world-class work environments that need to provide certain capabilities including:

  • building a work environment that both attracts and retains the best talent available in the marketplace to drive growth and performance; 
  • enabling an agile and adaptable work ecosystem that supports work anywhere, anytime and anyway;
  • ensuring that knowledge creation, flow and retention both within and across the enterprise boundaries are both pervasive and systematic; and
  • providing the workplace structure that helps talent raise the value of their work in measurable and visible ways.

To enhance four-space model usability, further research is needed to develop a set of analytical tools that will help characterize the current state, desired state and the gap of a user's work environment, when setting out to build a world-class workplace. The needed future research areas include:

  • assess the level of interdependencies of the four spaces against each of the above work-related needs;
  • determine the relative weighting and level of optimization for each of the four spaces;
  • assess at what level the model is most useful, i.e. communities of practice, business processes, collaboration initiatives, functional areas, etc.;
  • determine the key dimensions of each space and how to measure them;
  • develop a technique/tool to map the degree of four-space optimization; and
  • develop benchmark levels for high-performing enterprises and workers.

The future workplace overall needs to be an energizing and effective place to work. The four-space model and future research to enhance the model will provide a more systematic way to gain insight into how to build a holistic workplace that will enable enterprises to both attract and retain much needed talent for the coming decade.


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