The Productive Workplace: The Space for Computational Thinking

Computational thinking: ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning.

This post marks the half-way mark of this series of posts on the productive workplace and the need to support the skills and activities of the future.

Like many of the previous post it’s worth having a definition here:

Computational thinking is the thought processes involved in formulating problems and their solutions so that the solutions are represented in a form that can effectively be carried out by an information-processing agent.

Cuny, Snyder, Wing

Or more simply:

Computational thinking describes the mental activity in formulating a problem to admit a computational solution.

In the IT buzz-phrase Top 10 for 2014 Big Data is certainly in their. Like most phrases it’s going through a significant amount of definition entropy as people seek to claim it for their own benefit. What is clear, though, is that what we call Big Data today is only just the start of the sea of data that is going to become available in the coming years.

Another IT buzz-phrase for 2014 is Internet of Things with Gartner estimating that there will be 26 billion units on the Internet by 2020, each of them sending out streams of data.

If we are going to gain insights from all of this data then we are going to need to be equipped with a set of creative skills and metal techniques.

Much of the ocean of data is going to be freely accessible so it’s not going to be the possession of data that is going to be the value differentiator; it’s going to be the ability to gain insight from the data that’s going to set people and organisations apart.

The processing of the data is also becoming incredibly cheap, even free, so those capabilities are not a differentiator either. It will be the ability to point the processing in the right direction to solve the problem and gain the value that will be the required skill.

That’s where Computational thinking comes in with skills like:

  • Decomposition
  • Pattern recognition
  • Pattern generalisation and abstraction
  • Algorithm design

What is the workplace that best supports this way of working?

In earlier posts I’ve used an existing location type as an analogy of what is needed in the future workplace to enable the skills and activities being described. Finding an analogy for this one has been tricky because I’m not sure that there is a current workplace that does this type of work. The nearest I got to was the Physics Lab.

The Physics Lab of the Future

What is needed is a place where it’s possible to formulate the right question, decide on the model or abstraction for that question, compute the question and test the answer to the question. A bit like a physics experiment. The problem with this analogy is that it’s already out-of-date, most physics takes place on data and simulations already. So you have to think back to the physics lab of old, that place which was full of prisms, Newton’s balls, Foucault’s pendulums and van der Graaf generators.

Within this space we were schooled in the art of experimentation and the writing of the lab report. While I, like many, hated the writing of the lab report it did at least teach us a method that required us to formulate the purpose of the experiment before we carried it out.

I chose a physics lab because physics is about abstraction which is what computational thinking is about. We can’t see electricity or gravity, but we can build experiments to see the effects of it. That’s what we are going to have to do with all of this data that we are generating; build experiments that show us an effect.

Like the modern physics lab though, the computational thinking lab is mostly virtual, but doesn’t consist of people sitting at desks with screens. As most modern physics experiments are done with teams; so will most problems that need computational thinking.

Perhaps what I am envisioning is something a bit Iron Man J.A.R.V.I.S. but integrated into a team experience and not being solely used by the lone maverick.

The computational thinking space is likely to share many of the same characteristics as the Novel and Adaptive Thinking Space and the Sense Making Space. The important activities are thinking and collaboration both of which are greatly influenced by the space in which they are undertaken.

Some videos to make you think:

North Berwick

The Productive Workplace: The Cross-Cultural Space

Cross-cultural competency: ability to operate in different cultural settings

It’s worth starting this post with some definitions of culture:

Culture: The behaviours and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group.

Culture: The way in which people solve problems and reconcile dilemmas. (E. Schein)

Culture: How contrasting values and conflicts are habitually mediated. (F. Thompenaars)

Cross-cultural competency is the ability to move between different groups and still perform, to stay productive. Cross-cultural competency also enables people with different ways on solving problems and reconciling dilemmas to come together to deliver value.

I’ve travelled and worked across a number of cultures.

My birth was in London, I was raised in Yorkshire and have lived in Lancashire for all of my adult life. For those of you with little knowledge of English culture it’s enough for you to know that Yorkshire and Lancashire both have roses as their emblem, but of decidedly different colours and often went to war over it.

I work for an organisation that is Head Quartered in the USA. We joke that the USA and the UK are “two nations divided by a common language”. We may both call it English, but we use it very differently (a question for my American friends: have you ever wondered why no one in the UK is named Randy?) It’s not just the language tough, our beliefs and behaviours are very different.

My job has meant that I have worked across organisations in many sectors including defence, public sector, finance, healthcare, automotive, utility and alongside many IT organisations. Every organisation has its own culture some inspiring, some draining.

Yet, in each of these contexts certain things remain with little differentiation: the five legged chair, the formica covered desk, the ugly phone, the bland partition, the three drawer pedestal and the rows. All bolted together to stop anyone changing anything.

All of the billions of people on this planet seem to have made it a global goal to turn all working environments into a mirror image of every other working environment.

There is lots of research that shows that diversity, including cultural diversity is a facilitator of innovation. It’s the differences in experiences, ages, skills, disciplines, working styles and thinking styles that together makes us different from the machines. Diverse groups achieve things that one-dimensional groups don’t.

Is it not conceivable that diverse working environments can complement the culture of the diverse team? If culture is the way people solve problems and reconcile dilemmas is it likely that the standard office configuration helps or hinders cross-cultural competency?

Many people have experienced the positive impact of taking a piece of work to a different place. So why have we created working environments that are globally homogeneous? It has the advantage that if I travel to the other side of the world I know what I am getting I suppose, but at what cost?

One of the most inspiring places I’ve ever worked in belonged to a travel company who had decorated each of their meeting rooms in the style of a place that they took customers too – a Greek taverna, an American dinner, an English bar. It felt weird to be working in these places knowing that they were in the middle of a normal city office, but it was inspiring.

The other element of the standard office that drives out diversity is the lack of flexibility. People tend to sit in the same rows for years and years. They can’t break the rows because they are bolted together. They can’t move because that would mean arranging for other people to move, and those people are cemented where they are. In my previous post on this topic I highlighted Building 20 at MIT where one of the key factors in its value was its flexibility. As I look out on an open plan office there are some people who are sat at the same desk as they were 15 years ago, I know because I used to be here 15 years ago also.

At the travel company site the open office space was provisioned on a flexible basis. Everyone had a mobile pedestal with their things in it, they all had mobile phones and none of the desks were in rows. Some of the desks were in groups and some were on their own. Each night people were expected to clear the desk they had worked at and placed their belongings into the mobile pedestal and place it back into the storage area for pedestals. No one had a desk they called their’s. Each morning people would sit in the most appropriate place. If they were working together with other people they could reserve a set of desks that were near to each other. If they were working on their own, they could sit on their own.

The flexible nature of the office was completed by having mobile flip-charts, whiteboards and projection screens that could be wheeled to wherever they were needed.

I didn’t work in this office long enough to know whether this was successful, but I loved the concept.

Some videos to make you think:


The Productive Workplace: The Novel and Adaptive Thinking Space

Novel and Adaptive Thinking: proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and responses beyond that which is rote or rule-based

Ask yourself these questions:

  • When was the last time you had a brilliant idea at the place where you work?
  • What precipitated that idea?
  • When was the last time you had a brilliant idea while outside the place where you work (at home, on a walk, cycling, relaxing, in the garden)?
  • Where were you when you had your best idea?

I know for myself that the answers to these questions are significant and point away from the workplace being a great place to think.

We’ve talked before about the changing work activities, particularly in the west, and the skills needed. This is leading to a concentration of jobs that require high-skill and abstract thinking. If it can be done by rote or by rule then it’s likely to be off-shored or automated.

The ability to see situations differently, to create unique solutions, to generate responses that are innovative has always been highly valued, never more so than now.

Brian Mathews, Virginia Tech tells this story:

How can we make the floors cleaner? That’s the question that Proctor & Gamble asked its chemists. Years of working on this problem, however, yielded no improved cleaning solution.

So Proctor & Gamble took a different approach and hired a design firm. Rather than focusing on chemical improvements, the designers watched people clean. Observations uncovered the real problem: mops. People spent more time cleaning their mops than they did cleaning their floors. The mop was an ineffective tool for the task at hand.

This insight led to the development of the Swiffer—a billion-dollar product line for Proctor & Gamble. The lesson learned is that innovation isn’t simply about asking the right questions; it’s also involves framing questions differently. Our approach to problems is affected by the manner in which they are presented. To the chemist, a cleaner floor was a scientific problem, while to the designer it was a human problem.

It’s vital that we are able to shift perspectives when we need to generate different types of results. If our thinking is too narrow then we may miss breakthroughs. How we formulate problems is just as important as how we solve them. In fact, our ability to discover and translate problems may well be the

There’s a joke that a consultant is someone who you pay to tell you what you already knew and charging you for the privilege. While there is a certain truth in the joke, there is also the reality that people can get stuck in standard ways of thinking about things and bringing in an external viewpoint can help frame the question more widely.

Bringing in someone external can only be a temporary fix though, the real challenge is in building cultures and working environments that reduces group-think and encourage adaptive thinking perspectives.

One group of people who have always been measured on their ability to be inventive and to constantly see things through a different framework are the artists.

The traditional home of an artist is a studio.

The Studio of the Future

What are the characteristics of a studio that makes it a place of creativity for an artist?

When I think of an artist studio I imagine somewhere with mystique. I’m not an artist and I’ve never really understood these places of creativity, but I recognise the results that they produce.

There’s a gallery of different studios here, to get you thinking.

As I consider it there are characteristics to the artist studio that might help us to understand how to build workplaces that support novel and adaptive thinking:


Every artist studio I have ever seen has had a very limited amount of fixed equipment. Where they have been fixed it has been because of necessity; the furnace in a glass blowing studio can’t be moved easily.


Light is significant issue for all artists, but not just because of the practical need to see what you are doing. Light has a massive impact on productivity and it’s become universally understood that working in a windowless office is both bad for productivity and bad for creativity.


Most of the studio spaces I can think of have a personal element to them. There is something of the individual artist embedded in the place.


While not universally the case most artist studios are created to enable the most open space. There is often a lot of what you might call white-space.

Tidy and Disorganised

There’s a level of organisation to an artist studio that could be regarded as both tidy and disorganised. Artists don’t operate clean desk policies as a norm. There are often pieces of half-finished work and objects of curiosity in various places, but they are rarely a complete mess.


The control of sound is just as important as the control of light. I talked a good deal about that last time. I haven’t really focussed, yet, on electronic noise that comes from all the gadgetry that we let into our lives, but I will. It’s enough to say, at this point, that concentration requires focus and we gain focus in quiet places. The present and future challenge to quiet spaces is our insistence on taking our gadgetry with us wherever we go.

Each of these characteristics enable artists to build different frameworks by which to see their art in many different perspectives. Contracts that experience to the experience outlined in 1987 by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister who wrote this:

When the office environment is frustrating enough, people look for a place to hide out. They book conference rooms or head for the library or wander off for coffee and just don’t come back. No, they are not meeting for secret romances or plotting political coups; they are hiding out to work. The good news here is that your people really do need to feel accomplishment of work completed. They will go to great extremes to make that happen. When the crunch is on, people will try to find workable space no matter where.

If you peek into a conference room, you may find three people working in silence. If you wander to the cafeteria mid-afternoon, you’re likely to find folks seated, one at a table, with their work spread before them. Some of your workers can’t be found at all. People are hiding out to get some work done. If that rings true to your organisation, it’s an indictment. Saving money on space may be costing you a fortune.

Does that read like it was written by someone sat in your office today?

While I’ve titled the workplace that we want for novel and adaptive thinking The Studio of the Future there is much about it that is ancient. We have always been most creative in certain places and these are places that inspire us. The other element about these spaces is that they make us happy, and that very important for productivity.

Many of these elements apply to what is acknowledged to have been one of the most creative workplaces of all time – Building 20 at MIT.

What was Building 20’s innovation secret? Architectural author Stewart Brand asked former occupants why Building 20 – of all the places at MIT, or in the world – had hatched so many innovations. Here’s what they told him: “Windows that open and shut at the will of the owner!…The ability to personalize your space and shape it to various purposes. If you don’t like a wall, just stick your elbow through it….We feel our space is really ours. We designed it; we run it. The building is full of small microenvironments, each of which is different and each a creative space.”

From The Build Network.

Some extras to help you think:


Learning of an Architect

I’ve worked with and near my friend Steve Richards for many years now and his insight has been helpful on many occasions.

Following a hiatus for a few years Steve has reinvigorated his blog with daily writing.

His recent posts give a lot of insight to the system integration projects and programmes that we’ve both been involved in for many years now.

I’m not going to comment on each post here because I think you should go over to Steve’s site and contribute there.

These are some of my recent favourites:

Spinning Patterns

Because it’s Friday: Spinning Patterns

I remember, as a child, sitting  alongside spinning circles of paper and creating patterns. Sometimes we created with a pen; we tried to be precise, but often ended up with a complete mess. We would also turn the spinner to top speed and splash brightly coloured paint onto the paper and watch it spread out through the centrifugal force being applied to it.

We never managed to create anything quite as mesmerising as this: