The Productive Workplace – Sense-making Spaces

Over the last few weeks I’ve been flipping between dystopian and utopian views of the future.

Having set out on a series to think about the productive workplace I decided to focus on the activities that people might perform in the future workplace and chose a framework from the Institute for the Future.

This framework outlines a set of skills that people are going to need to be able to do in a world that has been significantly changed by technology and other social changes.

My intention is to write about each of the different skills that people are going to need and to think about the impact upon the place where they work.

The first skill is “sense-making”:

Sense-making – ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed

But why have I been flipping between utopia and dystopia?

We are just at the beginnings of a massive renegotiation of the line between people and machines. Increasing amounts of what we currently call knowledge work is going to be overtaken by various bits of technology, many people who do process work are already being affected.

If you take that thought beyond what we can currently see you start to veer down one of two paths – dystopia or utopia.

DystopiaThe dystopian view is highlighted by Sherry Turkle who is worried that “as we expect more from technology, do we expect less from each other?” Anyone who has seen the film Wall-E has understood this dystopian view.

Andrew McAfee is more utopian in his view, though isn’t afraid of highlighting significant challenges that are coming:

The thing to keep in mind is that this is absolutely great news. This is the best economic news on the planet these days. Not that there’s a lot of competition, right? This is the best economic news we have these days for two main reasons. The first is, technological progress is what allows us to continue this amazing recent run that we’re on where output goes up over time, while at the same time, prices go down, and volume and quality just continue to explode. Now, some people look at this and talk about shallow materialism, but that’s absolutely the wrong way to look at it. This is abundance, which is exactly what we want our economic system to provide. The second reason that the new machine age is such great news is that, once the androids start doing jobs, we don’t have to do them any-more, and we get freed up from drudgery and toil.

and also:

So the optimistic note, great point that I want to leave you with is that the plain facts of the machine age are becoming clear, and I have every confidence that we’re going to use them to chart a good course into the challenging, abundant economy that we’re creating.

The reality will, most likely, be a combination of dystopia and utopia, but in both pictures of the future we are going to relinquish a lot of what we currently do to the machines.

That’s where sense-making comes in – seeing the deeper meaning and significance.

The challenge of the current age is summed up by Malcolm Gladwell:

“The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.”

In the age to come our challenge is going to continue to be understanding but the tools available to us to create that understanding are going to become increasingly sophisticated. As the machines understand more and more our role will be to find deeper meaning and significance.

Most understanding today is gained by analysing through screens. Much of this analysis is characterised by someone creating a spreadsheet containing a set of numbers that are likely to have come from an application. Those numbers will then be analysed through charts, calculations and formulas. Once a level of understanding has been created that information will be presented into either a document or a presentation. People will receive this material through a transfer system, like email. Quite often, the recipients will then talk it through in a meeting to gain meaning from the understanding.

Most people have thousands of spreadsheets, documents and presentations many of them very similar. The creation of this material will have taken many hours in the production alone. They’ll also spend hours arranging meetings and talking people through the material.

The workplace that supports these activities is one that supports the machines that are used to enact it. People need keyboards, screens, desks and meeting rooms because they are the means of production. That’s why we have the workplaces that we have.

The time spent on production is significantly higher than the amount of time spent creating significance.

It’s already possible to imagine a time where a suitably knowledgeable machine could undertake most of the material production. Certain material that we read through news organisations is already produced by algorithms.

If the machines are producing the material, what will we do? Our job will be to create meaning and significance. For the short to medium-term I image that we are going to continue doing that on a screen and keyboard. Meaning and significance comes from insight and insight comes from perspectives; a screen only gives visual insights and a keyboard isn’t a great way of manipulating something to gain different perspectives

While we work with screens and keyboards we’ll need our beloved desks, but at some point we’ll move beyond the desk being the defining feature of the workplace. Image a workplace with everyone wearing something like an Oculus Rift. Image sitting in your local coffee shop and people doing the same thing. I deliberately didn’t saying “sitting wearing” because may of the interactions may well require us to be moving.

The Library of the Future

The other element of sense-making is concentration and focus. People tend to concentrate best in an environment without distraction. For some that’s a place of silence, for some it’s a place with music or some other ambient sound. We may well, also, start to use sound as a means of gaining perspective. Visual distractions can also be an issue, but I suspect that this will be drastically reduced by wearable devices.

So we are going to need places which are far more flexible for the person than current corporate open-plan offices allow. Perhaps the best way to visuals this personal sense-making workspace as the library of the future.

The Engineers Workshop of the Future

Another vital tool for sense-making is person-to-person collaboration. Once we spend less time producing material and more time making sense of it we will spend more time collaborating with others to gain their insights.

In short; we will spend more time in meetings, but they will be very different meetings. If all the time and effort wasn’t used up creating the material for the meeting how would the meeting be different? What if the material was interactive and would allow for seamless scenario building and story telling? What if the material was multi-dimensional and even multi-sensory?

If meetings were that engaging would people be happy with being a voice at the end of a teleconference when others were standing in a room that allowed them to change the shape of the discussion by virtually replacing one thing with another thing? Will they be happy with being their via video even? They may be happy being virtually there as a robot that gives multi-dimensional views.

It’s not all about technology though. People will also collaborate using the tools that we’ve used for centuries – pictures and diagrams. So a meeting space will also have to support multiple different mechanisms for collaboration.

Will this use of space spark a new renaissance in the use of facilities that currently sit idle as people work from home; or perhaps it will generate a whole new set of virtual worlds where people collaborate? Either way it’s unlikely that these insight and meaning meetings will take place in a boardroom style facility with a projector at one end. These places will be more like the engineers workshops of old, full of trusted tools, inhabited by people with different skills, a place where people come together around a problem, a place for prototyping, a bit scruffy perhaps.

Some videos that you might find interesting:

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