Category Archives: conviviality

The back catalogue

I’ve promised someone I’d assemble all the various pieces on physical spaces and on slowness in one place.

By way of a little amuse geule, perhaps it would be interesting to know that I’m listening to Basquiat Strings, a knowledge provoking experience if ever there was one:

1. how does a string quartet learn to be a good string quarter and then do it over and over again
2. how does the leadership work
3. how does the knowledge transfer work
4. most of them come from classical backgrounds and have migrated this knowledge into a jazz context, or had to learn to throw it away in a jazz context
5. Their influences are Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Stravinsky, Schubert, Bach, Tarif de Haidouks, Evan Parker, Prince…

We have so much to learn. And I do think that citation is important knowledge stuff. I’m trying to work out the design for a piece of work on knowledge retention when a business moves and loses most of it’s staff but can’t afford to lose it’s processes. What’s an elegant way to tackle that? I’ve some ideas and the first is to do a kind of Amazon-type citation thing which traces the influences on the worker and the resources and inspirations they draw on to get their jobs done. Make a space round the worker, as it were. Then subtract the worker and look at the space left behind. Half-baked thoughts but ones I’m enjoying.

In any case, here’s the list, which is links to the papers in the lurky bit of our old website which we’ve taken down while we decide what we’d like a new one to look and feel like and do.

Public Spaces in Knowledge Management

Physical Space in Contemporary Knowledge Management

Spaces for Learning

Designing for integration

Can the design of physical space influence collaboration?

Slow Knowledge

Slow Company

Collection to Connection

LIFTing the lid

Mass Migration

Tales from a Bedouin Tent

Sous L’arbre Parlabre


Mind the Gap: knowledge work and the UK construction industry

I’m close to the final thing, or the first thing, depending.
Here’s the synopsis. This feels like a beginning to me in some way I’m not yet able to describe. Rather like the article ‘One continuous accident mounting on top of another’
in which Francis Bacon describes his creative process, if that’s not too pretentious of me.

Q: It often happens, does it, this transformation of the image in the course of working?

It does, but now I always hope it will arrive more positively. Now I feel that I want to do very, very specific objects, though made out of something, which is completely irrational from the point of view of being an illustration. I want to do very specific things like portraits, and they will be portraits of the people, but, when you come to analyse them, you just won’t know – or it would be very hard to see how the image is made up at all. And this is why in a way it is very wearing, because it is really a complete accident. For instance, the other day I painted a head of somebody, and what made the sockets of the eyes, the nose, the mouth were, when you analysed them, just forms which had nothing to do with eyes, nose or mouth; but the paint moving from one contour into another made a likeness of this person I was trying to paint. I stopped; I thought for a moment I’d got something much nearer to what I want. Then the next day I tried to take it further and tried to make it more poignant, more near, and I lost the image completely.
Because this image is a kind of tightrope walk between what is called figurative painting and abstraction. It will go right out from abstraction, but will really have nothing to do with it. It’s an attempt to bring the figurative thing up on to the nervous system more violently and more poignantly.

Well, of course it’s pretentious, but better than not going right out on a limb.

The moreoreless finished article (or opening chapter?) ended up around 9,000 words plus footnotes on knowledge work in the UK construction industry which seems to have turned in some way into a founding essay for Sparknow’s next ten years. Here are the synopsis, and Sparknow’s founding essay. If you’d like a copy of the whole paper and are willing to comment on it, please email me.

I’ve also promised to go back through and assemble the various works on knowledge and space, and on slowness, which Clive Holtham and I wrote over the years, and make them available here.

Next year when I’ve more breathing space, I’m inclined to play with a wiki which starts to thread the whole thing together into a position on knowledge work and workplace design for knowledge work.

‘MIND THE GAP’: A View of Knowledge Work in the UK Construction Industry
This paper explores the following questions:
1. What is knowledge work?
2. Who is a knowledge worker?
3. What are the characteristics of a high knowledge economy and a firm in it?
4. What kinds of knowledge issues are there in the UK construction industry?
5. What kind of knowledge- and collaboration-intensive processes work?
6. What kinds of encouragement do people need to engage in knowledge work?
It makes six main points:
1. Everybody is a knowledge worker. The construction industry as a living knowledge system challenges the view that knowledge work is done in the head.
2. The dominant metaphors of knowledge work hinder. A move towards metaphors of ecology, culture and environment and away from metaphors of capture, capitalisation and resources would help.
3. Knowledge lies in the gaps in between – between participants in a project, in the time between the generation of an idea, the execution of a project and its subsequent management, between disciplines. Knowledge is activated only in context in a particular moment. Only information can be codified.
4. Information infrastructure, economic incentives, innovation systems, and education and learning – the four pillars of the knowledge economy – are a useful lens through which to assess the state of knowledge in construction.
5. The UK construction industry, by its nature has a lot of ‘gaps in between’. It’s knowledge-rich, but not yet very able in managing the gaps to generate competitive advantage.
6. Tools and techniques might be under any label, of which knowledge is only one, but are subordinate to an intent to create values and a culture which encourages effective knowledge behaviours at all levels.

Sparknow Founding Essay: Designing Spaces for Knowledge

The triadic relationship between persons, tools and a new collectivity

There was a recent article in the Observer about how French policemen, who have taking to writing novels and poetry, drawing cartoons, and rapping in an attempt to voice their grievances.

‘This is a totally new phenomenon,’ said Frederic Ploquin, a crime correspondent and police expert. ‘Before, the only people writing books were retired senior commissioners and your average plod was just a worker or peasant. Now a new generation of police with university degrees and culture are finding ways to express themselves while still serving in the force.’

(I’d be keen to know what ‘your average plod’ was in French.)

But it doesn’t suit everyone:

‘If the cops start rapping, what’s left for us?’ said Ahmed Messaoui, a teenage aspirant hip-hop star in Paris’s 20th arrondissement. ‘If he doesn’t like being a policeman, he should leave. Otherwise he should stick to arresting people and let us do the music.’

The article was brought to mind this morning by an interview on the Today programme on radio 4 about a new exhibition just opened by the National Army Museum. Thought to be the first ‘heritage display’ of an ongoing conflict

“The interactive exhibition depicts the troops’ experiences from the start of their tour of the region in April 2006.
Personal items, including worn-thin combat shirts, “contact” calendars, mugs made from mortar bomb packaging and pieces of shrapnel kept as mementos of war wounds, form part of the display.”

Objects and small items, containing personal stories of all kinds. Not just physical objects but media objects such as assaults recorded on mobile phones and posted to YouTube. Which takes me right back to yesterday’s draft blog, never completed, which was all about objects as it happens. If I can manage it, I’ll come back round at the end to what seems to be going on with these new kinds of voices and oral histories.

Yesterday was full of gifts, and if I were feeling cleverer I’d no doubt spin off into a nice philosophical detour about gift economies. Another time.

The first gift was an email from a client, who sent me a link to this New Scientist blog on Sherry Turkle’s new book ‘Evocative Objects’. Sherry Turkle has coined, or borrowed, the phrase ‘objects-to–think-with’ and talks of the way objects can evoke and contain memories and ideas. This is not a new idea, but I’m sure it’s well handled by her – she’s a good and thoughtful writer. Plus it’s interesting to see how many posts the blog has sparked off, which gives you a clue as to how intuitively people understand and appreciate that

‘just asking yourself what they mean to you can unlock a rich stock of memories, associations and insights into your thought processes that you may not be able to get at any other way’

We’ve used objects right since the very very beginning of sparknow’s work, in fact in the pre-history of sparknow. Partly in that evoking-and-containing way – and for developing this I owe a great deal to Steph Colton, the anthropologically inclined storytelling who no longer works with me. We’ve used them, for example, at lessons learned workshops at the end of knowledge pilots, as a way of accessing some real insight and emotion. People bring objects (a conker, a postcard of a swimming pool, a packet of chewing gum) and use these to say how they feel about the pilot. The conker ‘at first I thought it was just a game, like the children’s game, then as time went on I realised that actually it was also the start of something, a seed and the conker says both’. The swimming pool. ‘I felt as though I was diving off at the deep end.’ We take polaroid pictures and make a kind of postcard display immediately to create a kind of evocative lessons learned environment through having the exhibit both of pictures and of the objects themselves. And digital pictures which allow us to make a kind of object story book which can act, for them, as an aide-memoire later and in some unobtrusive way provide a closing ritual or touchstone as a memory for the whole experience.

Or this, for fun, which led to a 5 year engagement with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation:

“A few years back Sparknow attended the Knowledge Management Europe conference in Den Haag. In among a sea of laminations, screensavers and glossy brochures about technology, we ran a couple of workshops on story1. Transforming a previously neutral space – a ceiling-free pen in an aircraft hanger-style conference centre – we strung up washing lines, pegging to them objects and assets developed through our story work. To open our session one of our associates – a traditional storyteller – performed a story we had commissioned from her a couple of years previously about our first knowledge management project. Performing in this space she filled the whole exhibition hall with sound and music. People came to find us from all over the conference.”

Our client, Manuel, found us because of the singing and the objects and gave us great backing to work in all kinds of ways with story as a knowledge instrument in SDC over the next few years. I’ve attached probably the best object story which came from that time. (It’s at the end of the pdf if you want to speed things up).

Tales from a Bedouin Tent

The other gift from yesterday was from Clive.

I whipped down to Cass to have an emergency potboiler session and pick his brains about this 7,000 words I’m supposed to be cooking up on knowledge workers (again, if only I knew what a knowledge worker is). Anyway, after updating me on his marvellous Mystery Business MBA elective, on which I’ll write another time, I asked the normal question about whether I should do a PhD. No, but he put me onto the most glorious one done by a woman called Daria Loi, who presented the entire thing, objects, in a suitcase. She had to make 5 copies, so 5 suitcases:

‘lavoretti per bimbi – Playful Triggers as keys to foster collaborative practices and workspaces where people learn, wonder and play

The thesis explored ways to foster organizational spaces where collaborative activities can be undertaken using design tools and methods. I argued that for co-design activities to emerge participants have to be linked by ‘meaningful relationships’, hence emphasising that, before embarking on co-design processes, participatory design activities require participants to feel comfortable with each other, to be able to collaborate and to communicate shared languages.

Within this context I developed a series of tools called Playful Triggers and proposed them as effective tools to elicit relationships among their users so that they can learn together how to work together before undertaking co-design activities.

Due to the participatory methods and tools proposed in the research, I explored the opportunities for a thesis to become a place for participatory practices to emerge and to be an artefact where readers can physically, emotionally, and conceptually experience ideas rather than just read about them.

The thesis was consequently articulated adopting an anomalous format that: enables readers in constructing extra layers of meaning; includes them in asynchronous dialogues with author and future readers; lets readers appreciate the tools described in the thesis by touching and playing with them besides reading about them; and expands the thesis content beyond what words can define using textual and non-textual means.

A cardboard suitcase is the main container of the PhD research – a complex system incorporating textual and non-textual content that complement and amplify each other using metaphors as converging points.’

Now this line of thinking about containers and contents, objects, play and tools, must lead past Ivan Illich and his tools for conviviality (1973):

‘To formulate a theory about a future society both very modern and not dominated by industry, it will be necessary to recognize natural scales and limits. We must come to admit that only within limits can machines take the place of slaves; beyond these limits they lead to a new kind of serfdom. Only within limits can education fit people into a man-made environment: beyond these limits lies the universal schoolhouse, hospital ward, or prison. Only within limits ought politics to be concerned with the distribution of maximum industrial outputs, rather than with equal inputs of either energy or information. Once these limits are recognized, it becomes possible to articulate the triadic relationship between persons, tools, and a new collectivity. Such a society, in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers, I will call “convivial.” 3M (039)

After many doubts, and against the advice of friends whom I respect, I have chosen “convivial” as a technical term to designate a modern society of responsibly limited tools.’

A society in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers. Exactly so. I think that takes us rather nicely back to where we started. To our politically interrelated French rapping and poet policemen, to our serving army officers. Whose managers and chief superintendents and commanding officers are no doubt quite nervous at the loss of grip on the channels of communication. We now see the underbelly – work as it really is, our institutions and their authority as they really are. It puts me in mind of John Berger’s glorious post on Open Democracy a while back.

‘The secret of storytelling amongst the poor is the conviction that stories are told so that they may be listened to elsewhere, where somebody, or perhaps a legion of people, know better than the storyteller or the story’s protagonists, what life means. The powerful can’t tell stories: boasts are the opposite of stories, and any story however mild has to be fearless and the powerful today live nervously.’

There’s something else here about the implications for authority and leadership in a world where the voices of those lower down in the system can no longer be shut up because the new ‘tools for conviviality’, the loss of relationship of trust between the front line and the top (which means the deterrent to sharing your own story is no longer there), and the growing conviction that individuals can have their say, make organisational systems so leaky and vulnerable. Of course, in vulnerability lies the greatest strength of all. But most leaders aren’t ready to go to that place. Yet.

But before I finish I want to hang onto the idea of the container, the suitcase as it were. A suitcase, not a black box or a strong box. nothing which needs a combination. A suitcase which is easy to open, full of objects which evoke and contain memories and ideas. I need to get a bit messy and theoretical here and point out that I’m constantly trying to yoke together my two great intellectual loves when it comes to objects.

The first is the avant-garde. The notion that art, artistic performance and objects are to unsettle the status quo. But after the first wave of futurism, dada, surrealism, situationism, whatever, the wave inevitably crashes on the shore of bourgeois acceptance, the shock settles, and a new movement of disturbance starts. The the artistic ‘object’ is embedded, like a piece of grit in an oyster, in a place where it can rub things up the wrong way and get something happening.

The second is exchange-traded instruments. Here the container (the notional suitcase if you like) must be described in such a way that it contains objects (bonds, equities) which are similar enough to each other to create some kind of coherent experience which can be wrapped in a legal description which will allow the bundle to stick together and invite traders of all kinds to come and exchange transactions with each other.

I always bear this in mind when we design a piece of work. We always look for the ‘objects’ (reified, boundary objects, depending on whose terminology) which might be negotiated by individuals into becoming a collective definition of that particular community. I get confused at this point because I really that I’ve taken Jane Jacobs Guardian and Trader Systems of Survival and laid them over each other in my thinking in a way which I can’t quite pull off – and thrown in a little avant-garde disruption for good measure.

I think Ana Antonio Gill might be able to help me here. Her project ‘the value of memories’ points up very nicely the gulf between the sentimental and the financial value of a posession.

Whatever is going on here (whether community is one end of a spectrum and market at the other, both destructive at their extreme tendencies, or whether one can be laid over another in ways which hold onto their distinctively good qualities) , my instinct tells me that while I fumble to describe what it is I see when I lay out the programme for a piece of work in my mind, I’m heading in the right direction, even if I must for a short period be bundled into the woodshed and left there undisturbed while I think it through.