The Anthropology of Work

From the blog

The Architecture of Innovation

In the mid-1970s, architect Christopher Alexander wrote passionately about the patterns of social interaction that are created by built environments.  He called these architectural-human patterns “pattern languages.”

Since the publication of his seminal book- The Timeless Way of Building– the theory of pattern languages has been picked up and built upon not only by architects and urban planners but also by computer scientists and linguists.  Information architects and interaction designers use the principles of the pattern language to help improve user experiences in human-computer interaction.  A whole generation of programmers and designers has grown up thinking of Alexander more as an information architect than as an architect.  Numerous websites and books are now devoted to applying Alexander’s work in other fields.

Pattern Languages of Work

What about the design of workspaces and workplace cultures?  How can knowledge of pattern languages  help companies better design user-experiences at work?  How can pattern languages help companies improve their ability to innovate?

Not surprisingly, the first layer of consideration are the workspaces themselves.  What is the relationship between workspace design and innovation?

For starters, we now know that, with relatively few exceptions (see Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs), human innovation is often accomplished collaboratively, in groups.  Especially in corporate settings, innovation comes from groups of people working and communicating openly together.  Sadly, until relatively recently, many offices have been designed- even in the form of open office formats-according to solo workstation principles.  The assumption here is that work is done individually, and then occasionally individuals attend meetings in groups.  The overall workspace design creates a pattern language of solo work.

How to create pattern languages that explicitly drive organizational innovation?  What will they look like?

License: The first leg of the stool is flexibility and choice.  As has been established by Best Buy in their ROWE program, employees give their best energy most naturally when they have choice.  People need the license to work when and where they choose.

Space: The second leg of the stool is the variety of spaces in the building- spaces for both solo work and collaborative work.  Not all work is collaborative work, and people always need to be able to get away from it all and do heads-down work.  Different phases of work require different kinds of spaces, and autonomous knowledge workers know when they need to work where.

Community: The third leg of the stool is the neighborhood/community context in which the workspaces are situated.  Clive Wilkinson, designer of the Googleplex and Macquarie Bank’s One Shelly Place in Sydney, builds offices around the notions of 100 person communities and neighborhoods.  Neighborhoods create opportunities for ongoing relationships and communities to form at work.



Macquarie’s One Shelley Place


When license, space, and community are brought together, they generate what Alexander calls a ‘quality without a name.’  This is an ‘aliveness’ where people are self-motivated, energized, and happening.  As countless studies of corporate innovation have demonstrated, these are the precise qualities that drive innovative companies.  People want to be at work, they believe in what they are doing, they are able to collaborate with colleagues, and their own ideas at work count.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *