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Doesn’t the word “oasis” have a nice sound to it? People seem to like both the word and what it implies. AltaVista has 450,000 hits for the word, referencing everything from magazine names to restaurants to health products to databases. So the word today has gone from a physical reference only to embrace mental well being. But then, maybe it always was such…..after traveling a daunting dusty distance in the desert, what better than the cool springs and palm fronds that shimmer on the horizon?

These are pleasant images and not normally the sorts of pictures we conjure up when we think of work. But as long ago as the 1970’s an Edmonton architect had an oasis built on the “shop floor.” Yes, they were fake palm trees, and the monkey skampering up one of them never ate a banana, but the wicker furniture, the fountain and the pina colada were real.  I remember my reaction to this upon seeing it for the first time. “Why, why, this is frivolous!” My host happily agreed, reading my reaction as confirmation that the firm had achieved the very feel that they wanted for the place.

Twenty five years later I read about Alcoa doing much the same thing in Pittsburgh (albeit on a much larger scale), and apparently for much the same reasons as that architect.  But by now the transformation incorporates other new work values, along with new technologies (both structural and informational) all focusing on the need to be competitive and profitable, And achieving these goals, for some,  means that brick and mortar has got to go, along with those old pyramidal organization charts. There is much research and testing going on in this area. Cornell University has a “Workplace Studies Program” which conducts research on “the ecology of new ways of working.” Their scope covers ground that may be new to many: it includes “non-territorial offices”, “integrated workplaces”, and “placemakers.”

Personally I have some nostalgia for parts of the good old days. Remember water coolers? They were where folks gathered for a brief break, to chat as much about work events as personal ones. It was in these environs where corporate culture was, in no small part, built and changed. It was the start and end point of the moccasin telegraph – much more effective than the formal “now hear this memo” and besides, you were able to get a glimpse of the “inner bumpf.” The need is no less now then it was. Indeed “water cooler” is now a metaphor for virtual meeting places on some office automation systems.

If we lost something by tossing the water coolers we also lost something when we enshrined our workplaces into office and work stations. Earlier there was the “pool,” that (we believe) dreary row on row of eye shielded clerks hunkered over tedious tomes of endless columns of numbers. We seem to have forgotten that those were posed shots. The company press office would never release a picture that showed employees chatting, sitting and learning on one another’s desks, or just plain fooling around. But there was lots of that.  Now employees don’t mingle at the water cooler, and visiting someone’s work station has achieved more than a little degree of formality.

Nowadays individualized work places exist in environments where meetings are formalized. Each individual has his or her own furniture, telephone, computer and so on. Talented foragers also have their own printers and FAX machines, which, after all, reduce even further the need to periodically rub shoulders with one’s colleagues.

Small wonder that the notion of “knowledge management” (KM) has broken with a fury against the walls of government and business. Something far beyond data and information, but depending to a large degree on such intangibles, knowledge is coming to be recognized as a principal work factor. It, along with physical resources are what employees apply in order to achieve corporate objectives (profits or service).  Firms are being established to exploit this new awareness, there are new technologies in development, and whole new skills being identified as we begin to populate “knowledge (or “learning”) organizations” with “knowledge workers.”

But why this focus on knowledge all of a sudden? Surely people have known all along what they were doing. Surely businesses have been profitable. Surely governments have satisfied the demands of their constituents. What is different? What is different is that, inter alia, there are no water coolers and we are all, each of us, huddled in our own workstations (or “stovepipes” as some call them).

Eelco Kruizinga, a consultant from the Netherlands, says that “Knowledge infrastructure compensates for the losses created by the physical layout of the organization.”  Having “thrown the baby out with the water cooler” we now need to invent structures and systems that mimic collaborative organizations where people talk to one another. Organizations today are large! Not just in numbers of people, but large in their scope. Large in their pace of activity and pace of change. Achieving what one might call an “integrated organization” where all, or most employees were fully up to speed on the latest corporate plans and initiatives would take weekly meetings at least. But we don’t do that. We rely on chain of command communications, company newsletters, team meetings. But in communicating in this manner with formal “messages” we sacrifice heart and soul to the altar of correctness.

Employees need messages that touch their spirits. They need a community of communications. They need an “oasis” where thoughts, ideas, ambitions, successes and failures are shared in a collegial environment. They need to test their ideas, and their concerns, with coworkers in an environment (real or virtual) where there is acceptance (and forgiveness). And such wellsprings should not be reachable only after a dusty trek – they should be open, accessible and within easy reach.

 [This essay appeared in a 1998 edition of the Journal of the Financial Management Institute of Canada]

David G. Jones B.A., M.A., Principal – Shibumi Management Canada



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