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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  n.66 Santiago ago. 2007 

ARQ, n. 66 Espacios de trabajo / Work spaces, Santiago, august, 2007, p. 54-59.


Spaces of innovation and transformation: the case of IDEO



Work places are conceived as continuous and flexible processes, in which the actors involved develop creative organizational practices based on the flexibility for creating and recreating work spaces. The relationship between the work space, collaboration, creativity and innovation creates a climate of closeness and confidence that improves the performance of individuals and organizations.

Key words: Organizational management, work places, flexibility–transformation, innovation, IDEO Palo Alto.

Knowledge and physical space has a fundamental relationship that is often overlooked in organizational theory and practice. In the knowledge management and organizational learning literature, there are only a few accounts concerning how spaces –both the design and use of the workplace- might impact organizational practices and business performance of firms. The abundant literature on knowledge management, firm theory and innovation accumulated over the years has dealt with several aspects of information, knowledge flows and technologies within organizational settings. However, the spatial dimensions of such issues have been missing until recently. And, “vice versa, in the architectural literature, there is relatively little about organizational theory” (Duguid, 2003), creativity and innovation research(1). This present piece of work proposes a modest contribution along this line of research.
The relationship between innovation(2)–creativity, and space design and use is something yet to be proven and put into practice more frequently. Even though there are agile and creative workplaces out there, “the direct link between the design of physical space and creativity is unproven. The reliable research as exists tends to focus on facilitating communication rather than directly on enhancing creativity” (Leonard and Swap, 1999). Early research on the area has been concentrated in communication as information processing. The IT hype about the so–called virtual organization was built upon a vision of knowledge as data and information, and as such, it has overlooked its semantic and pragmatic dimensions. Therefore, both research and reflective practice on the uses of organizational space that enhance collective meaning creation are needed because “any configuration of the physical environment that eliminates the barriers to divergence, incubation, and convergence is likely to be helpful” (Leonard and Swap, 1999).
One of the first works that proved the correlation between distance and organizational communication was Tom Allen’s (1977, 1997). He studied the effects of physical layout on the probability of interaction in research laboratories and product development firms. His data showed that the relationship between the likelihood of two people interacting and the physical distance between was strongly negative (r = – 0.84). Moreover, Allen showed that the probability of interaction approaches zero at about 25 meters. Allen showed that the decreasing communication pattern is repeated for both intra-departmental and inter–departmental communication. He also showed strikingly that such pattern was the case for all types of media communication, including face–to–face and telephone.
Besides organizational culture, space design and transformation could be an important resource or constraint for increasing communication. The lesson here is that proximity in office design does indeed matter for organizational communication, and knowledge creation, so it is the way we use, change and transform office space.
From an architectural and psychological perspective, Stone and Luchetti (1985) traced the genealogy of landscape partitioning (cubicle) and proposed an insightful move from workstations (fixed place) to activity settings that would allow agile workplaces for the communities of practice by enabling spontaneous and accidental interactions. The premise of the activity–setting approach is “that one place –an all–purpose workstation per person– no longer suffices. Instead, people need multiple workplaces (…) As tasks change, employees move to various specialized activity settings” (Stone and Luchetti, 1985).
The flexibility and readiness–to–change contained in the activity settings approach resonates with what has been termed organizational agility. Agility is “the ability to respond quickly and effectively to rapid change and high uncertainty. In the context of the workplace, that agility is achieved through the co–evolution of the workplace and work” (Joroff, Porter, Feinberg and Kukla, 2001). Workplace agility and flexible activity settings resonate with the situated character of learning and work practice. Such character calls for an ongoing spatial support for the situated activities and uncertainties that come up along the co–evolution of workplace and work.
According to Joroff et al (2001), co-evolution is “only possible when the work is clearly understood. Work must be understood in its particulars, not merely by function or job classification. Once agility is achieved, the organization has the ability to alter workday activities with a minimum of friction and delay” (Joroff et al, Idem). That way, the management or key players within an office would enable such co–evolution between work and workplace, i.e., workplace making. By workplace making, the existing research refers to as the ongoing process for continual improvement where “people are willing to challenge assumptions about work, employees, workplaces and the ideal state of organizations” (Joroff et al, Idem). It has also been called process architecture (Horgen, Joroff, Porter and Schön, 1999).
Architects know about the relationship between buildings and human communication. As John Seiler points out, in a slightly behavioral way, “Buildings influence behavior by structuring relationships among members of the organization. They encourage some communication patterns and discourage others. They assign positions of importance to units of the organization. They have effects on behavior, planned or not” (Seiler, 1984). In other words, the type of buildings, zoning, rooms, hallways, conference rooms, windows, partitions, (glass) walls, textures, interconnection among floors, the amount and efficiency of elevators, etc. can enable or constrain the processes of knowledge creation and sharing. For instance, these features can enable knowledge to leak across practices by providing shared places for people to interact. But at the same time, they can constrain interaction, by making knowledge stick, creating epistemic differences and boundaries in practice.

IDEO OFFICES / The case study here is IDEO(3), a 350 people medium size global firm dedicated to the user–centered design of products, services, environments and processes. IDEO has interesting features of co–evolution and workplace making over time. Successful design and innovation are done by a community of designers that is able to look, anticipate and understand social practice as broader as they can. David Kelley, its co-founder, argues that “successful design is done by teams. Creative leaps might be taken by individuals, but design thrives on the different points of view found in teams. You want a multidisciplinary team, what we call x–func (cross–functional)” (Kelley, 1996). Such x–func teams participate in work practices supported by physical spaces and guided by a process within a shared tacit background. IDEO is pretty much a bottom–up organization where creativity, rapid prototyping and informal interaction is encouraged and usually occurred. That is, the institutional framework allows and encourages collaboration and creativity though sometimes is not achieved in practice.
IDEO has evolved from a design firm in the conventional sense to an innovation firm that is trying to help their clients redesign their process, environments and workspaces. Their attitude to the space is intimately related to the new direction IDEO is taking towards strategic, environmental and conceptual work. In this ongoing transformation, IDEO is currently using an important amount of its overall space to collaborative project rooms. These project spaces are what Moggridge refers to as group memory or that I call incubation spaces. They are a key knowledge management (KM) tool for sharing information and cultivating concepts, ideas and visualizations. IDEO members bring together various contexts and they work together to create a Ba(4)–a shared context in motion in Japanese– for a specific project or x–func team (Nonaka, Toyama et al, 2001).
According to the specialists in emergences of Ba, some boundaries should be set within which a meaningful shared context can emerge. This is sometimes called cocooning, the practice of building a unique world or context (de Monthoux, 1996) and, thus to protect it when necessary (Nonaka, Toyama and Scharmer, 2001). But at the same time, Ba is an “open place where participants with their own contexts can come and go and the shared context can evolve. Ba lets participants share time and space, and yet it transcends time and space. To participate in a Ba means to transcend one's own limited perspective or boundaries” (Nonaka, Toyama and Scharmer, 2001). However, to enable this sharing of contexts and knowledge creation across members a fundamental feature is needed prior to even think about the emergence of a Ba. That is, to have a shared practice, a shared way of doing things. That’s why is so difficult to create Ba across locations and through electronic networks.
Besides project spaces, there are other kinds of space–supported work activities. Bill Moggridge mentions two extremes in this continuum of IDEO work practice. On the one hand, there is the Toy practice, which is a very collaborative activity setting with the prototyping area in the back and the users (kids) testing area in the front. On the other hand, you have activities like hard–core engineering or software design that require more privacy and concentration in dedicated areas.
It is precisely that sort of combination among styles of work that can speak the same language through a common work process and supported by flexible/evolving physical space what gives competitive advantage.
These spaces are flexible enough to support IDEO creative practices. Despite the fact that all IDEO offices have a similar feeling and layout –you can tell it’s an IDEO office–, each office creates and enacts a distinctive environment. The team dynamics changes with projects, and thus, there is a continuing rearrangement of teams, project spaces and neighborhoods.
In IDEO’s vernacular and live–through jargon, every office is populated not by groups or teams but by neighborhoods. The characteristic of a neighborhood is a shared place that congregates people and that can bring about trust, friendship and learning. Neighborhood is part of a spatial vocabulary to refer to communities and networks of practice. Twice a year –and sometimes more than that due to a specific project– they change position within the office. They refresh the everyday routines and thus, they challenge their territoriality, habits of thought and action and respective sense–making. The very fact that someone changes its body position by sitting next to another person altering his/her immediate conversational surrounding makes a difference in work practices, knowledge sharing, and collective sense–making.
A studio manager at IDEO Palo Alto has deliberately pushed the boundaries of a fluid structure with an initiative called the fifteen–minute move. When his studio was moving into a new office space, he challenged the engineers and designers to come up with office furniture and a layout that could be broken down and completely reassembled in fifteen minutes. The solution was to embed more IT power, i.e., network and phone connections in the floor than necessary so that the studio staff can reconfigure the space at will and put all furniture on wheels so that everyone’s stuff moves without having to box everything (Hargadon, 2003). This practice of fluid structure allows a constant flow of people and new projects, building dense networks and communities among people across the company and facilitating to learn about each other’s distinct knowledge and skills. This practice of readiness to change and situational awareness is another example of IDEO’s organizational agility.
All in all, the IDEO case shows us that to achieve sustainable organizational agility, and a good degree of workplace making, we not only need a good design of the physical workspace or just flexible materials but also shared creative practices, an innovation process, and mind–sets to reinvent our everyday work experience.


1. In the fields of knowledge management, architecture and office design, there have been only a few but influential accounts about work practices, office design and transformation. Among these accounts, we encounter Tom Allen (1977, 1997), Stone and Luchetti (1985), Porter, Horgen, Joroff and Schön (1999); Joroff and Bell (2001), Duffy (1996, 2000) and Leonard and Swap (1999), Nonaka, Toyama and Scharmer (2000), Martin (2005), Allen & Henn (2007).
2. We will understand creativity as the process of developing and expressing new ideas which will probably be useful for innovation and organization, such as incarnation, combination and/or synthesis of knowledge in products, processes, or original, relevant and valuable services (Leonard and Swap, 1999).
3. This case study is about IDEO offices located in Palo Alto, California, United States. (Editor’s Note.).
4. The concept of Ba comes from Japanese and can be translated as a physical, relational and spiritual place that acts as a shared context in movement that facilitates the incubation and innovation (Nonaka, Toyama and Scharmer, 2001).


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