Saturday, March 01, 2014

A Systems Language

A Pattern Language is an interesting book to pick up, and that's not just a joke about the size of the volume. Its web site betrays how old the book actually is; it was published in 1977 based on research that had been ongoing for several years. It's scope is pretty large and covers everything from the layout of an office building to the composition of an entire town. Much attention is focused on how to build communities within these spaces, and a lot of research provides evidence on optimal ways of building and tearing down boundaries.

Of particular interest to me were chapters concerning self-governing workshops and offices. The book stresses that no one enjoys their work if they are a cog in a machine. Instead, "work is a form of living, with its own intrinsic rewards; any way of organizing work which is at odds with this idea, which treats work instrumentally, as a means only to other ends, is inhuman." This is a fairly strongly worded assertion that means that employees must feel empowered in order to construct meaningful product.

Just as Thinking in Patterns postulated that groups should autonomously self-organize in order to realize their greatest efficiency, A Pattern Language encourages the formation of self-governing workshops and offices of 5 to 20 workers. A chapter is dedicated to the federation of these workgroups to produce complex artifacts - such as several independent workshops working in concert to build much larger things.

A Pattern Language also encourages keeping service departments small (less than 12 members) and ensuring that they can work without having to fight red tape. This applies to many shared services departments in both government as well as public sector organizations; departments and public services don't work if they are too large as the human qualities vanish. One must fight the urge to make an "idiot-proof system," since this can cause the system to devolve to the point that only idiots will run it.

The book is largely about physical space of course, so it has many recommendations on how offices should be connected. The authors specifically studied what isolated groups within a company, and even what we might consider small physical distances amounted to big interruptions in communication. If two parts of an office are too far apart, people will not move between them as often as they need to. If they are a floor apart, they sometimes will not speak at all.

Ultimately A Pattern Language has a lot of common sense to offer up about how to build a work community, backed by a fair amount of research that bucked many trends in the 70's. It had points that should not be glossed over even now, including:
  • You spend 8 hours at work - there is no reason it should be any less of a community
  • Workplaces must not be too scattered, nor too agglomerated, but clustered in groups of 15
  • Workplaces should be decentralized, not reliant on a central hub
  • Mix manual jobs, desk jobs, craft jobs, selling, etc. within a community
  • There should always be a common piece of land (or a courtyard) within the work community which ties offices together
  • The work community is interlaced with the larger community they operate within

    Workspace efficiency and community engagement is definitely not a new practice, however we always tend to think it is. If we can remember the lessons learned thirty-seven years ago, we may be in a better place to make a better workplace today.
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