Of course the Scott Adams-like cynic in me couldn’t help musing on the fact that as one ascended the formal hierarchy, the office space in the upper atmosphere of the organization became less open and “collaborative.”
Fast forward twenty years and Best Buy has built a new corporate headquarters in Minneapolis that could qualify for an Extreme Workplaces show on HGTV. Best Buy was committed to building strong social networks among employees in a complex that would house thousands of people—a challenging, if not daunting task. So they set out to create that small office “water cooler” experience to bring people together in a way that would encourage relationships and dialogue.
Anyone who travels would recognize Best Buy’s solution as a sort of airport design with multiple terminals containing scores of offices. A huge main terminal in the center of the complex is the only place for employees to gather whether for coffee, brainstorming, entertainment or a tranquil place to work. It’s all there. Forget the department water coolers and coffee pots. If you’re thirsty, you are encouraged to get out of your office and pick something up at the main terminal where you are certain to bump into people.
Best Buy doesn’t stop at fantastic building designs for uniqueness, however. They are also experimenting with a program for balancing work and leisure giving employees the utmost flexibility while keeping them connected electronically. Instead of clocking into work each day, employees can call in from the beach and work wherever it is most convenient with performance assessed on results rather than time and activity.
It may not be conventional, but in a workplace dedicated to thriving in the new knowledge economy, knowledge becomes the primary source of competitive advantage. Knowledge work—defined as the particular knowledge or expertise accessed for a specific project or problem—demands information access and sharing, collaboration, innovation, empowerment and personal accountability.
At IBM, this has been understood for decades and shows up in supervisors and managers who function as teachers, resource providers, and facilitators. More recently, they have taken knowledge sharing a step farther by holding electronic company-wide forums that allow literally thousands of employees from all over to provide feedback and discuss pertinent issues.
Operating in this environment can mean major adjustments for supervisors. Can you envision in the Best Buy environment employees responding to supervisors steeped in the qualities of planning, organizing, directing, and controlling, the hallmarks of traditional management theory?
Knowledge leadership demands new methods and new skill sets for most leaders. One such practice has been introduced by best selling author, Meg Wheatley, who introduced hosting as a process for engaging groups of people in sharing ideas and solutions for the common good. Although some may find it a bit touchy-feely as a process, one doesn’t have to sit on the floor in a circle to practice the principles for hosting which include trust, openness, equality and shared responsibility.
A basic premise of leadership with a knowledge workforce is that you have to be able to create an environment where people collaborate, inform, take ownership, shift seamlessly between working independently and with others, and consistently act with commitment to the business. Some knowledge-based businesses, like IBM, have known this for decades and have taken steps to make the transition. For most, however, this may be the most pressing problem challenging their success. So, don’t fret over your cubicle arrangement or how you’re going to afford a main terminal for your water cooler, at least not until your leadership is showing signs of having made the leap.
Trying it on for fit: Mentally project yourself into the headquarters of Best Buy. Imagine yourself with a team of people working from a variety of locations and in a variety of self-selected schedules. If your power and authority were taken away, but not the responsibility for producing specific outcomes, how would you go about leading the team to success? Considering that a knowledge workforce relies on building individual and group capacity, trust, openness, vast sharing of information and ideas, personal accountability, empowerment, and ready access to resources, on what should you spend most of your time?
Write down what you would have to do to create success in that environment. Mark specific practices that you would find difficult to change. Prioritize your list and identify those you most need to develop in order to become an effective knowledge leader. As you work on your list, keep a journal of your experiences each day documenting your changes and the impact on your workforce.
Send an email and let me know what you learn from your experiences. I would love to hear from you!