Watercoolers, Protectionism, Productivity, and Meatspace.

i’m providing up-to-half-of-full-time enterprise architecture consultancy to a major effort that will see the really-old PeopleSoft Student Administration 7.6 environment at my site upgraded to become the latest-available really-new PeopleSoft Campus Solutions 9.0, and it’s a large project with about sixty people working together in one spacious floor of a commercial building that housed previously a call centre, so there are lots of windows, and it’s quite open-plan, and there are network ports everywhere (but the network is really slow).

In some ways i’ve struggled with the transition from long-running core-relationship mode to project-context mode, and i’m wondering if some of the resistance from the wider project team to the mention of social networking tools like Twitter, Yammer, wiki, blogs, and Google Wave is more about the shorter-term scope of the monstrous and pressing tasks the team faces.

Where a community is unaccustomed or resistant to social networking (and the individual reasons range wildly from fear of recrimination for saying something silly, to not understanding anything of the value proposition, to feeling too busy to participate, to outright believing it’s a waste of time) i’m unable to rely upon the ambient intimacy that informs many/most of my relationships. This also means that core messages, and core advice, are being sought through and are able to be provided by only traditional channels such as email-mediated and meatspace-mediated interactions, neither one of which is:

  • social/public
  • challengeable/addressable
  • replayable/documentary
  • updateable/commentary

To address this, today i spent the first of my at-least-half-a-day-a-week working in-person on the floor, seeking to establish and engage in the watercooler interactions that are missing in this context. It’s a broad open-plan workspace, and it’s very different from the small and quiet and intense and ordered office of ten people where i normally perform deskwork. The experience was interesting:

  • the dividers between desks/cubicles are at least a foot lower than i’ve experienced before, so i found myself for the first hour or so working with my head forced down near my laptop, avoiding exposure and eye contact and trying to give others privacy
  • there’s a lot more noise than i’m accustomed to, though most of it is the sound of industry, and it felt kind of good to be exposed to it, though it felt simultaneously like i was trying to work in a cafe or an airport lounge
  • there’s a lot on my plate at the moment, and it’s hard to knuckle down and be productive and concentrate on and plough through pressing work (and, as a visitor placing myself in the environment in order to be more directly accessible, it wasn’t appropriate to do the headphones thing)
  • talking with people is very productive, and can resolve/explain/mentor/correct/demonstrate/challenge/assist much more quickly than with traditional remote interactions…
  • …but there’s nothing left behind, so behaviours such as the email-to-wiki pattern are invalidated, not least because we no longer enjoy a strong story-telling oral culture

i’m going to spend a lot more time up there on the floor within the big project team, and i’m left with the feeling that the limitations and downsides are chiefly my own, and it’s something of a personal challenge to overcome them, at least for my half-day-or-so each week in the environment!


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