Most businesses recognise that collaboration between non-likeminded people can often prove extremely fruitful. The diversity of viewpoints, experience and practical skills can provide new insights and different angles on an existing problem, to produce solutions that are both innovative and practical.
The main issue is how to bring all these different minds together to work on solving an issue, or creating something new. In an interesting article for TED, innovation writer Helen Walters explores one very practical solution - inviting a diverse range of people to work in a single building.
33 Flatbush Avenue Brooklyn is not home to any company.
Instead, it provides workspace for a diverse range of creative people, from costume designers and robot builders to physicists, biologists and engineers. Each has their own desk space in a project that covers seven floors, and they are only allowed in after a 20 minute presentation and Q&A session. As designer, and inventor James Patten explains:
“We’re very careful about who we add to the mix, to make sure we can all learn something new… What it really comes down to is that we’re all constantly looking for interesting, unexpected connections and insights.”
Photos of the workspaces reveal shelves packed with boxes of what the article describes as ‘stuff’, the accumulated collections of both the tenants and the landlord. This is definitely a space where this ‘stuff’ is hand-crafted into solutions and new creations, in a very hands-on fashion. It’s also open-plan, so as astrophysicist, author and Columbia professor Janna Levin explains, there’s an atmosphere of disorganisation that actually helps her to write. “I have to have that hubbub. It’s a fascinating and magical place.”
However, there is a fundamental issue concerning this solution, as Walters explains:
“Figuring out how to hire and house people with different skills is hard. If yours is a small company, however fervent your belief in the gospel of innovation, it’s difficult to justify hiring a neuroscientist if you’re trying to develop an app.“
It’s also expensive, requires considerable investment, and may not yield either the results you expect or the solutions your business needs. So instead, many businesses are looking for virtual solutions to co-creation through cloud-based intranets that allow diverse groups to come together and work on specific projects.
The issue here is that management often pre-select who will work on what project - and that in turn loses the opportunity to tap into unexpected skill sets and knowledge that exists within any organisation.
By creating an online employee network that allows staff to access, comment, and contribute to any communication, be it news, business challenge or specific solution requests, businesses can create a ‘virtual building’ of talented individuals.
The best employee networks ensure that cooperation and collaboration easy, intuitive and above all, enjoyable. They also enable businesses to create the environment for what Patten calls:
“Constant informal moments where someone will help you figure something out or let you know if an idea is crazy.”
Patten’s comment recognises the power of feedback not from management but from peers - and those with a different viewpoint and outlook. It allows ideas to be exposed to a level of scrutiny and exploration that is potentially more valuable than feedback by direct peers, as it side-steps the bias of disciplines and technical expertise. Feedback via a real-time, virtual platform rather than in person or on paper is also much more suited to remote working and a geographically spread workforce.
It’s also a lot more efficient than running up seven flights of stairs to ask everyone in the building what they think…