Looking down at Château-d'Oex from our chateau on after a snowfall. © E. Forrest Christian.

Make Your Workplace the Village!

Forrest ChristianNetworks, Organizations 4 Comments

In my quest for more data about Karen Stephenson’s work, I came across an old New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, the happy camper behind The Tipping Point. The article, “Designs for Working: Why your bosses want to turn your new office into Greenwich Village“, originally appeared 2000 Dec 11. He starts off with a scene from the great Jane Jacobs book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which immediately earned the rest of my eyeballs. I read Death and Life as an undergraduate after reading The Economy of Cities (1970) for a class that I scored a 95 in, but unfortunately was taking pass fail. Death and Life opened my eyes to what life could be like after spending the last ten years locked on a section with only six houses and having to tend a monstrous garden all summer. (Oh, woe!) For a guy who gets physically ill when he doesn’t talk to people all day, it was a severe treatment and Jacobs provided a stiff antidote. Not to mention a small preparation for moving to south Chicago a couple of years later.

The gist of his article — which he stays on, very unlike me — is that while Jacobs’s ideas for the city may have failed until recently (and people inexplicably still move out to the suburbs) they have been taken up by office planners. It turns out that you have not been talking enough with your co-workers, especially those with whom you do not work. I have always been admonished to shut up and let them do some work, for Pete’s sake!, but apparently Gladwell has discovered other firms that are trying desperately to create a networking environment. The goal is to create an atmosphere conducive to weak ties.

Strong ties you know: bonds like family, the guys you bowl with, the women you meet at Panera on Monday night for whatever it is that you talk about. Weak ties are those that are, well, weak instead of strong. That guy that you talked to last week while his bowling team rolled yours into the gutter, that mother of your son’s soccer teammate that you see at the games. Those folks. Turns out that these are the people that are most likely to help you innovate.


Apparently, your family are all way too nosy and keep on bringing up how you’re going to embarass the family. “What would your grandmother say? Thank God that she didn’t live to see you try this crazy scheme!” Weak ties, those folks you know by name but not much else, are the ones that have so little invested in the relationship that you can pass the wacky ideas past. And, since weak ties are normally across knowledge domains, they will likely tell you something about their field that may be relevant to your own. Which is exactly what Martin Ruef says (more or less) in “Strong ties, weak ties and islands: structural and cultural predictors of organizational innovation” (Industrial and Cultural Change, 11(3):427-449).

It turns out that going into business with your cousin may be more trustful, but going into business with someone whom you barely know is more likely to lead to organizational innovation. Grannovetter discovered or predicted as much back in the early 1970s. And life goes on.

Anyway, Gladwell wants to tell you why your next office is going to have even more cubicles and less offices. And why the big boss should ideally be in the center of the room at a desk with no walls at all. Hope he doesn’t pick his nose.

Image Credit: Looking down at Château-d’Oex from our chateau on after a snowfall. © E. Forrest Christian.

Comments 4

  1. It’s interesting that you talk about the strong ties vs. weak ties. I have just completed a book entitled, “Free Agent Nation”, by Daniel Pink. The premise of the book is about “the future of working for yourself” in today’s global business environment. In one chapter, Pink opines how the weak ties are the best ones for not only developing business (you have probably exhausted your strong ties network anyway) but validating (or invalidating) your own business ideas.

    I would highly recommend this book to those who are “free agents” (a.k.a., independent contractors, small business owners, consultants). It really brings home the nuances of relationships for the small business leader.

  2. Post

    Free Agent Nation?!? Resist it! Say No Thank You!

    Actually, the book sounds pretty good, if not for the terrifying title.

    Interestingly, a recent article I read (that I can’t recall) pointed out that most Americans were in fact working for each other more during the dotbomb boom. Less people were working for themselves in 2000 than in 1993, which is odd. Of course, contractors who were working for a large contracting company but at an hourly rate (paid only when you worked, if you had work) didn’t count as self-employed, I’d bet. I think that what happened was that an entire industry developed to exploit a labor force people seemed to want. Some folks, like my client (BIG), have never left the model. Of their 9000 IT personnel, 4500 are external, staff-augmentation types. And they have no official “outsource” arrangement for IT services, either.

    I’ll have to take a look at Free Agent Nation.

  3. Post

    Yeah, a lot of companies are in that boat. Philip Armour wrote an interesting article, “The business of software: When executives code” in the computing journal Communications of the ACM [47(1):19-22, 2004] about this very problem. Many executives wake up one morning and realize that they have outsourced so much of their production that what the company really does is produce the software that controls the various components: they’re in the software business but they don’t know anything about how to create software.

    Armour ran a short course on basic development process for CEO and other executives in this situation. It produced some interesting results.

    The problem is getting pretty severe, since many companies don’t realize how much software they actually create. Most people are still making their own systems, much like factories used to create their own custom machines at the start of the industrial revolution.

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