The Architecture of Collaboration

In just one week, I read two major news stories about companies that are designing new workspaces to foster collaboration and creativity.

The first was in the Sunday New York Times Business section on March 18; it started with a story about the Seattle headquarters of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where they cut way back on private offices. Instead, there are a variety of workspaces that are available to anyone. Martha Choe, the Chief Administrative Officer, prefers to work at a long table at the side of a 33-foot-high open mezzanine. Other workers constantly walk by; anyone can set up their own laptop across the table.

Companies build this way because the research on creativity and collaboration shows that conversation, noise, and a bit of chaos are good. Chance encounters lead to knowledge exchange, and surprising new combinations. Private offices are a waste of space, anyway, serving mostly to telegraph the occupant’s status (the most central people in an organization are the ones that are never in their offices, anyway). In these new spaces, people are constantly in motion, always gathering into small groups. Stairways are inviting and a bit wider than usual, because so many chance encounters happen there. For that reason, the stairways are designed to end at a coffee station, a copy machine, or an informal grouping of furniture–to make it easy to sit down if you need to continue that unexpected conversation a bit longer.

A few days later (Wednesday March 21) the Wall Street Journal published a story about the collaboration benefits of shared workspaces–where employees from different companies rent space in the same building. This has long been common for smaller startups that can’t afford their own building. But unlike the old style, where every company has its own floor with a receptionist to keep out strangers, these new buildings (the story leads with one in Grand Rapids, Michigan) encourage workers to move around freely, bouncing ideas off of other workers no matter what company they work for.

These informal conversations are so effective at sparking creative collaboration, that some established companies–with plenty of their own buildings–are renting a part of these new spaces, simply to take advantage of the power of conversation. In the Grand Rapids building, there are employees from established companies like Steelcase, Wolverine, Meijer, and Amway.

I advocate these collaborative spaces in my 2007 book Group Genius (pp. 164-166), pointing out that office furniture companies like Steelcase and Herman Miller have been way ahead of this trend. I’m glad to see that companies are getting the message; the New York Times article reports that two-thirds of American office space uses some sort of open arrangement. The problem is that with many of those arrangements, people just feel crammed together with no privacy. The key to getting it right is to tap into the research about collaboration and creativity.

Lawrence W. Cheek: “In new office designs, room to roam, and to think.” New York Times, March 18 2012, pp. BU1, 4.

Rachel Emma Silverman: “Firms share space, ideas.” Wall Street Journal, March 21 2012, p. B8.

Collaboration at Apple

The late Steve Jobs seemed to fit the classic stereotype of the creative genius. A college dropout who invented the first personal computer in his garage. The man who stood up to IBM’s boring corporate PC (with the famous 1984 Superbowl commercial). The man who was kicked out of Apple, which promptly started to fail, and then who returned to again lead the company to success.

Jobs deserves a lot of credit for being an effective corporate leader. But he’s not a lone genius. Like all lone genius stories, this one is a myth. Back in 2009, I blogged about the important role played by the design team at Apple, led by Jonathan Ives. And earlier this month, in an interview in the London Evening Standard, Ives confirmed the central role of collaboration at Apple:

The way we work at Apple is that the complexity of these products really makes it critical to work collaboratively, with different areas of expertise. I think that’s one of the things about my job I enjoy the most. I work with silicon designers, electronic and mechanical engineers, and I think you would struggle to determine who does what when we get together. We’re located together, we share the same goal, have exactly the same preoccupation with making great products.

One of the other things that enables this is that we’ve been doing this together for many years – there is a collective confidence when you are facing a seemingly insurmoutable challenge, and there were multiple times on the iPhone or ipad where we have to think ‘will this work’ we simply didn’t have points of reference.

SXSW Interactive: The Future of Education

In the United States this last week, it’s been hard to avoid the gushing news coverage of the annual South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) conference that just ended (March 9-13, 2012). Many U.S. media outlets had reporters in Austin, Texas to cover the event: National Public Radio, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and of course Wired Magazine, Bloomberg Business Week, etc. Reporters love the sexy combination of technology, futurism, social media, and camera-ready intellectuals and young corporate leaders. It’s a sort of hybrid of Davos and TEDx.

But I didn’t hear anything in the media about the many presenters who talked about education and the future of schools. When I visited the web site, I found 21 education-and-technology presentations including:

I highly recommend clicking on some of the above links and reading the panel descriptions; you’ll feel as if you are looking into the future of education. I wish I had been there!

However, I noticed something else: there are no learning science researchers on any of the panels! Colleagues that I think of as the leading experts in mobile learning, learning in virtual worlds, and games and learning–none of them were there. Instead, the names you see above are almost exclusively people working in the private sector or at various nonprofits. (There are a few exceptions: Gary Natriello, Professor at Teacher’s College and founder of EdLab; Paul Resta, Director of the Learning Technology Center at UT Austin; and Michael Mayrath has a loose connection: he studied for his doctorate with Chris Dede at Harvard before founding his own private education-related company. Still, none of them are known as learning scientists.)

There are a few obvious differences between learning scientists and these SXSWi presentations. First, learning scientists don’t use technology just for technology’s sake; we use technology when and how the research suggests it can contribute. These SXSWi speakers are more of the breathless evangelist type. A lot of them work at private companies with technology and services to sell. Learning scientists are a bit more skeptical: we want to see the research first. And we generally believe that technology is only one component of a complex social system, with teachers, students, and cultural practices. Second, learning scientists look for underlying patterns and general explanations for how and why learning is taking place. We are focused on the science of learning, after all. I didn’t see anything like that at SXSWi. (I think all of these presenters should read the Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.) 

Still, I wonder: Is the learning sciences research community missing something here? SXSWi shows that there’s a lot of activity in this space of technology and learning, and a lot of it taking place outside of traditional research universities. Shouldn’t we be at the table at SXSWi? Shouldn’t we be building partnerships with these other folks, working toward the same ends–transforming education for the 21st century?

How To Be More Creative

The journalist Jonah Lehrer is getting some incredible advance publicity for his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. A few weeks ago, he had an extended article about group creativity in The New Yorker. And now, in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, his article “How to be creative” took up the entire front page of Section C and another full page inside the section (March 10-11, 2012).

I had a chance to read the pre-publication version of the book last month. Lehrer does a good job of getting the science right, and, he’s an excellent writer. My only mild criticism is that there’s nothing really new in it: much of the research he describes was summarized in my 2007 book Group Genius, or in Peter Sims’ 2011 book Little Bets. But still, I’m glad to see that Lehrer is helping to disseminate what scientists know about creativity.

Let’s take a look at Lehrer’s “10 Quick Creativity Hacks” from the WSJ article.

1. When you’re in a blue room, you’re more creative.

2. You’re more creative when you’re a bit groggy.

3. People who daydream more score higher on creativity tests.

4. If you imagine yourself as a 7-year-old, you have more ideas.

5. Watching a comedy video makes you more creative just afterwards.

6. If you think the creativity puzzles come from another country or state, rather than your own local university, you’re more creative.

7. Use more generic verbs to describe your challenge.

8. If you sit next to a box (but not in it) you’re more creative.

9. Students who’ve lived abroad are more creative.

10. When people move to a bigger city they become more creative.

It’s true that these 10 tips are based in research studies. But it’s good to be a bit skeptical, because most of the studies used paper-and-pencil creativity tests that have only a limited relationship to real-world creativity. It makes me think of a study published a couple of years ago that found that if you stare at the Apple logo, you score higher on a creativity test than people who stare at the IBM logo. Does anyone really believe that simply looking at an Apple will make you more creative in any meaningful way? Not me.

Successful creativity results from hard work over a long period of time, from a systematic and deliberate process that raises the ratio of success to failure. Lehrer knows this too, of course. And his book is a pleasure to read. If you like to read about creativity, you definitely need Imagine on your shelf.

The Arts in the Research University

Today I’m at the University of Michigan, at a meeting sponsored by their ArtsEngine initiative (with the subtitle “Art making and the arts in research universities”). The first meeting one year ago generated a lot of excitement among university leaders, because the potential is to significantly enhance the undergraduate experience by consciously introducing creativity and the arts. After all, in a creative age, when innovation is more important than ever, we have a responsibility to nurture creativity in our students.

Along with Elizabeth Long Lingo of Vanderbilt, I wrote a white paper for the event titled “Creativity in the Arts: Its unique role in the university.” The creative process in the arts has many similarities with the creative process in other disciplines, including sciences, engineering, and humanities. But the arts are unique in at least a four ways:

1. Compared with other academic disciplines, the problem finding process in arts-making is relatively unconstrained by external forces. In the sciences, most problems are well-known to researchers in the field, and a larger proportion of daily activity falls into the “problem solving” category. And even when creative problem formulation is necessary in the sciences, the range of possible formulations is constrained by physical reality.

2. In sciences and humanities, students must learn a large amount of material before they are equipped to engage in creative practice similar to what professionals in the discipline engage in. In biomedical engineering, for example, students must take several semesters of calculus, biology, chemistry, etc. before they are prepared to engage in authentic disciplinary practice.

3. Courses in arts-making, even at the introductory level, commonly include assignments that require students to generate many possibilities. Arts pedagogy is designed to prevent students from moving too quickly to their first idea—to slow them down and require them to explore a range of possibilities (Sawyer, 2012b). In the sciences and humanities, it is more difficult for students to do this effectively, particularly at the introductory levels.

4. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of arts-making is that an external, visible product is created. More importantly, the student’s developing ideas are visible from the very beginning of the process. When a student externalizes his or her developing thoughts, it enhances reflection and metacognition, and this results in more effective learning (Sawyer, 2006).

In arts-making, there is a constant dialogue between ideas and execution—for example in fine art painting, where MFA students are taught to come up with an “idea” or “concept” for a body of work. But quite frequent is the experience of starting with an idea, beginning to make the work, and then after working a bit, realizing that the work being generated actually isn’t about the original idea at all. Then the artist has to figure out, what is the idea that is really behind these works I’m generating?

Engaging in the arts-making process thus can help students learn about the relationship between concept and theory, and execution and implementation in reality.

In other university departments, in contrast, it is often difficult for students to externalize their developing understandings in this way. The material is often primarily abstract, conceptual, or linguistic in nature, not necessarily lending itself to visual or spatial representation. And yet, we know from studies like that of John-Steiner (1985) that exceptional creators in the sciences and the humanities think in and work with visual representations.

Thus, one unique benefit of the arts is that students learn to engage in a process of externalizing their developing ideas, a process that may transfer to creative work in other disciplines.