Species of Spaces for Work, Learning, and Collaboration

There are so many different organizational models for how people form communities of work, learning, and creative collaboration. What are the most interesting and innovative? I’d like to take a partial stab at a tentative taxonomy, considering models ranging from hacker school, to guild, to science lab, and more.

This combines several of my interests: the future of work, creative networks, systems thinking, emergent behavior, community-building, innovation. I’m not really approaching this as a serious research project, but rather a way to think in a bit more depth about how work happens, in hopes I might glean some lessons I can use in pushing forward my own work and community activities.

I’m particularly interested in the less common ones; those that go beyond the traditional “product team” or “classroom”, for example, and perhaps haven’t been studied as much. The following are some of the first such community models that came to mind. I have a feeling there are many more we can learn from…

Hacker school: Tons of these have popped up over the past few years. They surely vary quite a bit in quality, but the best of them do seem to provide valuable education in practical skills, in a powerful collaborative setting. I’m interested in this sort of elective, focused learning within a specific discipline. Obviously tech skills are in demand; most such programs focus on training web developers…but I can imagine all sorts of areas where a similar structure could be interesting. I think this sort of learning space may be most effective when it combines both structure and freedom to explore; both individual work and opportunities for collaboration.

Dojo: I’m interested in looking further into learning environments centered around physical activity and education. This could involve places where students learn from direct physical participation (motor skills; embodied learning; for example a piano conservatory or a wood shop) and acquire tacit knowledge, learning in an experiential and highly contextual process. I think it could be fascinating to draw lessons from the social dynamics and modes of communal learning in areas where physical and mental learning merge; everything from dance to fine crafts to yoga to athletics.

Coworking space: This one’s of course closely related to tectonic shifts in how many kinds of work are organized, with many people transitioning from offices and steady employment to independent work taking place in a sort of liminal zone. Such work spaces offer the resources of an office, plus a community; access to like minds. These spaces can provide structure, and serve as a sort of regular, grounding space, which may balance the sometimes-terrifying freedom of totally self-directed work activity. Shared studios, usually with just a few people rather than dozens or hundreds, can offer something similar — greater community than a home office, but much more intimate than a giant bland shared office space. New environments for knowledge work are growing increasingly important; it will be interesting to see what else emerges…

Guild: This is related to some of what I mentioned above re: crafts, physical / embodied learning, but with the added dimension of some sort of more explicit form of training or mentorship. Traditionally guilds imply physical trades or crafts, but I think the meaning has expanded to include other professions e.g. authors. I’d like to examine the history of guilds and apprenticeships; explore the sort of relationship that can develop between teacher and student in an educational setting that blends work and school.

Science lab: Collaborative inquiry is awesome, and this is basically a lab’s primary purpose. In a lab, everyone is working towards some common goal, as opposed to something like a coworking space where people are co-located but mainly still work individually. This doesn’t have to be limited to science labs, though that’s perhaps the easiest to visualize — I’m sure similar forms of activity can be found in all sorts research organizations, whether in industry, academia, or government. In some ways this sort of work structure may closely resemble that of guilds, but I think with a guild there’s more collaboration in the training process, less so once one’s mastery is established. And I bet there are also a lot of interesting differences in how labs function in diverse fields or departments.

Professional kitchen: This is another example of a situation where you have a team working together at a high level. It’s collaborative work that’s both physical and mental; work that depends on order and teamwork and experience. I’ve only seen professional kitchens in action on TV, but it seems like it requires incredible focus and coordination. Other similar examples might include sports teams, dance troupes, orchestras… I’m thinking of any team of elite professionals working to create something for others (often ephemeral, physical, or both) as differentiated from e.g. an academic lab where goals have more to do with solving problems and producing knowledge. These are my own distinctions, but even if they’re tenuous or hazy I think it’s interesting to consider possible differences in things like motivation and output and types of collaboration across the sorts of work people do together.

Online community: This may be a bit different from the others but I imagine that e.g. the “Twittersphere” can be measured in some sense as a real space, and the shape of this space has important ramifications for how we not only exchange information, but actually collaborate in all sorts of ways, across various industries, interest groups, niche communities, and other cross-sections of the broader world of Internet users. Some of these networks are more private (Facebook friends; Slack colleagues) and some are more public (Twitter followers; fellow forum participants), which inevitably shapes how discourse happens and how groups are formed and evolve on these platforms. There are many other degrees or axes of variance which I’m sure also have great impact on the sorts of communities that emerge; this is a huge area, definitely worth exploring and taxonomizing further.