Converging business, technology, social, economic and real estate trends are giving rise to organisations emphasising collaboration and innovation as key attributes they are seeking to build into their workplaces and cultures.

But is it all about collaboration and open office plans or working at benches? What are the key considerations for effective work and workplace design that facilitates good work and decision making?

In the seminal book, The Knowledge-Creating Company, Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi describe four modes essential to the process of building knowledge that in turn drives innovation and performance in the global knowledge economy.  These are commonly described as

  1. Focus (individual work involving concentration and attention devoted to a particular task).
  2. Collaboration (working with another person or group to achieve a goal).
  3. Learning (acquiring knowledge of a subject or skill through education or experience).
  4. Socialising (interactions that create trust, common bonds and values, collective identity and productive relationships).

Within these four work modes two types of knowledge is used and created: explicit and tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is the formal, systematic information typically found in documents, procedures, and manuals. Tacit knowledge is informal and resides in someone’s head (and includes mental models, beliefs and assumptions).

Focusing is about that uninterrupted time to concentrate and attend to specific tasks – it’s a “head’s down” work orientation and is best experienced as being effective when in one’s own mental “zone”. As being in one’s zone is very personal – where and how one focuses is personal. It is therefore very much about the personal and private.

On the other hand, collaborating is fundamentally about working with others to achieve a goal. This is a communal coming together activity and involves group processes. This can be undertaken online virtually, face to face or a blend of the two.

Learning is about building new knowledge or skills and can be conducted via formal education (off-site at an education institution) or through social means such as social media and conversations with peers. Learning is best accomplished through leveraging what is known and moving to the unknown. Learning is increasingly becoming social via social media tools and accessing the informal knowledge of those around us.

Human beings are social animals. We require interaction. Corporate culture is made through the interactions of work colleagues and the collective behaviours of ourselves, our peers and leaders. For knowledge to be fully internalised and useful, it needs to be socialised. When people interact socially a common bond is formed and learning and trust are built. Communication and trust are important ingredients for any functioning workplace.

So there is more to creating a productive and collaborative work environment than simply providing common spaces or open office environments. While most workplaces recognise the need to facilitate collaborative work practices it’s not as simple as it might first seem.

Collaboration and high performing teams don’t just happen. Indeed part of the “secret sauce” is to provide for the individual (private and personal productivity) as much as for the collaborative.

There is an “I” in “TEAM” after all!


Effective work environments and activity based work initiatives balance out the needs of the individual and corporate. They take into consideration different work modes (and do not over cater for one perceived dominant mode at the expense of others). Every organisation and individual is unique – given distinctiveness is the only way to set oneself apart from others every workplace and activity based work initiative should do the same. There is no one size fits all approach.