The Creative Class

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 2 – July 23, 2004

Back in March Gary Hamel gave a one hour talk at the CoreNet Global Summit in Chicago (Hamel is a respected Professor of management, and founder of Strategos consulting) His talk was about the importance of creative work and creative workers. Hamel is on a mission to educate business leaders about why innovation is so important, what it is, and why it is so difficult. Hamel is not the only one talking about the importance of innovation in the future. Nancy K Napier (Professor of International business and Executive director of the Global Business Consortium at BoiseStateUniversity) says the most important challenge facing corporations is finding ways to tap into and nurture creativity – by individuals and groups – as a competitive resource. Lynne Waldera (president and chief executive officer of InMomentium Inc) says that the only source of sustainable competitive differentiation is innovation.

It is interesting to find so many business leaders talking about creativity and innovation. Even though these comments are in the context of big- picture business strategies rather than the work environment (and we know that it is corporate culture and day to day management practice that determines the degree of innovation and openness to change in any organization) there is no doubt, that fostering innovation in the workplace is a trend being talked about.

If we buy the argument that the most important value add in the future will come from the creative class – those whose skill set is more intuitive, who develop new ways of thinking about problems and applying knowledge, and often borrow ideas from one discipline area to apply to another. How do we provide environments that nurture and promote innovation? This kind of work requires a different kind of workplace, a different kind of success measure, and a different kind of management.

Creative work is much more collaborative, something we have known and have provided for in the workplaces we design for some time. It is also not manageable or controllable the way an assembly line is, you don’t order creative people to develop three great ideas by noon. You don’t tell this type of worker when and where to do their work. This is why so many successful companies of the last decade have set up games rooms, provided workout facilities, and kept the lights on for 24 hours a day. Because creativity cannot be scheduled, managed, or planned. It happens when it happens. The type of work environment that responds to this is one that provides choices in where and how one works. The environment sends a message of personal control and power to its users, and is a step toward “high performance”.

Creative workers are also mobile. Surveys and studies have shown that in any given day 20 to 40% of the worker population doesn’t go to their corporate designated workplace to work. The average office utilization in large organizations today is hardly ever as high as 50%, most people don’t come into their assigned space in the morning and sit in that one place all day. So where is everybody? They’re in someone else’s office, in a conference room, in the cafeteria, at the coffee machine, or standing in the hall.

It is no wonder that the typical office building is empty so much of the time,

Since creative workers don’t work in the office, and can’t be managed, should tear down the office buildings and make parks? Most of us prefer to have a roof over our heads and a pleasant, well – designed space to work in. What it means is we should re-examine the way we use workplaces, and what kinds of spaces we really need. We need to ask the most basic question of all: What is an office for? Why go to the office? Usually the answer to that for the “creative class” is to meet people. If that is what “the office” means to creative thinkers, then we might design it as a meeting place, or a collection of meeting places – of all sizes and styles – to accommodate a much wider variety of types of meetings? Maybe it is more like a town hall or conference centre.  Or perhaps it is more like an artist studio on the individual level and an artist collective or community at the organizational level?

The era we are now entering is one in which individual and collective creativity, more than routine effort, is the driver of economic success. While recognizing that some repetitive, routine effort remains necessary to ensure economic efficiency and a foundation of social stability (that’s why we keep the office buildings) it is now imperative that we take a fresh look at the core assumptions on which our workplaces are based. We must directly challenge those assumptions and the organizational practices that derive from them if we are to create vital organizations and healthy social environments that nurture the human spirit and contribute to the quality of life.

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