Donnerstag, 14. Juli 2011

The virtual coffee corner doesn't serve tea

Nick Milton had a good point, when he got crumpy on the coffee corner metapher (KM and coffee machines – as long as it is that productive, keep on being crumpy, Nick!): The virtual coffee corner doesn’t serve tea.
When we in Ericsson Germany still had offices (only some weeks ago), I was sitting with a Senior Customer Project Manager. And true, I never went to the coffee machine with him to ask a question. And when I had a question to my boss, I went to him, not to the coffee machine, in order to ask.
No, Nick you are right, the coffee machine is not a good metapher for KM. The virtual coffee machine is not for strong ties and it is not for cases, when you know, what you don’t know. Then you are much better of with Communities of Practices, Subject Matter Experts, After Action Reviews and KM structured according to the processes.

via stockxchng Market Cafetaria 2 by stylesr1
The coffee corner is a metapher for the use of Social Media in Knowledge Management to build a network of weak ties and mutual understanding. When you and your colleagues must rely on serendipity, because you don’t know, what you don’t know or you don’t know what you know.
There was a time in my business life when I had to fly to Sweden almost every two weeks, and I had constantly too much coffee.  Why? There was always a business purpose for the trip, no doubt, but there was always a huge network of people, “just” to talk to over coffee. And it was business all the time, because we had not much else in common, but it was business in general terms, understanding what they were working on, what problems were nagging me, what was happening in the organization and to people. These talks were creating the mutual knowledge, the understanding, which enabled me afterwards to very effectively (not efficiently!) share knowledge. I knew what would fit their context and what would create value.
When I had tried to learn from failures (e.g. activity-based KPIs), I found it helpful to look at work patterns (I am fully aware that this here is very sketchy, more details you find at: A new work pattern – sharing, the power of sharing, mutual knowledge – yet to come).
You can distinguish between: Working on own agenda; seeing the big picture/learning/creating mutual understanding; and sharing.
The crucial part is not so much the sharing itself (that can be IT based), but the learning part, the part of seeing the big picture, the part of creating mutual understanding, the part where a common context is created, which transforms information into knowledge.
If this mutual understanding is lacking, we happen to fill databases with tons of useless information. But a virtual coffee corner is not mandatory. If the mutual understanding is there,
  • because you and your colleagues are tight together by a firm KM process
  • because you sit in the same garage company garage
  • because you are down under but share exactly the same working context,
you probably don’t need a virtual coffee machine, and tea is fine.
But in my expierence internally in a global company in 175+ countries with 90.000+ employee and externally, a virtual coffee corner is a business space and it is needed. But that doesn’t mean the whole working day should be spent there.



  1. Thanks for the clarification, Gerald. It would be very interesting to analyse Swedish coffee machine behaviour, as my experience around British coffee machines is that much of the conversation is about the weather or football, and most of the conversations are between people who know each other already. In some ways, the coffee machine is a better place to bump into people that you know, and that you have been meaning to talk to, but have never got round to it.

    There is certainly however a case for allowing serendipity and chance encounter, and you make some good points about picking up on some of the weaker signals. I would agree that "hanging round the coffee machine that is Linked-In" has given me a broader understanding of the ways in which KM is perceived, for example.

    However all the KM success stories that I know of, have come from finding the people who need to talk, and giving them a mechanism to communicate and collaborate. I don't yet know of any substantial success stories from serendipitous encounters, and would welcome hearning of any, and adding them to my list of quantified KM success stories

  2. @Nick,
    in my opinion the Swedish and the English coffee machine behaviour isn't that different, but my experience was deploying weak ties, as I was only travelling every fortnight, meeting and collaborating with people every day, then the topics turn more personal, strong tie discussions, while more of the business discussion fill regular meetings.

    Now, Nick, you put me into a dilemma, because I would like to agree to you, but these conversations with you (facilitated via SM) create value to me, so I had to shoot you, to follow your argument. Please advice!

    The great KM success stories - here I am with you again - are much more tangible in the more structured KM. Some of the KM failures - that's my point - are due to the fact that no mutual understanding has been established, and Social Media in a global corporate can facilitate this mutual understanding (among other e.g. face-to-face means)


  3. @Nick another metaphor
    Social Media is not the heavy (key successes) KM machine, it is one type of oil for the machine. If there is not oil, the machine will not work, but of course the oil is not equal to the machine.

    So Social Media are not a silver bullet, KM is not that easy.


  4. Hi Gerald,
    having experience of both Swedish and UK Ericsson coffee rooms I can say the main difference is that you never went for tea at the Swedish coffee room:)

    But I agree with your post. Nicks raised an important point about social chat. A lot of it is what could be considered banal or trivial. The weather (we British love chatting about the weather, we have so much of it), football, family and humour are all part of the discussions( humour raises a whole raft of cross-cultural issues). But it is a mistake to consider this unimportant. It is an essential part of trust building, person evaluation, and social bonding. Without this it is not possible to start or evaluate the purely technical discussions that may evolve from the initial discussion.

    This social back channel is an intangible part of social communication and I believe is a reason why often company social networking sites fail to catch the imagination of their users. Often the sites are setup with a baggage of rules about what should be posted.

    Lets use the real coffee room metaphor and make a rule that people can go there only if they discuss certain technical subjects. I am certain that what would happen would after a small initial use, people would stop going there, and even find alternatives.

    I have seen it happen at my company where a number of sites has been setup and after a couple months has died. However we have one site that has been successful, this was setup using a cloud application and as far as I know is not visible to the senior management. There are no rules. Posts have varied from the banal to the serious, but the important thing was that discussions were occurring, and out the background chatter important technical discussions have arose.

    In my opinion if we want to create a virtual coffee room we must copy what makes the real coffee room such an useful place to meet.

    1. Provide a comfortable and easily accessible environment
    2. Make it an informal space, where people are not judged or restricted as to there conversations
    3. Encourage users to visit it regularly

    And if you ever find a way of supplying virtual coffee, don't forget that tea is best made with boiling water and is always served with milk :)

  5. @hammarbytp
    I like the - theoretical - idea of setting up a coffee corner and only allow business conversation. An absurd thing? Yes. Social bonding is part of the work, you cut, the machine stand still. One of our collaboration tools facilitates emoticons in the chat-function and I like this.
    thanks for your comment, hammarbytp


  6. Dear colleague,
    I think that this topic is a bit taken out of context and therefore could cause misunderstandings.
    I also cannot recall anybody recommending that you should go to the coffee-corner to get a quick answer to your knowledge need.
    My understanding is that the coffee-corner stands for exchange with people you would not contact in the first place and also to get some new links and hear about ongoing thinks that you would not think about or deliverately look for.
    On the other hand the coffee-corner phenomen points to old research by T. Allen (MIT) about the distances between the different workplaces (in an office building) employees are likely to get into information exchange. The BMW R&D Centre is one building which was build based on those understanding of the relationship between space and communication.
    I describe this phenomen under the term "Raumplanung" at (Eng: work space design) with reference to some new research out from colleague from Switzerland about Space design, knowledge sharing and corporate culture. Very interesting.
    Best wishes

  7. @Peter
    the post was a clarification, which I felt was need after Nick's blog post, that is the coffee corner is not a metapher for KM, and was never ment to be by me.
    Thanks for bringing it up to consciousness: of course the metapher stands for the serendipitous knowledge exchange, which is in real life facilitate by a specific work space design (although I believe the coffee corner is older than conscious / scientific work space considerations, but have also influenced by empiric experiences of real coffee corners). So in your words Social Media is for me a Virtual Work Space Design fostering serendipitous knowledge exchanges (but, again, not KM in its totality).
    And again beyond the hype as discussed in an earlier post: The virtual coffee corner doesn't smell of coffee:
    it is only a crutch.


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