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Mark Cunnington’s design narrative: an ‘open space’ experience with staff in an education business

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Mark Cunnington
30 March 2014


Organiser, coordinator, presenter.


Each month we organised an 'open space' for staff. We called it this as our intention was to create a collaborative environment that staff could 'enter' and interact with and learn more about some of the innovations taking place across the company. It came following a reorganisation of the business. Like many businesses with roots in traditional media (in this case the group in question were largely from textbook publishing backgrounds), we needed to reshape our business to reflect the needs and trends in the market i.e. users shifting to use and consumption of digital content.We had a large training room that, when set-up theatre-style, held about 80 people. However, we consciously tried not to organise the space in this traditional way and instead created 'pods' or clusters of chairs with a table to encourage interaction even during a presentation.We wanted staff to engage and become increasingly conscious of the digital environment around them,. To this end, we brought in a range of speakers to cover various topics from emerging digital trends to actual changes in education institutions. Speakers were thus a combination of internal experts and external practitioners. Their roles spanned from academics, to digital entrepreneurs, to technology providers, to teachers and to students.Our beliefs were two-fold:That organising the session in this manner would reflect the cultural shift we were instilling in the companyThat staff from 'traditional' publishing backgrounds would become increasing comfortable, confident and conversant with the digital world around them.


The ultimate goal was delivering against our strategic objectives of rapidly transitioning the company to the provision of digital content and services. This would be measured in a basic quantitative manner by percentage of digital sales and marketshare. In the shorter-term, we wanted to capture both the skills and cultural shift in the company. We monitored this by regular staff surveys on 'digital literacy' and tracking whether we were seeing an improvement in knowledge, skills, confidence and competence.


Pulled a small team together to discuss and agree the concept; Scoped out key objectives and themes; Developed draft agendas and lists of key speakers we would want to engage; Created chronological order to events to reflect proprieties; Booked space.- we had a lot of debate around the ordering of sessions and trying to be as objective as possible about priorities. The challenge was trying to map speakers to the areas and themes we wanted to cover. It was one thing identifying an expert in the field, but would they engage the group as we needed i.e. we wanted to ensure interactive sessions and not 'sage on the stage' presentations.General communication to staff that the events were being organised; Engaged and briefed speakers; Reviewed draft presentations and, where necessary, adjusted session timings.- as with all such events and engaging speakers, keeping them to brief is often the hardest. Invited staff to sessions (with RSVP); Sent reminders 48 and 24 hours before; Held event.- we had to limit attendee numbers as ultimately space was finite. This was difficult when trying to engender cultural change across an entire business. The events themselves ran smoothly but it was important for organisers to be on hand and steer the various presenters. It is all to easy to go 'off topic' and lose time or eat into other sessions. Distributed questionnaire; Reviewed findings/feedback and began work on refining next session.- the feedback and questionnaires were critical to the continued development and relevance of the sessions.


For those staff members that attended, we received very positive feedback on the sessions. But that was also a challenge - attendance. We held the 'open space' as a full day with staff able to book for specific speakers or simply come to the venue (in the office) and 'hangout' with the team. The former, traditional method was broadly successful, but the latter - simply dropping by at any time - did not sit with the previous, rigid culture in the business that did not allow for staff to operate in such a manner. Despite many communications around the business, we have not entirely cracked this to encourage such behaviour.We have seen digital sales as a percentage of our business grow considerably. It is, of course, difficult entirely to correlate the two (i.e.. these sessions being entirely attributable to that growth). But based on the positive staff feedback and questionnaire resists, we have to assume that they had some impact.


On the whole, organising these 'open spaces' has been successful for the company. The key challenge of attendance, specifically around the acceptability of 'hanging out' was never fully resolved. In hindsight, we would work much more closely with and communicate to managers and staff in the run up to the sessions. This would have hopefully then given them more 'licence' to engage informally with us and perhaps experience different ways of learning about our innovations.

Extra content

Embedded Content

Representation of one stream for Open Space session

Representation of one stream for Open Space session

added by Mark Cunnington


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