Wither the workplace case study?

Having attended a couple of conferences towards the end of 2010 where new workplace case studies were presented, I have been reflecting on why I found them unsatisfactory, and why despite the great deal of productive and hard work that went into creating the realities, the stories of the journeys left me feeling deflated.

Here are ten possible limitations of the new workplace case study, as we are used to hearing it presented. I should say, I have presented case studies myself, so the below is not without some self-appraisal:

  1. They are inherently obsolete. The planning and design – particularly where a new building is concerned – typically begin 2-3 years prior to “live” date – add a period of 6-12 months for steady state before the case study is publicised, and we are already reviewing an idea that is essentially 3-4 years old. This obsolescence is rarely acknowledged.
  2. They are voluntary. Case study presenters are rarely, if ever, paid. While the cash usually goes to the “named” headline and closing speakers, the middle parts of the day are where the profit is made. And that means that the slots are available to those who wish to build profile. It is free personal and corporate advertising space. If its there, there is no harm in taking it if it is offered. But let’s not pretend that its all in the name of learning.
  3. They tell us about what was done, not what might have or could have been done. In this sense they are naturally limited as a learning opportunity. We rarely, if ever, hear about what the project leaders would like to have done but were not allowed to. It’s like the notion that travel narrows the mind, as it restricts our perception of the world to that little of which we have seen.
  4. We never see the scars. Success is amplified, and failure is “learning”. Who in their right mind would voluntarily present a case study depicting what went disastrously wrong? Or why the project was a damp squib? We never find out what didn’t work, or why the presenter thought that was so. On most occasions, we don’t even get any clues.
  5. Einstein once said that it was not the “eureka!” moments he cherished in the lab but the “hmmm, that’s interesting….” ones. That is, the unforeseen outcomes or consequences. Yet the case study format rarely allows them to surface.
  6. The corporate workplace Brief has become so uniform in the last 3-5 years that one case study looks just like any other. They could be swapped in the train tunnel and still look as intended when complete. We crave learning about difference, divergent thinking, brave experimentation, and courage. We get safe.
  7. We are treated to gobbledygook in spades. “Workpoint penetration” was a recent favourite. And how many names are there out there for a corporate workplace space policy? Has anyone listed them all? As the Plain English Society Gobbledygook Generator just said (http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/examples/gobbledygook-generator.html): “At base level, this just comes down to synchronised monitored innovation.” Just the words I thought I was looking for, but wasn’t.
  8. Beyond the gobbledygook there are the forced-fit acronyms. Words like TEAM and INTERACT are scribbled on a flipchart and groupthink creates a word that applies to each letter, to create a project motto. Strange that we never see AVERAGE or SAMEOLD, or similar. Everyone knows that the acronyms are created in reverse. Why, oh why, do we still do this? Why, oh why, might we be vaguely interested? Oh – we aren’t.
  9. The supporting imagery is unnatural, sanitised and bland. We don’t see real people on a normal day. We don’t see the stress, the mundane, the everyday. We really can do without the toothpaste-advert sparkle, because we all know its not like this – and nor would we want it to be. So why do we continually show it like this? [glint.
  10. We cannot validate the material presented. We come away nursing our inferiority complex, wondering how they got it so incredibly right at every turn. Well, the breaking news is – they didn’t. The new workplace is a human challenge. We go on a number of journeys to get there. But when it comes to telling the story, the best bits are picked and sewn into a new story altogether, and the worst bits discarded. The control of history is a wonderful thing.

So this year conference organisers, please – if we are going to have case studies at all, let’s have real ones. Pay the presenters. Validate what they will present and direct the material so that we learn something useful, something that will help us with the challenges we ourselves face. And is there anyone out there in the industry prepared to describe the various journeys on their course to the new workplace, the success and failure, highlights and lowlights?

Perhaps 2011 will reveal one.

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