Knowledge sharing in liminal spaces

I’m delighted to welcome Ian Rodwell, Head of Client Knowledge and Learning at Linklaters, to Knowledge4Lawyers. Ian provides training and guidance to the firm’s clients – global corporates, banks, governments – on an extensive range of business skills topics. Ian is also undertaking part-time doctoral research at City University on the role of liminal space in organisational storytelling, which he has kindly agreed to tell us more about.

Ian Rodwell

  • Hi Ian, tell me a bit about your research into knowledge sharing in liminal spaces. To start with, what is a liminal space and what kind of knowledge sharing occurs there?

Essentially, my doctoral research explores where in our organisations people tell stories — and to what extent storytelling might be drawn to the liminal spaces in our organisations. So what do I mean by liminal spaces? Well, originating in the world of anthropology, liminal refers to the middle stage in a rite of passage. It’s a ‘betwixt and between’ phase of uncertainty, ambiguity but also one of possibility, creativity and transgression. As a concept, it spread across multiple academic disciplines, including that of organisational studies. When we apply it to space, it means those mundane, overlooked, marginal or border spaces. So, in organisations, think of those spaces that we don’t usually associate with the core work of the business. For instance, corridors, toilets, lifts, stairways, receptions, smoking areas outside the building, kitchens, cafés etc. These are rarely the spaces that feature on corporate websites but they may be more important than we assume.

The basis for my research is that there’s been comparatively little research on the spatial aspects of organisational storytelling. But, if we ascribe a value to storytelling in terms of the work it performs, surely we should be paying attention to where it takes place? And if it does involve these liminal spaces — spaces ‘that hide in plain sight’ — perhaps it may encourage us to view them in a different, more valued light.

  • What is it about this topic that particularly interests you?

I think I’ve always been interested in stories — and by stories, I mean those informal examples and anecdotes that emerge in everyday conversations — and how we use them to learn and share knowledge. My dad started work on his grandfather’s farm in Suffolk when he was fourteen and I loved to hear his tales of the old boys, the horses they worked with and also the stories he’d heard — some stretching back generations. It was clear such stories were used to diagnose and solve problems, share farming knowledge, let off steam and provide an understanding of ‘how we do things around here’. And I don’t think it’s any different now as it was then. Muddy field or state of the art office building. People still tell stories.

  • What did you find in the initial stages of your research?

So, my first phase research has been relatively small scale and was designed to explore my initial assumptions and test my chosen methodology. Working with two contrasting organisations, a professional services firm and a chartered institute, I asked my participants to take photographs of the five spaces where they heard the most and the best organisational stories.

The photographs I received were almost exclusively of what could, in some shape or form, be defined as liminal spaces. I was intrigued by how many were outside the main office: a corner where smokers gathered, the pub, a pavement where a group walked to the get their lunch, the train journey home, the streets where people went for a team run, an annual summer BBQ at a colleague’s home. Another thing that struck me was what people were learning from the stories. Much of the knowledge shared derived from personal and non-work stories. But rather than viewing this as inconsequential and trivial, my participants suggested that such stories performed valuable work by improving team performance through building rapport, engendering trust and developing relationships. As one observed, such stories help in revealing the ‘real’ person behind the corporate mask.

  • How was your research affected by Covid-19 and what does that mean for knowledge sharing in the “new normal” that everyone keeps talking about?

I was fortunate that my initial research concluded pre-Covid. But, as I had asked people to take photographs excluding people (it made the ethical approval easier!), they now unwittingly stand as an unsettling portent of what many workspaces were to become through lockdown: spaces empty and absent of life.

Less fancifully, one characteristic identified from the research was the importance of neutral spaces or those that were on the border between different groups. Spaces, as one participant put it, ‘of gatherings and paths crossing’. A great example is a communal kitchen where different groups randomly mix. Such serendipitous encounters have long been recognised as a source of innovative problem-solving (indeed in a recent speech, Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, spoke of serendipity as the ‘cradle of creativity’). And, I was struck, from the early days of lockdown, how many webinars, articles, blogs etc. referred to the loss of these random ‘corridor collisions’ and how vital they were for swapping ideas, learning stuff and generally building relationships. It was if the world had suddenly woken up to how important these activities were! And, of course, as people quickly found out you can’t really do serendipity through Zoom, Teams and WebEx.

So, I think stories are still being told (and therefore knowledge is still flowing) but not, I suspect, to the extent they were. Working remotely, everything becomes more structured and scheduled which acts, I believe, as a bit of a straitjacket on informal interaction. It happens but it’s harder and, this is a personal view, it’s more emotionally 2-D than 3-D.

  • As a result of your findings, what tips do you have for those working in knowledge and learning in the legal sector, to improve the flow of knowledge around their organisations?

I think we have — perhaps! — quite a narrow view of KM in the legal sector. The focus, and quite rightly I guess, is more on the formal, systems side. However, I have always been more drawn to the ‘dark side’ of KM — what ISO 30402 on KM refers to as the ‘co-creation of knowledge flows through conversations and interactions’ (hence, the interest in stories). I think this side of KM is more problematic as this is knowledge that eludes formal capture and collation. So, the focus becomes more one of nurturing the environment and culture in which knowledge flows can more easily occur. I see this as the border zone — or perhaps the liminal space! — between KM and learning and organisational design. Consequently, we should reflect more carefully about physical space in our firms —does it facilitate interaction and interactivity? Do we purposefully create liminal spaces that encourage ‘lingering’ and informal conversations? And, in case anyone thinks that’s a bit ‘fluffy’, that’s exactly how businesses like Apple and Google design their buildings (although Steve Job was, apparently, persuaded not to put all the toilets on one floor!). Like law firms, they essentially sell knowledge and recognise that material space has a strong influence on how that knowledge is created.

Also, as I have found, the knowledge created and exchanged is not just transactional and related to pure work projects. The personal insights we gain about each other are actually key in developing the social capital that facilitates the transfer of more formal knowledge.

  • What advice do you have for anyone reading this who would like to start a research project related to knowledge or learning inside their firm?

I guess I should stress that my research to date has been part of my doctoral research at City University, so it is independent of (but invariably informs) my work at Linklaters. That caveat aside, I would definitely encourage people to do their own research. As well as providing me with a unique source of data to analyse and interpret, it has helped me be more reflective about the research I come across in articles, books etc. (and to be more aware of its context — objectives, sample size, research methods etc.). So, go for it!

  • What’s next for you?

I am finalising the report based on my initial research and then I will be planning the next stage. And I think Covid has presented an opportunity to explore the extent to which organisational storytelling has survived in this new world; the spaces to which it has migrated; and the nature of the work it now performs. Lots still to do…

  • Where can we find out more about your research?

If you’d like to know more about the world of liminal spaces (with a bit of organisational stuff thrown in), I suggest you visit my blog — or follow me on twitter — @liminalnarrate.

If you find this topic interesting, Ian will be the practitioner keynote speaker at the online Knowledge Mobilisation Forum in March 2021 (one of the conferences that I help to organise). You can find out more information here.

About knowledge4lawyers

I am a lawyer and a Knowledge Management expert. Through The Knowledge Business I help law firms improve their efficiency and profitability through knowledge services - consultancy, training and implementation help.
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