'Open plan' - the best knowledge sharing tool

Jon Beaumont is an enthusiastic convert to open plan working. It helps keep him and his team at the heart of the business.

When the idea was first put forward, the thought of moving to an open plan environment, alongside the majority of other support services, filled me with dread. However, twelve months on, I am a convert to the fantastic knowledge-sharing opportunities that an open plan office can provide. I certainly have a much greater understanding of the overall aims and objectives of the business and a huge amount of appreciation for my fellow Support Teams.

Re-thinking objections

So why are so many of us terrified of what open plan may bring? The first factor is often the general disturbance and noise (people just 'passing by' or stopping en route to the coffee machine or somewhere less important) and this is certainly one of the main differences one may notice when exiting the confines of a closed office. However, combating this with 'quiet areas' and a flexible home-working policy may provide an ideal remedy, especially when individuals are coping with difficult tasks, such as creating budgets or examining strategy. Indeed, when removed from an open plan set-up, I often miss the buzz that the environment creates. I also feel that people become more aware, and subsequently more respectful, of their own noise level.

Privacy is a further issue, but again this may be mitigated by having space available for private work. Having initially assumed that a large amount of my work could be considered confidential, I soon realised that this was often not the case and attempting to make something private may actually be hindering greater discussion.

Cross-team collaboration

The fundamental benefit with open plan must be the ability to share knowledge efficiently. This doesn't simply relate to individual teams; having specialists from Training and Development, IT, Marketing and Human Resources contribute to discussions is truly wonderful. Such informal story-telling and knowledge-sharing is very difficult to enforce, it simply comes naturally. What's more, chipping in to conversations in which you are not involved would usually be rather rude, whereas within open plan environments it is positively encouraged. A united front between teams and improved relationships can be an added bonus for decision making and issues of a more general nature can be easily diverted to the individual or team with the necessary expertise.

Open plan is often perceived to be a useful space saver across the office. It is often the case that less space is required per individual, but it is important to remember comfort issues - nobody likes to work in a professional organisation with a similar layout to a school classroom.

Strategic and managerial benefits

It is also much easier to manage a team when individuals are located in a similar area. Constant contact allows any issues to be identified, and hopefully resolved, very quickly. Management discussions do not have to take place in a meeting room and it is extremely straightforward to examine how employees are undertaking their role. A good knowledge team manager should be constantly analysing the methods behind the answers provided by team members.

As an enthusiastic Information Professional with a desire for knowledge, open plan suits me and the team perfectly. The opportunity to become further educated and involved in other areas of the organisation is one which sincerely should not be passed up under any circumstance. I would urge all organisations to give it a go.

Jon Beaumont is Head of KM at law firm Harvey Ingram.

Image courtesy of RLHyde, via Flickr.