The Smoker's Balcony


I'm not sure precisely what make this organizational phenomenon work, but I have a fairly good guess.

I am talking about the Smoker's Balcony. Notice how I have even capitalized the phrase - this is not simply part of the building designated for those who use nicotine products. It is far more than that.

The thing I find interesting about this particular place, is not the noise, or the fresh(!) air, or the heat, or the chance to get away and think, but it is the ability that this shrine has to elicit the most staggering knowledge-sharing. For years we (the organization design and knowledge management gurus) have been trying to create forums and communities of practice and post-project-review-sessions and official handovers and social network analysis models, all in an attempt to allow the knowledge that resides within one human being to pass to another of the same species. All the while, the solution has been right under our noses (so to speak) - the Smoker's Balcony!

Now, of course, the Smoker's Balcony is not reserved for active smokers only - passive smokers may join in too. Indeed, and this is where it gets interesting, they probably should join in. This alter of wisdom-perpetuation has some characteristics that make it really successful at retaining and sharing the history and intangible assets of a business, where Intranet portals or document management systems, or other such vain attempts at codifying knowledge, have failed.

The few characteristics are:

  • The workers are away from their desks, but not away from the work context. This means that the conversation is mostly work-related, but is not strictly focused on the task at hand. Also, the break from the usual posture and object of affection or attention is disrupted and the subconscious mind gets a chance to excel.

  • There is usually a diverse mix of the organizational hierarchy. Not only the close-knit group of propeller-heads or currency traders gang together, but managers and workers and specialists and entrepreneurs all gather for their common (albeit, unintended) task. Thus, the wisdom spreads across the usual boundaries, where usually it would be contained within silos.

  • There is no mandate or prescriptive command to share. This is important because the kind of information that really needs to flow here, is the kind of information that cannot be conscripted, only volunteered.

  • There are truth-serums involved. Well, actually just nicotine (warning: knowledge sharing can kill you). This has the effect of releasing more neurotransmitters in the brain such as acetylcholine (wake-up call), dopamine (happy feelings), glutamate (learning and memory) and endorphins (pain killer). With at least these 4 effects, it is no wonder the truth is told!

Now, of course, smoking is bad for you (oops, did I say that out loud). But the characteristics of the Smoker's Balcony provide us with some helpful tips on how to create other places for the same kind of things to happen (well, maybe with the exclusion of the last one). Perhaps we would be well advised to look for other areas where the right kind of organizational behaviour is exhibited, and Probe-Sense-Respond them, and amplify them, if need be.

And those troublesome brain boxes with their latest high-tech quick-fixes? Maybe they should just Butt Out (ahem)!