Think before wiping that whiteboard

Image of Gillian Tett

A few years ago, Intel, the US technology giant, permitted a couple of social anthropologists to explore its Seattle offices. The two researchers, Dawn Nafus and Ken Anderson, duly started observing the rituals of everyday life in Intel’s corporate “jungle”, in much the same way that anthropologists might study the social life of an Amazonian tribe, say, or a far-flung Indian village.

However, there was a twist; instead of simply looking at how Intel made products, or how the staff related to each other, Nafus and Anderson focused on Intel’s “project rooms” as their “field-site”. More specifically, they watched how different Intel employees and researchers (including other ethnographers) used whiteboards, colourful charts, photographs and graphs to convey company messages, stimulate debate – and “brainstorm” innovative ideas.

For example, when a group of Intel employees visited Brighton, UK, to research how consumers were using their mobile phones on the street, the anthropologists watched how the findings were discussed. (Apparently, the employees returned from Brighton with lots of photos of mobile phone usage, stuck these on the walls and then shuffled them into a montage to encourage employees to “think out of the box”.)

At other times, employees started scribbling on walls (which were covered in paper or whiteboards), or chucking around provocative slogans, to spark more creative thought. “At Intel there are practices which happen with varying degrees of consistency,” they solemnly observe in a book Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter. “Sometimes posters and displays hang on in the office for weeks, as if there were an extended midstream thought. At other times there is a dedicated session in which ... writings take place on large whiteboards with Post-it notes involved.”

So far, so obvious, perhaps. Items such as Post-it notes or whiteboards are so ubiquitous in modern corporate life that they are rarely noticed, far less analysed. (As I type this article in the FT office in New York, I can see a scribble-festooned whiteboard near my own desk, which I have barely even registered before, and a PowerPoint presentation sits on my screen.) But as Nafus and Anderson point out, these modern “artefacts” are shaping how we communicate with each other, and how we perceive the world. Those humble Post-it notes are worthy of debate, even if they are not as sexy as, say, a BlackBerry.

Nafus and Anderson concluded, after watching Intel’s “project room”, that the company’s employees had an ambivalent attitude towards history: on the one hand, the company culture liked to celebrate its past, by hanging on to lots of photos on walls; but it also venerated things that were “innovative” and “new”. Thus, employees collected material “histories” (eg photos), but felt impelled to jumble them up, to look creative and “new”, often amid a barrage of floating Post-it notes with “inspirational” messages, that could be rearranged in the interests of “brainstorming”.

Ironically, while Intel worshipped the idea of free-flowing innovation, the way employees communicated was subject to a rigid but unspoken set of cultural “rules”. Post-it notes were deemed acceptable, and used to “push the boundaries”. This, however, “delegitimized knowledge which did not come in the form of bold, sweeping statements required of ‘out-of-the-box’ performances,” they write. PowerPoint and whiteboards were acceptable; communicating through dance was not. And “if your inspiration [for innovative ideas] happened to come from ‘suspect’ sources, such as religious texts, this can be smuggled in only through disguise.”

This may be a touch extreme. Most companies, let alone government institutions, do not claim to be as “innovative” as those tech groups in Seattle. But the impact of PowerPoint and the whiteboard extends well beyond Intel. Back in our grandparents’ day, most people expected speeches to be long, serious affairs; you either listened hard, or read pages of text, to get the “message”. Words were handed down, in a solemn hierarchy; the idea of having staged rituals to swap ideas did not exist.

These days PowerPoint has become an accepted common “language” in much of the corporate world and government world, not just in Seattle. An entire generation of people has been trained to expect that life can always be presented as 10 to 20 neat slides, each containing four or five bullet points, or notable graphics or photos, and this is subtly changing the way we think, talk and plan. Conversation is becoming more “level” and informal; after all, it is hard to deliver a solemn sermon with an interactive graph. But modern corporate life is increasingly using images – not solemn texts – to communicate ideas. Indeed, the more that words proliferate on our computer screens (and BlackBerries or smartphones) the more people assume that text alone is dull: diagrams, pictures, whiteboard scribbles – or Post-it notes – are needed to grab attention.

This will distress anybody who prefers the written word, but to me it seems liberating. Next time you step into an office – or any other institution – try looking at what is hanging on the walls or lying on the desks. And think twice before wiping that whiteboard clean. It contains more messages than you know.

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