Wednesday, 11 January 2012

"Not unfriendly, just unsociable" - Making the iSchool more sociable

Last month's discussion took place, appropriately, during Christmas party season.  At the request of Professor Phil Levy (the iSchool's Head of Department), we discussed the question: "What types of activities should we be organising to help make the iSchool a more sociable place for research students/staff, and to reap the benefits of that for our research?"

Doyle (2000) notes that "Survey after survey shows that employees value having a friendly working atmosphere...The Harvard Business Review reports that Sears found that a 5 per cent rise in staff satisfaction leads to a 0.5 rise [sic] in productivity."

As evidence of the fact that people value work for reasons other than income, Doyle cites an article from the Guardian (2000), which reported the case of Mr Fullerton-Ballantyne, who won £1.89 million in the National Lottery.  He initially quit work, but then returned to buy the company that had employed him so that he could carry on working there.  Presumably he missed his colleagues.  Certainly that was the case for Nicky Cusack, who in 2011, returned to her job in Asda after winning £2.49 million

Not only are sociable workplaces more desirable and possibly more productive, there is also the fact that, despite all the advances in information technology, much exchange of information still takes place face to face; and if people work in a setting where face never meets face, it has negative effects on the exchange of information and ideas.

When Professor Levy's question was put to the assembled researchers however, their initial response was to ask "Do we want to be more sociable?"  Some voiced the concern that, in an effort to encourage sociability, events might be organized which would lead to embarrassing gatherings, where people stood talking to their usual associates, while looking around covertly, trying not to catch the eyes of people to whom they thought they should be speaking.

The iSchool, it was felt, is a reasonably friendly place - just not a sociable one.  When forced into social situations, we don't always know what to say to each other.  What was needed, people thought, were activities appropriate to the aims and objectives of the iSchool, but which provided scope for social interaction.

An example of such an activity was given by some of the newer PhD students.  They had enjoyed their induction, and had created an email list enabling them to maintain contact with others from their cohort.  Some of the more established PhD students expressed regret that they had not been given similar treatment when they first arrived at the iSchool.

A second example discussed had been provided earlier in the day by Alex Schauer.  At lunch time he gave a seminar about the findings of his PhD project to date.  At the end he announced that, to mark the festive season, he had brought a stollen.  People gathered round the cake.  Some stayed and chatted; others grabbed a piece and departed.  Ana Guedes Rosa recalled that, according to a marketing course she had once attended, people linger longer if there are drinks available.  "Ah!" exclaimed the gathering, "Give us wine and we'll socialize!".  Ana countered by noting that hot drinks are better because hotter drinks lead to longer lingering.

Applying analysis and synthesis to the discussion therefore, it becomes clear that an answer to the question:
"What types of activities should we be organising to help make the iSchool a more sociable place?" is
"Ones in which mulled wine is served".

Doyle, J., 2000.  New community or new slavery.  The Industrial Society
Rucci, A. J., Kirn, S.P., Quinn, R.T.  (1998), “The Employee-Customer-Profit Chain atSears,” Harvard Business Review, 76 (January-February), 82-97
Spence, R., 2000.  "How would you handle being rich?"  Guardian, 03/06/2000