Communication in the workplace: knowing, seeing and being heard

Communication in the workplace: knowing, seeing and being heard

“It’s great that people who know the site really well and look at it every day were able to spot these parch marks and recognise them for what they were.”

I read a lovely article online in The Guardian this morning about Stonehenge. Apparently a question that has bothered archaeologists for years is whether or not Stonehenge was built as a complete circle of stones by its original builders, or whether they left it as an incomplete circle as it is today. The article told how this question has now been answered as some new evidence has come to light and academics are now pretty sure that it was built as a circle.

The evidence was uncovered accidentally, and its discoverer was not an archaeologist but a Custodian who was working to maintain the grounds:

“When a hosepipe used to keep the grass green in hot spells failed to reach a broken part of the circle, unsightly brown patches began to appear. Custodian Tim Daw was fretting over the blemishes when he realised they matched the spots where stones would probably have stood if the monument had been a complete circle. Daw said it was a “lightbulb moment”… The professionals duly took charge. Aerial photographs were hurriedly commissioned… and the scorch marks on the western side of the Wiltshire site were mapped, and some of the brown patches indeed tallied with where stones would have stood if the circle were complete.”

I was thrilled to read this and I asked myself why. I find ancient history pretty interesting so there was always going to be that. But I think I also enjoyed asking myself which was nicer: that someone who was not an archaeologist was nevertheless perceptive enough, and knowledgeable and in tune enough with the site he worked on*, to pick up on such an important observation; or that his observations were passed so readily onto colleagues and then archaeologists who took his word that he had seen something that needed further investigation. The sharing of knowledge and perceptions lead to some very useful archaeological activity that yielded important new conclusions about this precious historic site.

stonehenge_stukley

Many people probably know of the (I think apocryphal) story of John F Kennedy visiting NASA for a guided tour. The president bailed up an employee who turned out to be a cleaner and asked him what he did there. Instead of saying “I clean”, he said something along the lines of “I’m helping to put a man on the moon”.

The cynic in me wonders if this wasn’t concocted as a cosy bit of business folk mythology to impress upon companies the necessity of having a good Vision and Mission statement that can be disseminated amongst the rank and file. But true or not, I do actually like the story. And I thought of it when I read the article about the Custodian at Stonehenge. That man’s actual duties might lie in the fields of gardening or maintenance, but he knew and cared enough about the place where he worked to be aware that the question of Stonehenge being a complete circle or not was a red hot one. He wasn’t just trudging about the joint like a mindless drone, oblivious to and uninspired by his surrounds. Furthermore, when he made his discovery there was someone else he could tell who “saw them and realised their possible significance as well” and ensured the message was passed along the line until it came to people who had the purview to actually investigate. So not only did these men know, observe and see, they were then heard.

I know diddlysquat about the workplace culture or structure of whatever organisation it is that maintains Stonehenge. For all I truly know it might be a vile place to work either as an employee or volunteer. But, having read this article, I like to think not. I like to imagine a work culture that allows everyone to buy into a pool of knowledge so that lateral thoughts and observations arising from ‘happy accidents’ can happen. I like to imagine a workplace culture where observations can be shared, heard and acted upon if need be. A workplace where a direct line of intelligent observation and focused action can be drawn between someone laying a hosepipe to someone taking aerial photographs for archaeological study suggests, at least, some good knowledge management and communication principles at play. This augurs well for future happy accidents to be capitalised upon, and for other “secrets” and ideas to emerge.

*I am not clear as to whether or not the role of Custodian is a volunteer one or a paid position.

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