Successfully designing a knowledge environment

Roy Pype, Proof of the sum, architect, The Netherlands

Eva Logonder, Proof of the sum, architect, The Netherlands

Jacques van Dinteren, president Innovation Area Development Partnership, The Netherlands


This paper explains the theory behind the creation and transformation of knowledge in organisations. It recognizes knowledge creation and sharing as behaviour that can be supported and encouraged by adequate space configuration. Furthermore, five design parameters are identified that play an important role in supporting knowledge behaviour and the creation of knowledge environments. In conclusion, each individual parameter is discussed based on literature and research from the field of knowledge management as well as organisational psychology.


By its nature, knowledge work is both highly cognitive and highly social. Workers need time alone to think and develop ideas, drawing from their own memory, insight and analytical skills. Yet, in order for ideas and concepts to become useful to an organisation, they must become available to others for scrutiny and further development. This will only happen when knowledge is shared and there are opportunities to do so. Sharing knowledge and its creation are interrelated and equally important.

Knowledge creation and sharing are activities but even more so forms of behaviour. This interaction and behaviour can be stimulated by the creation of specific working environments. Such knowledge environments can be achieved and established on any scale; from a single office to a science park configuration or innovation district on an urban level. The role of these spaces or knowledge environments is to provide opportunities to share and the sanctuary to create. To operate and better grasp the concept of knowledge, we generally distinguish between tacit and explicit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is commonly explained as know-how (experience, skills, attitude) and explicit as know-that (information). Knowledge is created by the continuous transfer, combination and conversion of tacit and explicit knowledge. This happens throughout practice, interaction and learning. When talking about knowledge creation four dimensions can be distinguished (see figure 1):

  • socialization,
  • externalization,
  • combination and
  • internalization.

These dimensions are interconnected and this process should be seen as a continuous, dynamic spiral of interaction between the two forms of knowledge as a visual representation of overlapping: the SECI-model (an acronym based on the first letters of the four dimensions). Each of the four modes of knowledge conversion can create new knowledge independently. The prime mover in the process of organisational knowledge creation is the individual that accumulates tacit knowledge.

Figure 1: SECI model of knowledge dimensions

We will now briefly discuss the four dimensions in more detail. It will become clear that each of these dimensions is also related to the behaviour of knowledge workers. We will then take a closer look at these behavioural aspects in order to arrive at the design parameters that play an important role in interaction and knowledge creation.


The Individual is the prime mover of the SECI model. He accumulates tacit knowledge from direct ‘hands-on’ experience, through learning and education. In this mode, explicit knowledge is converted into tacit knowledge through the internalization process. With this conversion, explicit knowledge becomes part of an individual’s tacit knowledge. Internalization is a process of continuous individual and collective reflection, the ability to see connections, recognize patterns and the capacity to make sense between fields, ideas and concepts. For the process of internalization, it is important to have a certain space that is able to provide conditions so that this type of work can be done efficiently. Internalization requires two design parameters, which are privacy and variety of space that can provide settings for individual and focus work.


The second mode of knowledge conversion is socialization. This dimension explains social interaction as tacit-to-tacit knowledge transfer. Most tacit knowledge is shared through face-to-face experience. The transfer of tacit knowledge happens through social networks as people encounter one another throughout the normal working day in both formal and informal settings. The organisation of space influences the interaction patterns among people. These patterns are key to the innovation process and they originate from movement patterns established in a spatial configuration. Interactions provide the opportunity for people to communicate. For this to happen they must be either located near to each other or use some facility that brings them into occasional contact. The probability of communication is declining by distance. Rashid et al.[i] found that interactions were highly correlated with what they called ‘co-presence’, i.e. the number of individuals who can be seen from any point along a given circulation path. They found that co-presence was an even more important predictor of face-to-face interactions than movement patterns. Co-presence can be established by visual accessibility or proximity parameter. Those two parameters, together with movement patterns are accountable for the overall awareness among people.


The next dimension of the SECI model is the conversion from tacit to explicit knowledge by externalization. Externalization refers to publishing, articulating and developing facts from combined tacit knowledge, which enables further communication. This knowledge transfer results in concepts, images and written documents. Since tacit knowledge is highly internalized, the externalization process is key for knowledge sharing and creation. When tacit knowledge is made explicit, knowledge is crystallized, allowing it to be shared by others. And so it becomes the basics of new organisational knowledge. To be able to collect tacit knowledge, there needs to be some degree of awareness as well as opportunities to extract it. Awareness is at the very centre of the innovation process. Awareness makes knowledge more immediate; this involves knowing what is happening in the surrounding space as well as the meaning of events, actions and intentions. From the viewpoint of spatial design, this creates awareness and interaction and there are three parameters that greatly affect this. These parameters are proximity, visual accessibility and movement patterns. By being aware of certain tacit knowledge, you are able to collect it and make it explicit in the process of externalization. Nevertheless, the mere process of extraction requires a different variation of space, depending on the type of task you are working on.


The last mode of the model is combination. It refers to explicit knowledge conversion. In practice, this can be seen as organizing, systemizing and integrating different kinds of explicit knowledge, for example, building prototypes. In combination, explicit knowledge is collected from in- and outside the organisation and then combined, edited or processed to form new organisational knowledge. Combination is the process of integrating concepts into a knowledge system[ii] (Yeh et al., 2011). It aims to create and support the systems and make information accessible to all organisational members when needed. It results in documents, specifications, manuals, databases, patents and licenses. These are rather complex structures, the accuracy of which often depends on efficient collaboration. Collaboration is viewed as a system of behaviours that includes both social and solitary work. The social aspects of collaboration are discussed in terms of three dimensions: awareness, brief interaction and collaboration (working together)[iii]. The central conflict of collaboration design is how to design effectively to provide a balance between the need to interact and the need to work effectively by oneself. The body of literature shows that features and attributes of space can be manipulated to increase awareness, interaction and collaboration. However, doing so frequently has negative impacts on individual work as a result of increased noise distractions and interruptions to ongoing work. Beyerlein et al.[iv] argue that effective collaboration is only possible when the organisational culture places high value on shared power, egalitarianism, active information sharing and commitment to the success of all workers. Regarding the design of a space in combination mode, the balance between all design parameters is important. Therefore, the design of collaborative spaces should be derived from a careful consideration of the context and the nature of work.

Figure 2: combination of SECI-model and design parameters


From the SECI model for knowledge creation combined with knowledge behaviours for each mode, we recognize that five design parameters greatly influence and support the process of knowledge conversion. These parameters are

  • privacy,
  • proximity,
  • visual accessibility,
  • movement patterns and
  • variety of space.

We also see that each dimension of knowledge creation is ideally supported by more than a single parameter. But some have a bigger effect on certain modes than others. It is possible to comprehend that the conversions dealing with tacit knowledge are enhanced by proximity, visual accessibility and movement patterns, in other words, parameters that contribute to awareness. However, as soon as the conversion shifts to explicit knowledge, the need shifts to variety of spaces and privacy. The intention of the overall design for a knowledge environment is therefore to create a proper balance between both knowledge requirements. To be able to do so, we need to understand the characteristic of each parameter, their effect and possible implementation.


Privacy is a state in which one is not observed or disturbed by others. Through privacy, we want to achieve conditions for confidentiality, and complex mental work. Spatial conditions should include a high degree of enclosure, realized through doors, walls or high panels, low density and distance from high-circulation areas. To provide privacy spaces, many offices include small, more or less efficient enclosed spaces known as “phone boots” or “concentration pods” in the workspace. In addition to spatial features, important elements that influence the level of privacy and quality of individual work are ambient conditions. Noise reduction can be achieved with sound-absorbing ceiling panels, floors and walls. It is also known that window views influence cognitive functioning, especially distance views or views of nature. The positive effects are reflected in improved concentration and stress reduction. Privacy goes hand in hand with design parameters of awareness. Visual accessibility for example can help determent if someone is working on a high-focus individual task and does not want to be disturbed. Nevertheless, we must be smart in providing places for privacy. Since too much enclosure reduces the overall awareness and potential for interaction.

Visual accessibility

Visual accessibility in real life is an important element in the creation of knowledge environments. It contributes to people’s awareness. If people do not see each other, they are not aware of others and they do not notice the opportunity to interact. Studies have shown that visibility leads to more cross-functional interactions[v]. It is affecting and changing the behaviour of people. Visual awareness makes it easier for people to collaborate, provide assistance, share tasks and ideas, and recognize the need for help or information from others.

In a building, spatial solutions like atria and interconnected floors are an effective way of providing visual contact between different floors. On the same floor, the orientation of openings and elements with respect to lines of sight influence the extent to which visibility is exploited. Just as other awareness parameters, the visibility tool can be used on a scale of an urban plan by positioning entrances from different buildings. Playing with the position of entrances in the building or in the workspace configuration enables you to arrange the movement patterns in a way that is able to build strings of visual connections. At close distances, all sensory modes are relevant. At further distances, visibility becomes the most important parameter.

Proximity / co-presence

People at close distance to each other tend to know each other better; this builds trust and they are more likely to gain knowledge about each other’s work. Close proximity is related to awareness of each other, which prompts people to give descriptions if this seems helpful. Allen and Henn showed that beyond one’s own floor, the interaction declines dramatically and is almost equal to interaction with people from other buildings or locations[vi]. Only a strong functional relationship makes people interact between floors. Vertical separation always has a stronger effect than an equivalent amount of horizontal separation. Nevertheless, much also depends on the nature of vertical separation. On the same floor, a 50m separation between people essentially leads to the end of regular communication. Separation by more than 30 metres is equivalent to being in different buildings if not in different geographical locations. Even within this 30-metre range, those nearest to one another communicate more than those at a greater distance. The tendency that individuals affiliate with one another because of spatial or geographical proximity is in social psychology known as ‘propinquity theory’.

Movement patterns

Normally space does not allow every employee to be within the inter-visibility and hearing distance of all other employees. Nevertheless, their interaction can be achieved by the design of space and the provision of facilities that will at some point bring them together. And by playing with the rhythm of the day, creating a schedule that even further enhances these options. This way you are able to ‘force’ people from different areas or different buildings to meet. Observational studies show that interactions result largely from movement patterns and spatial visibility that make workers available for recruitment into conversations[vii]. Interactions often occur in or near personal workstations and on well-trafficked routes. Backhouse and Drew found that 80% of the interactions in a design office were unplanned and occurred as a result of movement patterns and the perceived ‘availability’ of workers for recruitment into a conversation. Therefore, the location of offices, labs, coffee pots, conference rooms and similar facilities can be arranged carefully to influence the movement of people in directions that will create desired communications. By studying the movement patterns we can see how many people will meet on an average working day. The layouts with the greatest number of connections to other spaces have more interaction among workers. It is important that main traffic areas are visible and easily accessible and represent the environment where incidental consultation is likely to occur.

Variety of spaces

Variety of space is the parameter that is able to frame and structure all the parameters and create a balanced knowledge environment. Variety of space makes it possible for different activities, behaviours and types of work to take place simultaneously. Variety means space is able to provide everything from individual private work, small meetings, teamwork, and spontaneous conversations to big discussions. With variety, it is possible to create conditions for all types of knowledge conversions and work styles. Research shows that people from different rooms share knowledge relatively more often in hallways, at coffee machines or in the printer area than in collocated dyads[viii]. The “serendipitous communication model” coined by Peponis et al.[ix] suggests that spaces and facilities supplementary to a personal workspace are particularly important for increasing knowledge sharing among employees. Since overhearing fades in 5 to 10m, even in small offices, people use meeting areas for unplanned meetings. This suggests that they moved to a meeting area because the workspace was too disturbing or unsuitable for unplanned meetings. Other locations like coffee machines, printers or hallways were mainly used to share knowledge among people whose workspaces were at larger distances.

Figure 3: One of the many examples that illustrate what is presented here: the positioning of buildings and their entrances in relation to each other in order to encourage interaction

The physical space and environment where people work have a strong effect on what occurs (and can occur) in an organisation. The configuration of space can initiate and influence knowledge behaviour. If properly implied, all the parameters work in favour of the creation, sharing and growth of an organisation and its internal knowledge. As knowledge is created through continued transfer, combination and conversion, the creation of space should follow the same guidelines. As there is power in design, we should aspire to the creation of space that uses the talents of everyone and connects them in a meaningful way. Architecture has the power to create connection and awareness and establish that on any scale in a built environment. Architecture is changing the reality we live in. It forms, structures and guides our daily life. The right design can boost productivity, encourage action, create awareness and increase interactions. And what counts, is the effect it has on our everyday life.
Through these effects, architecture is able to support the growth and intentions of any company. Just as any living organism, every company travels through different stages of life and needs. From the day it is born until the day it stops existing. From idea to start-up, followed by growth, becoming an established company on the market, to its possible decline or reinvention. At any stage, it occupies a certain space that can help the company to reflect the best version of itself and support its growth and the way knowledge is handled.

[i] Rashid, M., Kampschroer, K., Wineman, J. and Zimring, C. (2004). Face-to-Face Interaction in Office Setting: What You Know About It May Not be Always True. Technical Report. Georgia Institute of Technology, College of Architecture, Atlanta, GA.

[ii] Yeh, Y., Huang, L., & Yeh, Y. (2011). Knowledge management in blended learning: Effects on professional development in creativity instruction. Computers & Education, 56, 146-156.

[iii] Heerwagen, J. H., Kampschroer, K., Powell, K. M. and Loftness, V. (2004). Collaborative knowledge work environments. Building Research & Information, 32, 510-528.

[iv] Beyerlein, M.M., Freedman, S., McGee, C. and Moran, L. (2003). Beyond Teams: Building the Collaborative Organization. Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, San Francisco.

[v] Coradi, A., Heinzen, M., & Boutellier, R. (2015). A longitudinal study of workspace design for knowledge exploration and exploitation in the research and development process. Creativity and Innovation Management, 24, 55-71

[vi] Allen, T. J. and Henn, G. (2007). The organization and architecture of innovation: Managing the flow of technology. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

[vii] Backhouse, A. and Drew, P. (1992). The design implications of social interaction in a workplace setting. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 19, 573–584.

[viii] Appel – Meulenbroek, H. A. J. A., de Vries, B., & Weggeman, M. C. D. P. (2017). Knowledge sharing behavior: the role of spatial design in buildings. Environment and Behavior, 49, 874-903.

[ix] Peponis, J., Bafna, S., Bajaj, R., Bromberg, J., Congdon, C., Rashid, M., Zimring, C. (2007). Designing space to support knowledge work. Environment and Behavior, 39, 815-840.

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