Cultures and working spaces designed to foster peer-to-peer learning

In today’s dynamic digital economy, employees must upgrade their skills on a continuous basis. Two new kinds of workplaces – maker spaces and fablabs – create innovative learning environments

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By Stefano Anfossi & Fabrizio Pierandrei

Fall 2018


Cultures and working spaces designed to foster peer-to-peer learning

A culture of innovation is transforming contemporary organisations with features that contrast markedly with what has gone before.

Technological advances coupled with a continuously changing business culture mean that every company must up its game and embark on a programme of continuous improvement in developing the skills of its employees.

At the heart of this change is a process of innovation with regard to learning experiences that empowers employees to make their own individual choices about training and education, leading to continuous personal development, which in turn shapes the culture of learning in the firm.

Providing an environment that allows the employees to learn new skills and competencies is a feature that helps companies stand out in the highly competitive talent market.

Traditional learning management system companies are rapidly evolving in their ability to deliver modern, compelling experiences for learners …. CB Insights, which tracks venture investments, estimates that more than US$3 billion was invested in new learning and educational start-ups in the first six months of the year 2015. Almost $1 billion of this went into tools, content, and companies that focus on the corporate market.i

A new perception of what we perceive personal development to be and how it should function underpins the renewed interest of organisations in learning cultures.

According to a trend report by Deloitteii, learning has become “an essential tool for engaging employees, attracting and retaining top talents and developing long-term leadership for the company”, even when this new demand leads to a profound transformation in the organisation.

One of the most apparent manifestations of this change can be seen in the way that the process of learning is embedded in the day-to-day working lives of people, rather than as a series of separate programmes and courses.

None of this is particularly new. Some existing learning models have already embraced the idea that a range of experiences and activities lead to better outcomes. For example, the 70:20:10 model created by Morgan McCall at the Centre for Creative Leadership, in which employees obtain 70 percent of their knowledge from job-related experiences, 20 percent from interactions with others, and 10 percent from formal educational events.iii

One new factor is the way in which learning is now viewed as a continuous process for people. In practice this perspective means that skills are not merely shared between people, but often reframed and redefined.

It is not merely about exchanging information with individuals but helping them ‘learn how to learn’.

While each individual is empowered to undertake this process of continuous learning, the prevalence of teamwork in the workplace means this learning to learn takes place alongside collaborative learning, a process pioneered by schools and higher educational institutions, which have been forming new models of learning and new techniques for some time.

Research into the dynamics of learning amongst small groups of between four to six people in schools is just as relevant for the collaborative learning techniques of the workplace.

Learning in this context can also help overcome some of the drawbacks of teamwork. It helps to restrict the tendency for groupthink and the potentially overbearing presence of a dominant leader and also discourages the idea that meetings are a waste of time or even completely useless.

In contrast to purely individual learning, which improves specific skills and competences, team learning is more likely to foster the creation of a shared vision or goal for the team, a greater understanding of the processes activities of the whole group, and a sense of ownership of specific roles and responsibilities.iv

These benefits demonstrate how new forms of learning are a prerequisite for the adoption of changes catalysed by technological and cultural improvements, which frame hierarchy and leadership in a completely new light.

Experiential and informal learning is relevant for all age groups because it disproportionately improves the performance of younger workers while also ensuring older workers are able to cope with an increase in the retirement age.v

In this scenario, new skills are needed while others are less relevant to some degree or another, so a third type of employee is emerging – one who is neither a manual nor a knowledge worker in the strictly traditional sense, but is instead a learning worker, distinguishable by his or her ability to

This worker is characterised by a high degree of flexibility, adaptability to new situations, and the ability to learn how to face brand-new challenges and issues.

Compared with knowledge workers, whose skills are rooted in experience and precedent, learning workers develop their own skills by uncovering and combining different ideas in a learning environment that is always on and always present.

How an office space can support this learning process is still being debated.vii Rather than pointing out the specific features of such a workspace, it seems more interesting to analyse two models that embody its core principles: the coworking space and the fablab. Both are designed to foster peer-to-peer learning and to mix skills and competences.

The coworking model provides a perfect example of a space conceived primarily for sharing knowledge. In the last decade, it has evolved from a model focussed on the ability to rent a desk for a short period to one that creates a community of workers.

This evolution transformed the people in the space first from strangers to colleagues and then into “co-workers”. These are people who are not forced to work together but want to.

A growing body of researchviii proves how such an environment is mutually beneficial – within limits – for professionals with a range of backgrounds, skills, and goals. Larger organisations are now also attracted to such spaces alongside their more traditional offices in order to enjoy their benefits and also disrupt the daily routine of working always in the same place at the same time and with the same people.

However, the most important change wrought by the adoption of coworking spaces is the chance to work alongside like-minded people in a form of competitive collaboration that sparks new ideas and new ways of learning.

Many of these processes are defined by their cross-pollination and take place while people work side-by-side on totally different projects, in a very informal and spontaneous way. These instances are supported by more structured events organised by the community of co-workers, events that have the common goal of creating shared experiences and highlighting which skills are needed most.

The fablab model is more experiential in its outlook. Also known as ‘makerspace’, a fablab consists of a blend of traditional and digital laboratory spaces and fosters a culture of learning by doing, innovating by experimentation, and encouraging ‘successful failures’.

Makerspaces encourage both an interdisciplinary approach and the creation of project-based teams, which are ideal for hands-on learning and for compressing the traditional innovation process. Fablabs have also given birth to variants such as the “garage”, in which engineers and technicians are free to explore their own creativity, challenge their ability to innovate, and create the spirit of a start-up.

Both coworking and fablab facilities are models in which a self-learning process is accelerated, engagement and collaboration among participants is fostered, and the gap between theoretical ideas and practical skills is shrunk.

These new kinds of workplaces provide an example of how the organisation of a workspace can foster personal growth and embed learning principles in the process of innovation.

This post also appears in the new Insights report from Sedus. More information at the Sedus website


i            “2015 Q3 Global CFO Signals”, Deloitte, 2015

ii           Pelster B.,  Haims J.,  Stempel J.,  van der Vyver B., “Learning. Employees take charge.” In Global Human Capital Trends 2016, Deloitte, 2016.

iii           Lessons of Experience: How Successful Executives Develop on the Job (Free Press, 1988). Link to listing on (accessed 6 August 2018*.

iv           Keys C.K., Kolb D.A., “Experiential learning in teams”, 2005.

v           De Grip A., “The importance of informal learning at work”, 2015.

vi           Morgan J., “Say goodbye to knowledge workers and welcome to learning workers”, in Forbes, June 7, 2016 (accessed 14 May, 2018).

vii               Osswald A., “The power of physical space” in “Creative Learning Environments”, New Work Order, 2016.

viii              Castilho M.F., Quandt C.O., “Collaborative capability in coworking spaces: convenience sharing or community building?” in Technology Innovation Management Review, 2017.

Stefano Anfossi

            Stefano Anfossi graduated in architecture at Politecnico di Milano. During his years of training he collaborated with international architecture firms. In 2001 he became a partner at Pierandrei Associati. In his research path he combines the constant observation of contemporary reality and its dynamics with a passion for innovation and experimentation. In 2014 he founded PACO Design Collaborative, a non-profit association that believes in the potential of design and education to tackle the complex problems of contemporary society. PACO is a “community” that explores the potential of design and education in promoting and encouraging social innovation. Since 2015 he is CEO of PACOlab srl. Since 2005 he combines his work with teaching activities. He collaborated with Politecnico di Milano where he performed the role of professor in the course of Interior Design. He is actually professor at the master’s degree in Office Design at POLI-Design and he is in charge as professor in Interior Design at Istituto Europeo Design – Milan.


e          [email protected]


Fabrizio Pierandrei

            Fabrizio Pierandrei began his career as an architect with Renzo Piano in 1987, where he worked on international projects until 1994. In 1997 he founded Pierandrei Associati, promoting a holistic approach to Architecture and Interiors that gathers methodologies and tools from disciplines such as service design and behavioral research. In 2014 he founded PACO Design Collaborative, an innovative network of professionals whose projects explore the potential of Design and Education in fostering social innovation and sustainable business models. He also coordinates the PARTY project – Participatory Design with Marginalized Youth, a four-year project on Service Design for Human Empowerment in South Africa and Namibia, granted by the European Commission H2020; and the Design School for Children, a series of workshops and school programs for children on divergent thinking and service design. Since 1994 he also collaborates with the Politecnico di Milano, where he is actually in charge of the Final Design Studio in the PSSD Master Course.


e          [email protected]



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