Friday, October 08, 2010

Coworking in Austin: Link Coworking

Just over a year ago, I saw an email on the coworking Google group announcing a planned coworking site in Austin: Link Coworking. A week or two later, I interviewed the proprietor, Liz Elam, at a local coffee shop. She had a specific vision of a coworking space, one that she had begun during her previous stint as global account manager at Dell.

Liz, I discovered, is an aggressive researcher. Over the next year, whenever I heard about a new coworking space, I would show up to see it - and almost always, the proprietor would mention that Liz had just visited or was about to visit. She's also visited coworking sites across the country. When I had an opportunity to add a fourth person to my SXSWi 2010 panel, I thought Liz was a natural.

So I've been hearing for over a year about Liz's ideas for a coworking space - ideas that have gone through multiple iterations, but always have certain principles at the core. Liz argues that coworking spaces can use different models, orient to different professions and segments, while still adhering to the precepts of community and collaboration that seem to inhere in all coworking spaces.

Liz told me, "I think what makes Link different is I actually worked out of my home for nine years. I worked in corporate America and I was isolated. I was trying to hold meetings in Starbucks and what I figured out was I wanted a place like this to work. So this is really built exactly like I've envisioned it the whole time, because this is where I wanted to go work. And when I look at other coworking spaces - and I visited over 15 from New York to L.A. - what I found were a lot of them weren't really environments I felt energized by and I really was comfortable in." Many of the coworking spaces, Liz found, just had the wrong vibe for some professionals in their 30s and 40s:
Some kind of felt more like a dorm style, and some were just a little bit more casual than I like. And I think that's great and there are people that love that and good for them. It's not what I am energized by and like and expect in the place where I want to work. So I created the space that I'm most drawn to, anticipating that other professionals in their maybe 30s and 40s are going to want to work from here too.
Coworking has typically skewed younger, toward the "webbie/techie crowd." Liz fully supports these spaces, but believes that "we've been ignoring a very significant, well funded part of the market." Link Coworking focuses on this niche, attracting independent workers that won't be comfortable working in a more casual environment. One profile might be:
somebody that works in high tech ... they probably already have a home office and in that home office they have a beautiful monitor and maybe mahogany walls and they have two kids and a barking dog and a spouse. It's not ideal for them, and they're running around town or going to the airport and they need a place where, a few times a week - maybe two, maybe three - they come in here and get work done in a better environment, and bring in customers to meet in the meeting rooms like we're sitting in, because it's not professional to go and sit in a Starbucks and talk about a $10 million deal. ... This is a place where you can bring your client and be proud to bring them.
Link caters to other independent professionals as well: entrepreneurs, small business owners, independent workers. Current members, for instance, include an entrepreneur, a life coach, a realtor, and an interior designer. Liz says that she is aggressively pursuing independent workers who are women in particular.

At the same time, Liz emphasizes that Link is still a coworking site: it's still a place for professionals to meet, form community, collaborate, bond, and bounce ideas off of each other. "I’m looking to build a community that will collaborate, share and help each other and greater community around them," she told me later. Link is not an executive suite, it's a full-fledged coworking space.
For a coworking space to work, they really require a catalyst. That is somebody that's within the space that manages it, that introduces people that has speaker sessions, really helps form a community. And those don't really happen in executive suites. But there are lots of people who come in here and say, "Hey, I'm on the phone all day, I'm a lawyer and I have to have a closed door," and I recommend that they go look at a Business Suites or a Regis, because I'm not selling closed door offices.
Liz has put different measures in place to make sure that coworking happens. For instance, the website (built in Drupal) shows basic outward-facing information on the members; but if you're a member, you can log in and "go behind the curtain and you can see more information about the people that you're working around." The space, featuring mixed seating arrangements in an open configuration, facilitates interaction and collaboration. Community presentations and events are hosted in the space, open to members. When I visited, Link had only been open two days, and Liz already had stories of how the coworkers had collaborated. And she already sees the patterns emerging: "people tend to go to the same spot, but people also go to where the people are. They only isolate if they need to get something done. But the rest of the time, people want to sit at the same table where the other people are. There are 40 places to sit. They're sitting next to each other."

At moments like this, Liz gets an extra sparkle in her eye. She makes no bones about Link being a for-profit business, but she's also very obviously excited about being a connector and cultivating Link as a space for genuine connections and interactions, all within a beautiful place to work. "I want people to network, support each other, employ each other and possibly start a venture out of Link," she told me later.

Link differentiates itself in other ways. For instance, it provides concierge services: "we take things off your hands so you can focus on work," Liz emphasized. Link also provides a space that has been custom-renovated for coworking - and furnished by Turnstone with furniture designed for this sort of environment. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide a lot of natural light. Power outlets and ethernet plugs are installed in the floor, within reach of each station. Of course, Link also offers wifi, and Liz insisted on a T1 line to ensure high capacity. Finally, Link offers a red phone booth for private conversations (although you of course must bring your own phone.)
How did Liz get to this particular location? She had five tenets for choosing a site, and finding a place that matched those five tenets was a struggle:
  1. It had to be less than a mile from a major thoroughfare.
  2. It had to have abundant surface parking.
  3. It had to have outdoor seating.
  4. It needed to be on the first floor.
  5. And it needed to be within walking distance of retail and restaurants.
Liz looked all over Austin for the right spot, and finally found it in the Anderson Lane Shopping Center: A few steps from Madam Mam's, Korea House, the Alamo Drafthouse North Village, Office Depot, San Francisco Bakery, and other spots. As I observed, someone could drop by a nearby coffee shop on the way to Link, then literally park their car for the rest of the day as they worked, lunched, worked out at the gym, dined, then caught a movie.

What's next? Liz believes that we'll begin to see coworking segment to address different industries, and we may even see dedicated coworking spaces for employees of single corporations - but still holding true to the principles of coworking. Community-building is critical, she emphasizes, but different space configurations are going to support different sorts of work.

One more thing. If you're in Austin, you really should come by for Link Coworking's Grand Opening Party. It'll include tours by Turnstone and a live DJ. I'm planning to be there, so look for me, and tweet me @spinuzzi if you don't see me.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Reading :: Discovering Qualitative Methods, Second Edition

Discovering Qualitative Methods: Field Research, Interviews, and Analysis
By Carol A.B. Warren and Tracy Xavier Karner

I really enjoy reading texts on qualitative methodology, even those that, like this one, are pitched to upper-level undergrads and incoming graduate students. They're easy to read through and compare, and sometimes they highlight differences in fields, disciplines, and research programs more clearly than looking at the literature itself. That's especially true for Discovering Qualitative Methods, which is aimed at sociologists in training. Reading it, I was intrigued by the clues about sociology that it conveyed through its assertions.

The book follows a basic approach of introducing qualitative methods and giving background on law, politics, and ethics before diving into the practical issues of gaining entrance to a site, collecting various data (observations, interviews, artifacts), and analyzing the data. The first two chapters would seem familiar to anyone performing or reading about workplace writing in my field - although the examples tend to come from settings that are unfamiliar to most college students and academics, such as nursing homes, biker gangs, cults, and the radical environmental movement. (Other examples, such as a lesbian community, would perhaps have seemed more exotic to students in the past. Still others, such as drug dealers, represent activities that we hope are exotic to them.) Indeed, as the book unfolds, the authors pull out still more examples along these lines, and ask students to use caution when investigating them. For me, these example sites seemed quite odd - almost like sightseeing for academics - compared to the workplace and organization sites to which I send my students.

As I read further, other differences emerge. For instance, in the chapter on fieldnotes, readers are cautioned not to take observational notes while observing, because "it is virtually impossible to continue to observe closely while looking downward taking notes" (p.112). Instead, readers are told to observe for a half hour or more, then find a quiet place to write a thick description (p.118) - one that includes sights, sounds, smells, textures, and anything else they can record. The examples are heavy with adjectives and adverbs: they read like the work of nonfiction creative writers. A finished field note "resembles an essay or narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end" (p.120). The authors advocate using quotation marks to identify quotes, even when the exact quotation is not available and the researcher is conveying only the gist (p.120). This strategy of writing field notes, presumably, works well over the long period of time that it takes to write an ethnography - but it would be difficult to execute faithfully when examining microlevel details in shorter case study research.

Again, these different methodological choices represent different research objectives and orientations. I'm just startled at how different these turn out to be. And the theme continues when we get to analysis. The first page of the analysis chapter actually made me laugh out loud: the authors grimly tell us that analysis will involve physical and emotional exhaustion (p.215). But I can see why: analysis involves open coding, which leads to themes, which are then linked into analytical descriptions (p.237). Other than that, the authors provide examples but not much guidance. This sort of analysis is quite inductive, involving multiple passes over thick field notes and interviews, and the authors assume that these documents will all be separate rather than in a database or analysis software. How to organize all of these data? "Some sociologists use visual diagrams, process flow charts, or organizational structure charts. Others have drawn maps of their settings .... we find ourselves using the tried-and-true format of an outline" (p.238). For an example, the authors provide a half-page outline. I can understand why, since the authors are expecting longer ethnographies in which researchers seek to generate coherencies from the data rather than examine it with a preexisting framework. But still, the analytical tools - and their process - are much less specified than I expected.

As you may have picked up, I spent a lot of time comparing this book to how I teach my qualitative methods classes. Based on my field's assumptions and goals, I don't think I would use this book - but at the same time, I can see how it would be a better fit for sociology than the methods I use. It's an intriguing read, and I recommend a look for anyone who is teaching qualitative research methods.

Reading :: Apprenticeship in Thinking

Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context
By Barbara Rogoff

If you read my review of Rogoff's The Cultural Nature of Human Development, you have the gist of this earlier one. The Cultural Nature of Human Development summarized Apprenticeship in Thinking and related research in a popular version. This book is the original, which means that it's less polished but more obviously an academic argument, with appropriate cites and a bit more involved with debates on cognitive development.

Here, Rogoff defines her subject matter:
For the purposes of this book, cognition and thinking are defined broadly as problem solving. I assume that thinking is functional, active, and grounded in goal-directed action. Problem solving involves interpersonal and practical goals, addressed deliberately (not necessarily consciously or rationally). It is purposeful, involving flexible improvisation toward goals as diverse as planning a meal, writing an essay, convincing or entertaining others, exploring the properties of an idea or unfamiliar terrain of objects, or remembering or inferring the location of one's keys. (pp.8-9)
But, Rogoff adds, "Problem solving is not 'cold' cognition, but inherently involves emotion, social relations, and social structure" (p.10). Indeed, as in The Cultural Nature of Human Development, Rogoff emphasizes problem solving within the sociohistorical milieu in which people develop and participate. To get there, she relies on work grounded in Vygotsky and Piaget. Reasonably, she reminds us that
my work, like that of anyone else, involves the appropriation of concepts that I have found useful in the works of others. The use that I make of their ideas undoubtedly involves some transformation from the ideas they offered. This is in the nature of dialogue. The transformation is liable to be greater the more distinct the backgrounds of the speaker and listener, or the author and the reader. The refraction of Vygotsky's ideas, like those of Piaget, through a foreign lens - through differences in time and place, language and intellectual climate - contributes to the listener's making something new of the speaker's words, for better or worse. My purpose in this book is not to explain Vygotsky or Piaget or others, but to build from what I make of them. (p.14)
This is a nice move, since it lets us get past the issue of fidelity to a theory and pushes us toward Rogoff's observations and inferences. Again, you get the gist of these from my review of The Cultural Nature of Human Development, so I won't repeat them here except to say that you'll quickly see why this book is a classic. If you're a casual reader, I'd read The Cultural Nature of Human Development first; if you're publishing in this area, read Apprenticeship in Thinking.