Who needs an excuse for visiting Paris, anyway? That's what I thought to myself when people inquired about the purpose of my visit, both at home and on the spot. Seriously. But then again, the official reason was that I came to meet La Cantine, a coworking space in Paris, for it had implemented an exchange program* with the Hub Tel Aviv, where I am an active member. Recently, I wrote a web application that was introduced at the Hub, and I thought it could be useful to other coworking spaces as well. I wanted to show my product and collect feedback. I had another dozen of small reasons to do that trip, altogether more than the sum of its parts.
So I had hoped to relax a couple of days before getting into serious work, mixing business with pleasure in good ol' James Bond fashion, but, alas, on the very first day, right after presenting myself at La Cantine, I was told that I had been scheduled to talk on the day of my departure. And that I should give in the slides as soon as possible. Evidently, the adrenaline kicked in, and any thought of aimless strolling in the streets of Paris evaporated like mist.
Anybody with an experience of coworking spaces knows or intuits the treasure within. That treasure is networking with people, an activity fundamental to our species, and timeless. Whereas service clubs (think Rotary International) rally their members around values of charity, coworking spaces attract theirs on an even simpler premise, that of work. Cultivating and nurturing a healthy, convivial atmosphere is no easy task, but if you succeed in doing so, people will come, and opportunities flourish. Opportunities for everybody involved, almost effortlessly. Sounds like magic, right? But can the recipe fare beyond a physical space?
With the tendency of coworking organizations to expand into networks soon after the home base is established, it seems that founders and administrators already answered that question. Some organizations, like the Hub, perceived themselves very early on as international structures. Others start regionally, but soon expand on a national level, as with La Cantine, in France. All seem to scrutinize the horizon, determined to support and enable the exchange of people, values and services beyond the physical boundaries of the initial hosting space.
This begs a question. Beyond the prestige that such consolidation brings forth, is there more to it than a strategic move? Sure, franchising allows other cities to bootstrap coworking spaces under the same brand name, but is there added value for existing members? Does it enhance the scope of activities on the network level? Let's remember that the reason for the success of coworking might very well lie in the physicality of a shared space. In the way they allow people to engage in in face to face conversations, meeting for appointments, collaborating in front a computer. In the way they are vectors of serendipity, providing the context in which human relationships fold and unfold, like stories do.
So how does one network remotely? What happens when you take away the physical dimension, the immediacy, and introduce distances and timezones? The world of enterprises has been facing a similar conundrum. In a global market, companies often resort to offshoring, i.e. transfer activities to distant places with competitive advantages (more often than not related to labor cost). But timezones and cultural differences proves indeed non trivial to overcome. In some cases, like in the high-tech industry, those hurdles were important enough to displace Indian software service providers in favor of Eastern-European companies, who brandished the marketing term "nearshoring" when arguing that nearby countries with cultural synergies could annul the inconveniences of offshoring while maintaining its advantages.
If coworking networks are not just the result of deterministic forces tied to organisational DNA, if they are indeed more than a glorified franchising scheme, then their value should be measured by the activities they boost globally. And if we can imagine a normalization of such exchanges across coworking spaces, we would achieve a new model that I'd like to coin coshoring. Indeed, coworking spaces share values of openness and collaboration, attract for the most part well educated and skilled people, and already have support structures in place of varying sophistication. They are a natural fit for distributed project management.
I would love to see an entrepreneur from Paris work hand in hand with a development team in Tel Aviv, or an entrepreneur from Tel Aviv hiring media professionals from France. In order to encourage and empower such endeavors, there is a need for tools. By and large, those tools need to be invented. In my talk,I have proposed joint virtual walls* that can help in identifying and synchronizing offer and demand across coworking spaces. Private social networks, like the one in place at the Hub (HubNet), allow for Facebook type interaction between members of the organization.
Furthermore, there is a lot to learn from the open source world, which is championing the whole notion of decentralized, collaborative project management. Open source projects like the linux kernel immediately spring to mind, but savvy, privately funded startups have been chiming in as well. To understand how that works, one needs to look at the processes put in place by the actors. Loose hierarchies, iterative workflows, asynchronous communication between team members... Is this a model that only befits geekdom? Maybe. The point is that some people have figured out how to collaborate efficiently transcending borders, and coworking organizations may want to adapt the lessons learnt to their benefit. This will be, in my opinion, the recipe for future success stories in coshoring.
* In which Daniel Bessis from Paris Region was a key player.
* Here is the recorded screencast of the whole session (my intervention kicks in at 5:31).
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