The New Visionaries: James Dellow

I encountered James Dellow because of a twitter comment he made on a recent discussion I had with Lee Bryant, a friend who founded Headshift years ago, and then merged with Dachis Group. Lee left Dachis last year, and it turns out that James was involved in the company’s Australian wing. James has also left Dachis, and joined Ripple Effect Group.

About James Dellow

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This is James’ bio from the Ripple Effect website:

James is an experienced consultant with a deep understanding of both the organisational and technical aspects of social software.

James applies design thinking and a broad knowledge of social media and Web 2.0 technologies to his work. He is also an experienced workshop facilitator, specialising in participatory design and visual thinking.

James has been sought out for comment by the Australian Financial Review and the Fairfax newspapers, on the radio, and appears regularly on Sky News Australia. He has written numerous articles that have appeared in books, journals and publications such as CMS Wire, Image & Data Manager magazine and the International Association for Human Resource Information Management.

He was awarded a Master of Business & Technology (UNSW) in 2005. He is also a past president of the Illawarra ICT cluster association board and a committee member (and former chair) of the NSW KM Forum.

James has worked with a range of blue chip and government companies including AMP, Ausgrid, the Australian Taxation Office, BHP Biliton, Blue Scope Steel, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the Government 2.0 Taskforce, ING Australia, Queensland Rail, Rio Tinto, Sydney Water, Telstra and Zurich Financial Services.

The Interview

Stowe Boyd: I read your recent piece — City as workplace — with great interest. You wrote,

We tend to think of the organisation as the fundamental unit of organising people

and characterize that viewpoint as an aspect of the industrial mindset we’ve inherited from the past. You then suggest that mobility — smart devices and distributed artifacts (like file sync-and-share tools) — may be changing our relationship with ‘organization’. Is that shift of perspective inevitable? And what replaces the old notion of ‘organization’ as so tightly linked to the ‘office’?


Technology is empowering elements of the professional workforce to be increasingly self-directed, mobile and flexible. Some people are taking advantage of this by deliberating opting out of the traditional work relationship. – James Dellow


James Dellow: There is no doubt that a shift of perspective is inevitable, because digital technologies are disintermediating the relationship between workplace and employment. Up until recently, the physical workplace has been a key tool in the modern management paradigm for organising people and granting access to the resources they need to do their jobs. Now in some professions, this era of wireless Internet access, cloud computing and BYOD means that the only resource the workplace might control is access to people, although social networks are somewhat challenging that notion.

What is perhaps not inevitable is how this shift of perspective will play out. On one hand, technology is empowering elements of the professional workforce to be increasingly self-directed, mobile and flexible. Some people are taking advantage of this by deliberating opting out of the traditional work relationship. However, these same technologies are also creating the opportunity for employers (or customers) to track and direct activity at a micro-level.

Personally I’m not convinced that everyone wants to either go it alone or be a micro-task slave. There is still a role for organising people, even if a traditional physical workplace is no longer necessary as the anchor for the employee-employer relationship. But rather than replacing the office – because we still need and want places to work from – I think we are simply emphasising non-tangible elements that already exist – legal obligations, financial structures and most critically, people relationships.

SB: The people relationships are where the action is. If people never collide in an office, is it possible to have serendipitous interactions online? I have great and productive relationships with people I’ve met that way. Certainly if can happen in a business, even very large ones.

JD: It definitely can and I have been arguing that developing the capacity of staff to maintain effective online interactions is a critical factor in an agile workspace design. I think what we need to realise is that as soon as a company is big enough to span floors in a building, you may as well have staff sitting in a completely different building in another part of the city. So the reality is that these people are working in a hybrid fashion anyway, if not fully virtual – the opportunity for combining technology with the city as workplace is to focus on getting people together at the right time, rather than worrying about getting them into a single place all of the time.

SB: I recently wrote about Square’s office redesign, which is explicitly inpsired by city design (see Another take on offices: something other than open or closed). Is that along the lines of what you are suggesting, or are you thinking about the complementary idea: that people can take their work out into the city, rather than adopting the city as a model for how office buildings should be designed?

JD: I am actually talking about both concepts. The idea is that we are letting the city into our workplace and taking the workplace into the city at the same time.


The opportunity for combining technology with the city as workplace is to focus on getting people together at the right time, rather than worrying about getting them into a single place all of the time. – James Dellow


This means we need to design the physical elements of the workplace we have direct control over to be an integrated part of that ecosystem, rather than simply trying to replicate the city model inside the building as a separate system. I think the benefits for a mobile workforce come from giving them access to the city as the workplace, rather than creating a city inside the workplace. An airport lounge could actually be treated as a reasonable working example of a semi-public space where this already happens.

This is also apparent in a limited way in some of the leading examples of activity based working I have seen, such as NAB’s Docklands building in Melbourne and Commonwealth Bank in Sydney. The public spaces inside and around those buildings are as important as the spaces behind the security barriers.

There is also another important dimension to this. One of the benefits of agile or activity-based working is that it creates space efficiencies by optimising the different types of work spaces around the types of work to be supported. But those efficiencies are really based on predicting future work patterns and are constrained to the space inside the building. By treating the city as the workplace, it might be possible to create greater flexibility and efficiencies. Ultimately this should also promote greater sustainability in our cities.

Incidentally, if we are going to design offices like or as part of cities, then we really should be thinking in terms of adaptable building design, so that these structures really can change and respond over time to new work patterns. Ultimately, the goal should be to support wholly user generated workspaces.

SB: User-generated workplaces? Meaning that individuals reconfigure the spaces, personally, or that workspaces are reconfigured automatically based on some algorithmic analysis of what people are doing or trying to do?

JD: The automatic reconfiguration is an interesting idea. There is a great deal of work and innovation happening around smart buildings right now, but so much of it is focused on bottom line efficiencies around utilities and space utilisation. However, my thinking on this is very much influenced by my experiences with social software. So while I think we could certainly do more to make smart building help people collaborate and work together, I also believe that what will be ultimately more empowering is to allow people to reconfigure space. Small places, loosely connected perhaps?


One of the benefits of agile or activity-based working is that it creates space efficiencies by optimising the different types of work spaces around the types of work to be supported. But those efficiencies are really based on predicting future work patterns and are constrained to the space inside the building. By treating the city as the workplace, it might be possible to create greater flexibility and efficiencies.


SB: I love that. James, thanks for your time and observations.

JD: No worries. Thanks for the great questions about the city as workplace idea. If anyone is interested to explore this concept a little further, they can find slides and notes with links to further reading from a recent presentation here.

Relevant Analyst
Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

Lead analyst, future of work Gigaom Research and stoweboyd.com

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