Ruins pose a constant negotiation between glory and dissolution; success and failure; substance and nothingness. They ’embody a set of temporal and historical paradoxes’ (Dillon, p.11). The abandoned warehouse or the tumbledown barn reveal a memory of the past and simultaneously a projection of our own futures. In the medieval motif of The four living and the four dead, four young nobles, hunting with hawk and hound, are confronted by four cadavers. Their hoarse and emphysemic breath utters the warning ‘As you are, so once were we…as we are now, so you will be’. Ruins provide a mirror on our own decay while hinting at their own survival: a ‘fragment with a future’ (p.11) which will outlive us.

SmithfieldBut these suggestive, liminal ruins are betwixt and between in other ways. Their journey of transition is constant as agents such as wind, rain, lichen, moss, birds and insects recast their identities and ‘transform the qualities of matter’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.477). This is not necessarily a cruel or pitiless destruction.  Looking into a marble fountain,there is ‘intimacy in the contact’ between stone and water that ‘here produces a gleaming surface veined with unsuspected colours, here magnifies fossil or granular structure’ (Stokes, p.26). Ruination can be gentle, caressive, revelatory.

A place for ruins is also a site for the uncanny – Das Unheimlich – where ‘the familiar and homely suddenly become strange’ (Edensor, 2005, p.835). Let us, for example, walk through the ruined church of Tivetshall St Mary in Norfolk. As we stand in the open nave with the sky above and incomplete walls around us, we sense a familiar space. We orientate ourselves around the chancel and mound where a tower once stood; the piscina full of dust a recognisable feature. Yet the customary is subverted. The floor is surreally experienced as a meadow – for grass grows where flagstone and marble are expected. The flint and mortar that line the nave are not cool to the touch but warmed by the sun high above us. Our perceptions and senses are tilted.

St MarysFor this is a place where the visual is less privileged and where, unlike the usual tourist spaces, ‘the tactile, auditory and aromatic qualities of materiality’ are enhanced (Edensor, 2007, p.219). We are keen to the sound of the strimmer in the overgrown churchyard; the smell of the cut grass in the porch; the feel of the twig that bends underfoot as we navigate around fallen gravestones.  This is Lefebvre’s perceived space – the ‘phenomenologically experienced spaces, that may be taken for granted through the habits of the body’ (Dale and Burrell, p.8). Note how we stoop past the shrub overhanging the south door – an automatic, reflex action.

And, as we might expect, this is also a site for stories. The official narrative – how the church was destroyed by a sonic boom in 1949 following years of neglect and increasing dereliction – can be found on a noticeboard by the entrance.  Such histories ‘seamlessly banish ambiguity and the multiplicity of the past’ (Edensor, 2005, p.831) but ruins ‘offer opportunities for constructing alternative versions of the past, and for recouping untold and marginalized stories’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.471).  Like ghosts, ‘involuntary memories come upon us, rekindling the past through unexpected confrontations with sounds, ‘atmospheres’, and particularly smells’ (Edensor, 2005, p.837). And one such story springs to mind, prompted by the sound (and fresh wheat aroma) of harvesting on a neighbouring field. A story of how a farmer, ploughing late on a winter’s evening, saw something in the churchyard illuminated in the sweep of his tractor’s lights as it rounded the headland.  Whatever it was (he never said), it was enough to make him flee, the tractor engine found still running the next morning.  This reminds us too that liminal spaces are sites of transgression – albeit often more ludic than demonic: children playing on the fallen houses of the Blitz or, strangely, beachcombers seeking illicit liaisons with a a statue…(Andrews, p.163)!

Ruins infiltrate our organisations too. Some are physical: our own spatial edgelands or dark terrains.  In Hirst and Humphrey’s study of spatial redesign in a local authority, they contrast the new central office –  ‘a very large, bright space, with light flooding through the glass roof and walls and reflecting off the pale, polished limestone floor’ (p.1513) – with the paper storage unit located in an out-of-town business park. Placed close to wasteland, a sewage works and a derelict railway, the conditions of this unit are ‘austere, with several discomforts, such as artificial light, dust and cold.’ (p.1518). I am sure we know similar ruins – the less privileged parts of our buildings where transient teams seek shelter: the desks scuffed, the IT antiquated and the chairs threadbare.

But, if we look carefully, other more ethereal ruins emerge: the rubbled remains of past initiatives, projects, ways of working.  Some were, like half-finished tower blocks, prematurely suspended, victims to changes in strategy, new technology or structural re-organisation. Others were completed but lie superseded by new priorities. Sometimes such ruins are manifested through physical traces: the forgotten folder of past business plans or the office directory with faded photographs from years past.  Like any ‘bare, ruin’d choir’ these are stimuli for involuntary memory and story – ‘Goodness, there’s a photo of X – do you remember that occasion when…’. But often such archaeology is virtual: excavating document management systems for spreadsheets and emails (where the recipients, once so urgently cc’d, are now often ghosts – long departed, absent, forgotten).

And like St Mary’s destruction by the sonic boom, such ruins carry official narratives to explain their failure or demise. Promulgated via the established channels, these stories serve as our guidebook and exhibit caption. Yet, as we know, ruins carry ghosts that are hard to exorcise. Unofficial stories – traded in corridors, cafes and the other liminal spaces we inhabit – are the mischeivous revenants that playfully subvert grand narratives.  However, are stories but ruins themselves?  Like the marble fountain, they are sculpted and worn – not by water but through memory, caprice and intent. For the stories we tell are not necessarily the same as the stories we hear. So, maybe, in the sharp (artificial) light of day, ghosts are not to be believed in after all.

Andrews, H. (2012) ‘Another place or just another space? Liminality and Crosby Beach’, in Andrews, H. and Roberts, L. (eds.) Liminal landscapes: travel, experience and spaces in-between. Routledge.

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2008), The spaces of organisation & the organisation of space: power, identity & materiality at work. Palgrave Macmillan.

Dillon, B. (2011) ‘Introduction: a short history of decay’, in Dillon, B. (ed.) Ruins: documents of contemporary art. Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press.

DeSilvey, C. and Edensor, T. (2013) ‘Reckoning with ruins’, Progress in Human Geography, pp. 465–485.

Edensor, T. (2005) ‘The ghosts of industrial ruins: ordering and disordering memory in excessive space’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 23(6), pp. 829–849.

Edensor, T. (2007) ‘Sensing the ruin’, The Senses and Society, 2(2), pp. 217–232.

Hirst, A. and Humphreys, M. (2013) ‘Putting power in its place: the centrality of edgelands’, Organization Studies, 34(10), pp. 1505–1527.

Stokes, A. (2011) ‘The pleasures of limestone’, in Dillon, B. (ed.) Ruins: documents of contemporary art. Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press.



It’s time to return to an earlier post.  A KM colleague and friend gently steered me towards this excellent Radio 4 and World Service broadcast.  In 1687, in Tower Street, London a coffee shop opened.  Here the patrons could enjoy ‘fires, tea, coffee and sherbet’…and gossip.  And, boy, did these patrons like to talk about ships and their comings and goings: the tides, the ports, the captains, the cargoes.  Eventually, the proprietor, Edward Lloyd, started a newsletter – Lloyd’s List – to capture the knowledge circulating within Lloyds’s Coffee House and so an industry was born.

You could argue that Lloyd’s List was a classic example of how to take unstructured knowledge – the swirl of conversation that embraced facts, rumour, speculation and intuition – and make it explicit via a physical artefact.  But did those conversations then shrivel and wither in the face of this written competition?  I would wager (which was an integral activity within the 17th century coffee house) they intensified as the List was discussed, dissected and deconstructed.  I would also wager that stories were a vibrant thread through those conversations.  And those stories were rich with meaning  impossible to capture  in a simple journal.  It wasn’t just the words; it was also the performance: the gestures, the intonations, maybe the ushering into a quiet booth before the story was told, that would have helped convey the experience.  As Walter Benjamin, argued, experience is the “source from which all storytellers have drawn”.

There is something else about Lloyd’s Coffee House which interests me.  It was a space that combined the social (the partaking of tea, coffee and sherbet) with business.  This ambiguous space was re-visited by that most incisive of KM commentators, Chris Collison, in his mischievous post about the KM powers of coffee. He gives eight reasons for why coffee is KM’s most effective tool.  I would add a ninth.  It unlocks stories.  Just as the patrons of Lloyd’s Coffee House found the environment and the caffeine a stimulus to stories, so I have noticed something similar in our 21st century cafés.

Rather than take clients to a formal meeting room, I prefer to take them to our work café.  It immediately injects a curious dynamic to our conversation.  We are moved out of the purely business and formal to a more ambiguous environment.  And here the conversation becomes looser.  The influence of the social context encourages revelation and confidences.  Although, anecdotal, I also hear more stories as we sip our espressos, macchiatos or green teas, than I wager I would in the polished wood and hard-backed chairs of our ‘proper’ meeting spaces.  And that way, knowledge is conveyed.  Rich knowledge not just about the topic under discussion but about the personality, the motivations, the values, the beliefs, the fears, the frustrations, the ambitions of my fellow imbiber.

As Dr Feelgood, purveyor of so many truths once wisely observed, “Java Blue, when the coffee’s got me”.


A good friend and colleague reminded me earlier in the week about a blog I had written nearly nine years ago about Lloyd’s of London.  You may know the building: a Richard Rogers masterpiece which really does look like nothing else in the city and which famously displays its insides on the outside, so to speak. At the time, I had been struck how a strikingly modern exterior conceals a world that is profoundly Dickensian. The Lutine bell guarded by an assistant in his Victorian red jacket and top hat; a cabinet of Nelson memorabilia; a huge log recording ship losses in perfect ink calligraphy. And, around this museum-like core, a series of huge trading floors full of underwriters’ booths where brokers queued to place their risks face to face (or rather eyeball to nose as brokers sat two inches below underwriters to ensure the underwriters’ eye level was above that of the broker). I saw people carrying unfeasibly large bundles of paper (indeed, the more astute wheeled suitcases of the stuff) and risks were recorded not on a laptop or tablet but written on a chit of paper.

I had not realised it then, but this was a peculiarly liminal world.  An unsettling locale where the starkly modern mixed with the quaintly traditional.  And, so, surely a place of stories as well as transactions?  For here, what lay at the heart of business, was a reliance on face to face contact as the primary way of doing business. Some commentators have used the analogy of the bazaar to illuminate the workings of knowledge management and it was not a huge leap of the imagination to see the Lloyds trading floor as a more starchy, peculiarly British version of a Moroccan souk. Business was transacted via, and underpinned by, the knowledge and trust that evolves via a network of direct relationships enclosed in a defined physical space. It was a true market.

At the time, it was an exciting reminder that  KM  can be a messy, chaotic thing that happens when you put people together in one place and they talk, and they get to know each other and the knowledge they learn in the process is filtered by and developed in the context of what they feel about that person and the extent to which they trust them. Think of the way lawyers are trained: a trainee lawyer, like a medieval apprentice, “sits” with a principal which means they don’t just learn technical legal knowledge but a whole raft of other essential expertise from negotiation and client management to delegation and business development. And a fair amount may occur through pure osmosis rather than conscious tuition: the physical proximity of sharing an office together.  It may also involve stories – the unconscious recounting of examples, analogous situations – some mundane, some heroic, some minatory.

So maybe the lesson is for us to maximise opportunities for face-to-face contact, to facilitate the “osmotic moment”; but not in a mechanical prescribed way but by making it a natural part of working together and doing business.  And who knows what stories may emerge.

And, talking of stories, Lloyd’s, of course, started over 300 years ago as a coffee shop.  So maybe my next post will be about coffee; maybe…