Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Brian K. Schermer

Committee Members

Ilya Avdeev, Decoteau J. Irby, Nathaniel Stern


Architecture, Community of Practice, Design Thinking, Peripheral Participation, Social Learning and Knowing, Workplace


There is a consensus among many theorists and practitioners from the fields of architecture, learning, and organizations that the ability to orchestrate learning and knowledge practices in the workplace creates potential for new and valuable ideas to emerge. However, due to the changing nature of the learning and knowing landscape in the knowledge economy, the role of the physical space pertaining to learning and knowing practices needs to be reexamined. To do so, and to make theories of learning and knowledge relevant to the physical space, this research study (1) uses a strand of theories and perspectives emerged in the past 30 years that frames learning and knowing as social and situated processes as opposed to strictly cognitive functions; and (2) complements the aforementioned theories and perspectives with architects’ and environmental design researchers’ normative views and empirical findings about the physicality of places that are supportive of learning and knowing practices. This theoretical and practical plug-and-play between the two realms of knowledge resulted in the dissertation’s research question: Can we impact boundary mechanisms, as practices or artifacts that can be the source of continuity across various social unites in an organization, through ‘physical space’ and the process of ‘making the physical space’?

To address the research question, this dissertation proposes ‘architecture of social learning and knowing’ as a trinary solution comprised of (1) design thinking methodology as a form of action research, rooted in the neo-pragmatic philosophy, for cultivating sustainable change in an organization’s learning and knowledge practices or producing new ones from scratch; (2) a toolset that combines people-space analytics, ethnographic research methods, and ethnographic thick description to not only map and record the change in users’ work practices, but also encourage their engagement as a way of generating insights; and (3) a theoretical lens inspired by social theories of learning and knowing for framing and understanding the change in the organization.

This study was conducted in the Milwaukee office of a national architecture firm where the redesign of the workplace was framed as an opportunity to rethink the way work happens. A total of 63 people participated in different phases of a design thinking process to re-imagine their workplace of the future. During the earlier phases of the process, a series of empathy-building exercises and workshops were conducted to generate insights for participatory ideation. After studying the options generated during ideation, a full-scale prototype or mock-up of the new workplace was designed and built in an area as large as 8000 sqf inside the office. Using a combination of sensor-network technology and location tracking, participants’ social networks and spatial behavior were mapped before and after installing the mock-up to study the potential change in the quantity and quality of the organization’s boundary mechanisms. Results from the mapping study showed a significant increase in the employees’ brokering behavior and space utilization as well as change in certain groups of users’ spatial behavior after installing the mock-up. These results were then shared and discussed with a smaller group of participants to make sense of the changes captured during the mapping study. Eventually, the thick description revealed the emergence of four types of peripheral participation as different forms of boundary mechanisms. The first set of findings showed that workplace redesign project had had an impact on participants’ types of interactions and not the quantity of their interactions. In other words, after installing the mock-up, the quantity of interactions did not increase, yet more people manifested brokering behavior. The second set of findings indicated that in cultivating new learning and knowledge practices, the impact of making-process preceded the impact of product. The study showed that some new learning and knowing practices were often negotiated and created during the participatory and emancipatory process of ‘making’ the physical space. It was during this phase that users were empowered to challenge existing practices and were equipped to imagine different ways of conducing work. Consequently, on the methodological level, design thinking was discussed as a refined version of action research with a focus on the neo-pragmatic human inquiry and producing new systems from scratch.

Finally, in addition to the framing of the architecture of social learning and knowing, this research advances the social theories of learning and knowing by introducing new constructs, expands the action research method by incorporating the element of design into its framing, and contributes to the literature on the planning and design of work environments by introducing a shift from network view to community view in understanding workplace important outcomes.