Date of Award

December 2017

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 architectural, learning, and organizational theorists and practitioners that the ability to orchestrate learning and knowledge practices in workplaces creates potential for new and valuable ideas to emerge. However, due to the ever-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 constantly evaluated. To do so, and to make learning and knowledge theories relevant to the physical space, this study uses a strand of theories and perspectives emerged in the past 30 years that frame learning and knowing as social and situated processes as opposed to strictly cognitive functions. Moreover, the aforementioned theories and perspectives are complemented with architects’ and environmental design researchers’ normative views and empirical findings about the physicality of places that are supportive of learning and knowing practices. The theoretical and practical plug-and-play between these two realms of knowledge reveals their collective concern about a common denominator: boundary mechanisms. This helps framing the dissertation’s research question: Can we impact boundary mechanisms through the process of making the physical space?

To answer this question, this dissertation proposes ‘architecture of social learning and knowing’ as a trinary solution comprised of (1) design thinking as form of action research rooted in the neo-pragmatic philosophy for cultivating sustainable, positive change in the organization from a learning and knowledge standpoint; (2) a set of tools that combines people-space analytics and ethnographic thick description to not only map and record the change but also encourage engagement as a way of generating insights; and (3) a theoretical lens inspired by social theories of learning and knowing for framing and understanding change.

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. A mock-up of the new workplace was then 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 was mapped before and after installing the mock-up to study the potential change in the quantity and quality of boundary mechanisms. Results showed a significant increase in the employee’s brokering behavior as well as space utilization after installing the mock-up. These results were later shared with a group of participants to make sense of the results. Eventually, the thick description revealed four types of peripheral participation as different forms of boundary mechanisms. The first main finding was that as a result of the change in the workplace, it was the type of interactions that changed and not its quantity. In other words, after installing the mock-up, the quantity of interactions did not increase, yet more people manifested brokering behavior. 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. But perhaps the most important finding was that in cultivating new learning and knowing practices, the impact of making-process precedes the impact of product. This research shows that the new learning and knowing practices are often negotiated and produced during the participatory and emancipatory process of making the physical space. It is during this phase that people are empowered and equipped to think differently about different ways of conducting their work.

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 to the action research method by incorporating the element of design into its framing, and contributes to the workplace literature by suggesting a shift from network view to community view in understanding workplace important outcomes.