Hey, where’s the ‘water cooler’ in the Microsoft world?

So, where is the ‘water cooler’ in the virtual world?

Where is the space for employees to have adhoc conversations, bounce ideas of each other compared to more formal online learning?

And have you even taken the time to think about the way people learn?

There is no single space or place for learning. The solution isn’t just a site or portal with videos for employees to watch that will lead to success in growing knowledge and skills. Learning happens in different ways, and employees need a combination of ways and spaces.

In 2004 David Thornburg published a journal article outlining his concept of the key spaces for learning – the campfire, watering hole and cave, and then life or as some put it, ‘the mountain top’.

His description of these spaces for learning used traditional spaces and moved this into the modern world for the corporate or education sector.

Let’s dive into these for a moment to then extend to the virtual world.

The Campfire

This is a place to learn from the experts. Traditionally, people would gather around a campfire and listen to the leaders and storytellers. The style here is 1 to many. People gather around a single expert.

In the modern world the campfire can be likened to a broadcast. A single stream of communication or presentation of the 1 to many. We gather at a conference or an all company meeting. We gather when we join a formal session where someone is showcasing a product, or formal training.

The Watering Hole

At the watering hole people came together in a more adhoc manner. They would come to the watering hole and chat with whoever was present. This is where information was shared, discussed. It is many to many.

In the corporate world this is the ‘water cooler’, a casual communication place. It could also be a hallway chat.

At the water cooler you can learn from peers and bounce ideas off each other. It is free from structure. Small groups can collaborate and communicate in different ways.

The Cave

In the traditional time, a cave was a place for self-reflection. To be alone and block out the external world.

These days, while we don’t go off into a cave, we do find a space for individual study and learning, our place to minimise distraction and focus on our own purpose. Withdrawing from the work environment to drive your own learning can be crucial to focus and absorb content.

Whether it be a work from home day, or going to a meeting room for some quiet time. We value this deeper focus and reflection.

So how does this work in the virtual world?

How can we ensure there are spaces to isolate and focus, but also come together and share?

It is important to review the different spaces and needs for learning, and create opportunity for that in the online world.

While yes, before the pandemic we had online learning. The difference now is a complete lack of in-person has resulted in us losing opportunity to extend beyond the camp-fire allowing space for people to discuss, apply, and find greater value and context.

Learning spaces in the online world:


Watering hole


  • Companywide virtual call
  • Online conference
  • Online learning portal
  • Webinar
  • Library of recorded content
  • YouTube videos
  • Scheduled virtual call
  • Adhoc calls such as ‘meet now’
  • Online community area – Teams, Yammer
  • Posts and threads for discussion online
  • Online collaboration tools
  • Break-out rooms
  • Twitter discussion
  • Panel discussion online
  • Online forum
  • Working and studying from home
  • Using tools to block distractions
  • Do Not Disturb and Focus Time
  • Self-learning
  • Writing a blog
  • Reading or research
  • Time for self – at home, on your commute, in your head

These spaces are more important than at times realised. Many organisations provide a one-off session for a new product and expect people to absorb the detail, then apply on the job and just get on with it. Or they provide a library of videos and expect people to use this when they have time to watch, learn, apply to their job, and get value or drive adoption of the technology.

I feel the reality is, we need to support employees more, providing opportunities to learn and have further time to connect with the content. Different spaces allows time to connect to content, apply to their job and extend the learning further.

So, is this all about the pandemic, and only important while we are all off-site and relying on virtual solutions?

To put it simply, no.

Beyond the work of Thornburg was that of Schuck who (in 2017) extended the thinking of spaces for learning to explore his idea of a ‘Third Space’. This idea is important to keep in mind when we are designing or driving workplace learning, especially when in-person sessions or activities can return.

Schuck felt the way that we work, play and learn is changing rapidly through new opportunities provided by mobile technologies (e.g. smartphones, tablets, netbooks), with opportunities to integrate the physical and virtual, to learn from experts in distant places and to choose the time and place for such learning to occur.

His article uses the metaphor of the ‘Third Space’ to extend traditional notions of learning to include learning that is untethered from the more formal structure.

In the Microsoft (or even just the online) world, we need not only to replicate in-person to virtual, but extend the activities or content to allow for this Third Space.

With many people globally still completely online it is important to replicate and drive learning in the online world, but with this allowing the different spaces outlined above to be replicated extending the value and opportunity with that learning. Then driving the Third Space, like the online watering hole, to have people take the knowledge, discuss it, review it, apply it, and really connect to it.

There are already modern spaces online where people can connect, yet many organisations build learning that is only the camp-fire or cave, with content for the ‘1 to many’ approach to be consumed by staff. We cannot forget the power of the watering hole or water cooler and third space to drive and enhance or reinforce learning. There is a great opportunity to be more creative than sessions and videos, and break up content and style or spaces to embed learning.

Don’t just present at people

Don’t just create snippets and post them online or a video library. Trigger curiosity and drive learning. Get people interacting and connecting with the content and each other.

When you are creating a learning program or journey for your employees, consider how will they:

  • Learn it
  • Apply it
  • Relate to it
  • Adopt it

Then create the spaces for each of these areas and opportunities so your program will have greater success and drive deep adoption.

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