What co-creation can learn from coffee shops

When Welshman Edward Lloyd first founded his London coffee shop in the late 1600s, it became a popular alternative venue to the usual market place of the Royal Exchange. It wasn’t unique: purveyors of different interests gathered at a variety of venues around the area. Edward first built his hot beverage business on back of the maritime community, but he was quick to see the potential went way beyond mere coffee.

Fast forward to the present day, and what do we see? Companies around the globe are looking to enhance their working environments with creative spaces, and indeed, many serviced offices incorporate coffee houses in their lobbies. Meanwhile terms like ‘co-creation’ and ‘hackathon’ are in vogue as organisations look to change the way they work with their partners, collaborators and customers.

The parallels with how 17th Century merchants and insurers looked outside the probably stuffy and unproductive working environment of the Royal Exchange are clear. Put simply, back then as today, people found they could get more done in a coffee house than in the place originally set up for the job.

In addition, we can learn several lessons from Edward Lloyd and his peers, about how to make the most of working outside the building.

First, Lloyd was quick to spot the need for good data. He launched a newsletter in 1696: while this lasted only a year due to libel action, he continued to harvest and supply maritime information to his customers which, of course, kept them coming back.

Second, he recognised that the coffee house was a place for work, and was restructured accordingly. Rooms became offices and the house became a venue for auctions and other business.

Third and perhaps most important, was the recognition that Lloyd’s customers were a community in their own right. The group formed what became known as the Lloyd’s List, the structure of which has been maintained right up to present-day, globally-spanning, billion-plus business that Lloyd’s of London has become.

In 1774, some hundred years after Edward Lloyd’s coffee house first came to prominence, its growing underwriting business found new lodgings – not ironically, back in the Royal Exchange building. The coffee house had served its purpose as an external space where peers could collaborate away from the clutter of daily work, and such collaboration could now continue from whence it came.

Perhaps this is a final lesson: that work itself is collaboration, and that the healthy body corporate will seek the best possible environment to function, wherever it may be. As well as looking at information delivery, creating a place for doing business and seeing people as a community, today’s organisations would do well to remember that offices should serve as a backdrop to enterprise, not as an end in themselves.

Image: Wikimedia/Phogel

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