The 21st century workplace is significantly different from the workplace of 20 years ago. Back when high-speed data lines were 2400 bps, organizations co-located staff in large offices. Face-to-face communications were essential for information sharing. Hard-copy references were kept in a centralized library. And core operational processes were passed from hand to hand. The office water cooler or coffee pot was the center of office gossip and innovation. Moving forward 20 years, the workplace is undergoing a series of evolutionary changes.
Today, many organizations face the management challenges of coordinating and leveraging the strengths of “virtual” or “global” work teams. Virtual teams can comprise a core group of managers directing remote operations from a centralized location or geographically dispersed work teams operating within a decentralized management structure. In either case, people are finding themselves isolated from work teams and peers. Still, the Internet has given many business professionals access to huge amounts of information to track trends and adjust individual behaviors—but what happened to the casual information transfer that took place around the office coffee pot? How can dispersed workgroups drink from virtual water coolers? Informal communications and knowledge-sharing activities are essential to maintain corporate competitive advantage. How do organizations re-create the spontaneous knowledge discovery that can occur during casual conversation—that “a-ha” real-time learning moment?
Shifting Learning Trends
Traditional corporate learning models recognized an expert supervisory manager as the source to determine training requirements and a mentor to reinforce on-the-job training skills. As corporate environments evolve to support global strategies, managers may not share the same skill sets as their reporting people. James S. Pepitone in his book “Future Training” describes the evolving workplace as becoming filled with knowledge and service specialists who must recognize and close their own knowledge gaps. Managers will continue to provide leadership and support for knowledge and service specialists, but the direct working and learning relationships are very different.
Role-based training programs enable managers and knowledge/specialist staff to work together to design curricula that increase productivity and reflect corporate goals. The efficiencies of organizing training into small task-oriented units based on measurable performance objectives enable a variety of learning media to be combined to create an innovative curriculum based on the experience of the student and the depth of the content.
The real-time-learning phase of the BBL Learning Platform (see Figure 1) greatly impacts the performance of knowledge/specialist workers. The real-time learning moment happens when someone is in a situation for which no training or reference material exists and new knowledge is created. How much corporate value is lost because these “a-ha” learning moments are scattered across virtual space without a means to recognize the value, capture the moment or share the new knowledge?
Emergence Theories and Real-Time Learning
Emergence theories explore how relatively simple systems self-organize based on real-time information. (See “Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software” by Steven Johnson.) Emergence theory can be summarized as “survival by adaptation.” Extensive research with ants and slime molds reveals very sophisticated communication techniques demonstrating how organisms recognize pattern changes, adapt their behaviors and communicate the behavior change requirements to others who need to know the information. For example, without a formal worker-boss scenario, how do ants organize precisely laid-out colonies and maintain accurate food stores? It is not so odd that individual slime molds move through petri dish mazes more quickly with each pass, but how is it that a second slime mold recognizes signals left by the previous mold and completes the maze almost as quickly on its first pass?
Emergence research also covers other subject areas, including urban planning and computer simulation games. What about real life? What can humans learn about effective knowledge transfer when and where we need it? How can collaborative tools such as interactive conferencing and knowledge repositories be implemented to promote productive virtual teams?
Many people are studying communications between global work teams with the intent to increase knowledge sharing opportunities and minimize isolation. Ikujiro Nonaka and Toshihiro Nishiguchi explore knowledge emergence and competitive advantage within the Japanese and international economies in a collection of essays titled “Knowledge Emergence.” Central to their perspective is the Japanese concept of “Ba.” Ba is defined as a time-space nexus where knowledge is created, shared and leveraged through a community effort.
Ba is not so much a physical space as it is a process. It is often described as a virtual area where information converts to knowledge based on a specific context and collaborative dialogue among participants. Nonaka and Nishiguchi use a spiral image to represent the iterative cooperative process of knowledge transformation phases. The process can be thought of as a series of phases as a small idea develops into a practical solution. So often, dispersed work teams duplicate efforts or operate with minimal information. Can you envision the productivity increases when these teams are able to easily collaborate?
Practical Applications for Real-Time Learning
The competitive advantage diverse teams bring to an organization is the variety of perspectives. Rethinking and reshaping traditional communication and knowledge sharing processes is the key to successfully support cross-functional communication flows of dispersed work teams.
Several vehicles ranging from simple e-mail broadcasts to multi-level intranet sites organized by communities of interest can accomplish these communications goals. The challenge when planning and implementing cross-functional communication platforms is to maintain focus on the knowledge/specialist workers who will use the system. These folks have constant demands on their time. Systems must be designed to provide easy access and reinforce the value of the information contributed.
Corporate recognition of the value of knowledge sharing is a chief motivating factor for knowledge/specialist workers. People will take the time to use corporate-sponsored communication vehicles if their experience demonstrates that their efforts to share information provide value.
Topic-focused threaded discussion boards are a popular format used by organizations to create online communities and share information among internal staff and external partners. In a quick review of several corporate intranet and association Web sites, many of these discussion threads are not providing the anticipated functional support activity. In almost every sample, many discussion threads had not been populated for several months and were essentially inactive. Why would someone post a question to a location without current activity? Another common problem occurs when discussion threads are skewed because only one or two individuals post information.
For example, global support teams can develop collaborative vehicles for corporate-wide communications. A series of threaded discussions enables globally dispersed consultants to provide seamless services to customers across multiple geographic locations. The consultants are motivated to use the discussion threads because they provide a means to deliver faster, consistently high-quality customer service.
Trust is a major factor that drives the success of this collaborative scenario. If people are confident the information garnered from these discussion threads is reliable and current, they will be more willing to participate in an interactive exchange.
Creating Successful Learning Communities
Establishing trust among the members of a collaborative community is not as complex or insurmountable as it may initially seem. Some suggestions for building trust across geography and time zones include:
- Mentors or facilitators.
- Message notification.
- User-focused design.
- Collaborative conferencing.
A mentor or facilitator can provide several support functions to help increase the productivity of collaborative discussion threads. These activities can include initiating conversations, promoting usage, summarizing discussions and updating corporate support documents or data repositories.
Some organizations may want to designate certain types of information updates with a high-priority status that triggers an e-mail message notification. These e-mail triggers can be launched manually by support staff or via automatic intelligent message agents. Participants can then access the information when it is convenient, and these messages could encourage others to participate in the corporate information exchange.
User-focused design is a significant motivating factor for people to use collaborative vehicles. Ease of access can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Physical accessibility is important—how difficult is it for a user to reach the information? How complicated are security checkpoints? How difficult is it to determine where the information is located? Topic categories should designate urgent business issues that are meaningful for the targeted user population. Broad category topics will cause confusion when participants need to juggle several simultaneous streams. Narrow category topics may not encourage high activity levels.
Collaborative conferencing is another tool that can be used to develop trust among virtual team members. Voice or Web conferences can be scheduled so that members of specific communities of interest can exchange ideas via an alternative venue. Some people are not as comfortable writing. Becoming familiar with colleague’s voices is another means to establish trust and encourage communications.
Finally, do not forget the purpose of the project when designing virtual collaborative community structures. These tools can significantly boost corporate productivity as information is more easily shared and duplicate efforts are minimized. However, all too often people get caught up in the technology and ownership issues within cross-organization projects. When designing these corporate programs, it is important to maintain focus on how the collaborative solution reflects the corporate values and integrates existing communication flows.
Questions to Consider
Some questions to consider when designing and implementing communities are:
- How does an organization help staff realize that personal innovations are valuable to the entire organization?
- How do organizations collect, disseminate and integrate these “a-ha” moments into organizational flows?
- How are people rewarded for taking the time to recognize, document and share personal “a-ha” moments?
Susan Schwartz is the founder and principal consultant of The River Birch Group, a performance improvement group that provides a broad range of services to global companies, designing and launching online communities and next-generation blended learning solutions to increase business productivity. Some of these activities include job task analyses, certification/assessment programs, mentoring/coaching, curriculum design and virtual team communications. Susan’s 18-plus years of experience in the adult learning field includes a wide variety of both technical and professional skill enhancement initiatives. Susan is a noted speaker and author with a passion for helping companies learn how to drink from virtual water coolers.