Virtual collaboration is a phrase that is both explanatory and confusing. In one company, virtual collaboration can be as simple as e-mail and document sharing. In another company, it can be the combined use of asynchronous tools, such as calendars, links and bulletin boards, with synchronous tools such as Web, audio or video conferencing. They might even incorporate learning content such as courseware, streaming media and narrated slideshows into any of these online tools. Virtual collaboration, no matter how you look at it, is any process that employs the use of technology to bring people together to achieve their goals.
Do people collaborating virtually also achieve learning goals? Yes, because people process information by seeing (visual modes) and hearing (auditory modes). Virtual exchanges allow for both learning modalities. They also allow people to manipulate the images or text as discussions and presentations proceed in real time. Seems powerful? Sure. Is it easy? Maybe by the way it sounds, but hold on. For learning and development purposes, the trickiest part of this increasingly important strategy is understanding the elements that engage people to learn, practice and apply their new knowledge and skills. Understanding what goes on in the learner’s head is only the first part. Understanding how learning happens throughout the organization is equally important.
All good solutions start with a series of questions.
- How do you define virtual collaboration in your organization? Are multiple approaches and layers of complexity necessary?
- When you analyze your current programs, are their approach, delivery and measurements still relevant to both your learners’ requirements and your organizations’ financial and competency goals?
- Are the programs timely and user-friendly? Do they provide rich experiential learning or relationship-building opportunities for the learner? Do they drive requests for continued growth and development of new programs that support the organization’s strategic goals?
With four generations of workers in the workplace, learning and development professionals are challenged more than ever not only to create learning technology solutions that address different learning styles and values, but also to build learner competencies that are aligned with current and future organizational needs. When preparing for this challenge, consider:
- What is the overall benefit to the learner? The “What’s In It For Me” rule still applies, technology or otherwise. If you can’t demonstrate why it’s good for them, you’ll have apathetic learners. And your learners have more diverse interests and values than ever before. For instance, generation X and Y employees enjoy learning from colleagues they respect. They will find greater value in technology that gives them an opportunity to interact with experts or higher-ups. Integrating an element of relationship building or mentorship into the learning process will increase the probability of these employees remaining engaged. Keep in mind, though, that individuals will have different ideas of what it means to be responsive while working online. For instance, speed-of-response time is defined differently for different learners. Quick replies via e-mail might be the norm for some as they try to communicate in real time, whereas others might wait to respond until a solution is ready at hand. This difference in perspectives, however, can be managed from the onset by discussing expectations for group work and performance prior to and during the team’s work cycle.
- What are you doing off-line? Off-line activities matter, even if it’s virtually offline like PC chatting or video conferencing. Findings from a research study published in the International Journal for Electronic Commerce found that in 44 virtual communities, off-line activities affected the overall sense of membership in a virtual community. Feeling part of the team ultimately improves team cohesiveness. The opportunities for members to engage with each other in face-to-face meetings outside of their online activities remains a necessary component to engaging learners. For groups operating at geographically dispersed sites, video conferencing or chatting can provide the medium for members to interact with each other more directly.
- How easy is it for workplace professionals to access and use? Usability and convenience might seem like obvious considerations, but they often get lost in the mix when we get excited about features. Again, consider your audience. Are they multicultural and constantly mobile? People operating in different countries might not adapt to certain technologies the same way or at the same time. Initiate with modest but clear goals that expound on the reasons for virtual collaboration, and then focus on creating a sense of membership.
The potential benefits of virtual collaboration are no longer a secret. There are measurable time savings in developing products, answering customer needs and distributing information. Global teams learn on the fly, apply new knowledge to products design and tap into each other for mentorship and expertise. But success in building virtual collaborative learning environments hinges on several key organizational issues. Infrastructure, usability, and security parameters and practices will influence the ease of implementation and employability of the learning technologies you choose. Furthermore, the people-centric issues such as meeting norms, workgroup protocols and the incorporation of cultural differences will be equally critical for successful implementation. Assess your readiness by considering the following:
- Is the technology a value-add or simply an add-on? It’s tempting to buy a cool new technology that allows teams to communicate and interact with each other, but it’s important first to ensure that organizational structures exist to support learner capability. For example, if and when problems occur, what support is available? Also, do individuals have a variety of means to participate virtually? Mobile devices such as iPods, PDAs, cell phones and simulations are playing a larger role in learning and development activities, but if they are not properly integrated, nobody will use them. Likewise for support processes: If it becomes more of a chore to learn through virtual channels, the technology has become an add-on instead of a value-add.
- Is the virtual environment you’ve designed integrating other modes of learning? In EDS’s Technical Excellence Program, more than 50,000 consultants in 60 countries took part in a learning program that incorporated hands-on labs, Web-based courseware, resource subscriptions, coaching and mentoring and distance-learning courses. From such a blended approach came greater results. “We have been able to provide our consultants with greater skills transfer because they are quickly able to translate concepts into skills,” said Keith Bridges, Ph.D., director of technical development within global learning and development at EDS.
- Will the technology be used for individual, team or enterprise-wide learning? As the scope grows, so does the complexity and the ability to implement it successfully. Judicious oversight coupled with skilled change management leadership is necessary. Starting small, however, guarantees more visible benefits and can build enthusiasm for future growth.
- What is the current culture of the organization? Organizations that have a culture of individualistic entrepreneurialism might find it hard to implement a virtually collaborative learning environment. Look for pockets of less resistance where teams are already operating cohesively. Introduce your plan to these early adopters and track results.
It’s not the content, it’s the process. That holds true for more than just learning and development, but when we’re talking about assimilating a virtual experience into a learning strategy, it’s even more crucial. How you teach is often more important than what you teach. It’s why participants remember one presentation or topic over another.
Part of that process is the ease with which individuals can participate. Start small and provide support, especially if some users are unfamiliar with the new territory. Adding more complexity to the virtual learning environment doesn’t guarantee greater returns. In fact, the opposite holds true in the short term. Finding a simple technology tool that can educate and create opportunities for relationship-building will improve both an individual’s level of engagement and your company’s chances of developing an even larger, more successful virtual learning community.
Employee engagement is directly proportional to how well you’ve planned for the variety of learning solutions and styles that will be part of the virtual environment. We’re talking blended learning again, and there’s no running away from it if you want impact and results.
- Think like a consumer: What aspects of a learning experience connect with you? Your customers’ real engagement comes from offering them several different options for participating in the virtual experience. In a 2004 study reported in Educational Media International, the design elements adult learners found most desirable in blended online education environments are options, personalization, self-direction, variety and being a member of a learning community.
- Accessibility: For geographically dispersed groups, leaders can support members’ needs to build bonds by supporting them with PC-based camera chatting or video conferencing.
- How is accountability for obtaining desired skills or changed behaviors measured? Take advantage of technology that can help you measure skill development or impact. For instance, investing in an online learning tool that provides skill assessment, development strategies and a measurement system satisfies many learning objectives at once.
- How “safe” is the environment? Anxiety about learning a new skill can trump the learning process. In order to maintain a higher level of employee engagement, create environments where employees can privately learn about their skill level, discover strategies for professional development and invite others to be part of their process.
These three elements, the learner’s needs, interests and abilities, the organization’s culture and infrastructure, and the methodology learners use to engage in the process, will influence everything about your virtual learning environment.
Organizations are increasingly fluid and the workforce increasingly diverse. Both these forces play an influential role in virtual collaboration decisions. The diversity of interests and values across four generations plays the most powerful role. Who they are, how they learn and what’s important to them will directly impact team and individual learning requirements, their ability to accomplish goals and employee turnover. Virtual collaboration is a tool that can benefit all three. They are directly linked to bottom-line results, customer-service indices, improved sale and productivity measures.
According to research, executives get the most out of learning experiences that incorporate three things: coaching, mentoring and on-the-job experiences. Combining all three components into your virtual learning environment will offer them a powerful way to improve their leadership competency. Furthermore, we can expect more of our workforce to ask for these experiences from their employers. The companies that deploy learning through technology and create virtual collaboration opportunities to all employees, not just executives, will be the ones that achieve more goals faster. Which company will yours be?
Tanya Goodwin-Maslach leads the creative and developmental forces behind the learning and development solutions offered by TalentSmart Inc. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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