Social Learning, Collaboration, and Team Identity

Harold Jarche recently offered a framework for social learning in the enterprise in which he draws from a range of colleagues (Jay Cross, Jane Hart, George Siemens, Charles Jennings, and Jon Husband, all members of the Internet Time Alliance) to outline how the concept of social learning relates to the large-scale changes facing organizations as they struggle to manage how people share and use knowledge.

Harold’s overall framework comes down to the following insight,

Individual learning in organizations is basically irrelevant because work is almost never done by one person. All organizational value is created by teams and networks. Furthermore, learning may be generated in teams but even this type of knowledge comes and goes. Learning really spreads through social networks. Social networks are the primary conduit for effective organizational performance…Social learning is how groups work and share knowledge to become better practitioners. Organizations should focus on enabling practitioners to produce results by supporting learning through social networks.

Indeed, Jay Cross suggests that the whole discussion needs framing in terms of collaboration, and I tend to agree. Yet, saying social learning occurs largely through collaboration means delving into the subtleties of how social networks relate to the organizing work of project teams as well as to their performance. After all, much of the work done in Enterprises involves multidisciplinary teams, often spread across departments, operating units, and locations.

One of my earlier posts posed the question Who’s on Your Team? to highlight the importance of social networking to establishing team identity and enhancing knowledge sharing across distributed, multidisciplinary teams. Its focus was on the importance of social software applications in the Enterprise to the ability of distributed project team members to recognize who is on their team at any point in time, and who isn’t. Organizational analysts refer to the challenge of establishing team identity as a boundary definition problem for teams, when members are spread across large distances whether geographic or cultural in nature.

Awareness of Fuzzy Team Boundaries and Collaboration Dynamics

My first post on this topic discussed research by Mark Mortensen and Pamela Hinds published in a chapter titled, “Fuzzy Teams: Disagreement in Distributed and Collocated Teams,” in an edited collection called Distributed Work. Mortensen and Hinds surveyed twenty-four product development teams, finding that, on average, only 75% of the employees on any given distributed team agreed on who is, and who is not, a member of their product development team.

More recently, Mortensen continued researching the topic by studying 39 officially defined software and product development teams. Reading Mortensen’s recent research made me think again about the import of social software in the Enterprise, but with additional subtleties in the interpretation that relates to social learning.

For example, my previous post implied that social software tools in the Enterprise, such as awareness/sharing tools (Yammer, Chatter, etc.), or collaboration tools (Wikis, blogs, discussion forums, etc.) assumed that increased information sharing would decrease such boundary definition problems among distributed teams. I noted,

The implications for collaboration are significant. At the same time that wiki applications such as Socialtext People provide increased awareness of the boundaries of a team, they also increase the likelihood of finding people outside the team with expertise relevant to team challenges, resulting in more boundary spanning across teams. Overall, information sharing within teams and across teams increases.

Mortensen’s recent research poses the issue in a slightly different, though significant, way. He thinks it is unclear that reducing boundary disagreement on distributed teams results in positive performance.  Rather, Mortensen suggests that,

This study suggests problems in performance and transactive memory come about not because members have different models of the team, but because they are unaware that they hold such divergent models of the team. Furthermore, though not explored here, there may be potential benefits of boundary disagreement as a source of creativity-inducing variation. Thus I would encourage managers and members to pay attention to boundary disagreement and to focus their efforts on educating members not of the “right” model of the team, but of the likelihood of boundary disagreement occurring and its likely effects on team dynamics and ultimately performance. Armed with that knowledge, team members may, themselves, be able to assess and discount confusion or disagreement that arises from members working with differing underlying perceptions of the team.

In other words, lack of an agreement on who is a member of a distributed team does not present a problem that needs solving in order to manage performance. The awareness that differences exist about who is on distributed teams, and recommendations on how to manage those differences, point to the focus needed on collaboration from management.

Collaboration isn’t just about people sharing information to achieve common goals. Collaboration is about people working with other people to achieve common goals and create value. Even though goal-orientation is a big part of collaborating, collaboration requires more to achieve goals effectively. It requires shared experience. Indeed, one could reasonably assert that, as members of teams discuss their own assumptions about membership in the flow of a project, they develop increasing empathy for other team members and alignment between their own needs for information supporting performance and the willingness of others to either provide it or facilitate its provision.

Posted by Larry R. Irons

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12 Responses to Social Learning, Collaboration, and Team Identity

  1. Rotkapchen says:

    Interesting things jumped out:
    1. There has to be a means to ‘have’ a shared experience (often there are both literal physical and cultural, not to mention disconnected understanding as barriers).

    2. Thinking about some of the things you mentioned elsewhere about Stacey, it would seem that someone’s ‘knowing’ can become someone else’s ‘learning’ — as well the context of the ‘differences’ in this ‘new’ situation allows for a dynamic ‘shared knowing’ relevant only to this situation.

    3. I’m far more concerned with the reality that much of this is often ignored because there’s a perception of no ‘time’ to learn from each other (which is a fallacy that often makes the effort longer). Without a shared understanding much of the doing is at odds with one another.

  2. Larry Irons says:

    Paula, I totally agree that much of what you mention, and I discuss, in this post is often ignored. Too much emphasis is given to tools rather than people and communication. I don’t know how the imbalance can be righted since the trend started long ago. It started for me in the mid-1980s in trying to get teams to focus on communication rather than Vax Notes as a platform. Then it went to Lotus Notes and, later, the WWW. Everyone, especially management, wants a silver bullet, a panacea, rather than focused human endeavor and open communication. Unfortunately, human accomplishments don’t work that way and one day large organizations may, or may not, recognize that as the case.

  3. I’m not certain everyone, especially management, want a silver bullet … but I will suggest that by starting wtih an enterprise-wide leadership philosophy that denotes how everyone should act with and towards one another (including aspects of collaboration) is a pretty good start.

    By defining your operating principles, and ensuring the organization a) knows about them b) is capable of endorsing them and c) actually applies them … you then can utilize any tool you like.

    What if, for example, you took Mauborgne and Kim’s ‘Fair Process’, embedded it into your leadership philosphy, aligned the org to it, then employed tools around it? (http://athens.src.uchicago.edu/jenni/klmcarn/FILES/papa/hbr8.pdf)

    I am – and it’s going to pay off.

  4. Larry Irons says:

    Hi Dan, thanks for the comment and suggestion. I tend to view your point in terms of organizations with open empathy, along the lines of My recent reading of Dev Patnaik’s “Wired to Care”

    http://skilfulminds.com/2009/05/20/social-business-the-golden-rule-and-open-empathy-organization/

  5. I unquestionably accept everything you have stated. Actually, I browsed throughout your additional articles and I do believe that you are completely correct. Great job with this online site.

  6. theory…

    [...]Social Learning, Collaboration, and Team Identity « Skilful Minds[...]…

  7. rift mmorpg says:

    Hello my friend! I want to say that this article is amazing, great written and come with approximately all important infos. I would like to peer extra posts like this .

    • Larry Irons says:

      There are a range of posts on the blog related to social learning and collaboration. Feel free to read them and let me know what you think.

  8. I simply could not leave your web site prior to suggesting that I really loved the standard information an individual supply to your visitors? Is gonna be again steadily to check out new posts

  9. Larry Irons says:

    I appreciate the attention and the compliment.

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