Collaboration and team identity

Larry Irons · March 8, 2010 · Short URL:

On the relevance of social learning

 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.


Larry writes the blog Skilful Minds.


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