Thursday, December 09, 2010

A stumbling block to collaborative learning (and working)

A recent post from Doug Belshaw, in which he quotes extensively from Steve Shapiro got me thinking about a conversation my husband and I often have, out of sheer frustration.

One of the things South Africans in the UK are often accused of is being gung ho. This is because of a different formative workplace experience. I don't know what it's like now, but during the years that we lived and worked there, actions would be allocated during meetings, and the owners of those actions would be expected to go away, do the job and come back with the completed chart, project, design, whatever. If you needed help doing X-thing, you spoke to the person with the skills or the access or the authority and you got it done. If you had a meeting with your line manager or your team before the task was complete, you would report on your progress and then get back to it afterwards. If you needed to escalate the matter to your line manager because you weren't getting the results you wanted, you did. But you owned the task.

So when we moved to the UK, we adopted the same approach... and it didn't go down at all well!

As an example:

I once worked at a company as the in-house IT trainer. I should point out at this stage that it was explicitly stated that they wanted me to be able to hit the ground running, because my line manager (the IT director) had a big project looming, and wouldn't be able to allocate much time to training. At a meeting with the stakeholders, it was decided that everyone in the company needed to have (among other things) certain Excel skills. Now of course, the skills that were needed day to day by the people in that company weren't the same as the skills needed by people in another company. So we identified the core actions that were likely to form part of pretty much everyone's day job within the organisation. We also identified a set of additional Excel skills that a subset of employees would need. These we would address separately. It was decided that everyone should be invited to attend a core skills workshop, but that, initially, at any rate, only those who used the additional skills would be asked to attend that workshop.

It seemed pretty clearcut to me, so I did what I thought I had been asked to do. I hit the ground running. I designed a core skills workshop. I set up exercises using familiar spreadsheets that users were likely to encounter on a day to day basis, in order to provide context for the features being covered. I created a manual, using screen grabs as signposts. I created an index, so that attendees could refer back to the manual after the workshop. I spoke to the in-house print team, and got them to do a nice layout for me.

We had already drawn up a very nice questionnaire which served as a base level TNA, and we had a clear idea where the greatest need was.

We had also kitted out the training room with the equipment needed.

So, we were all systems go. I invited my first batch for the pilot session of the workshop... and all hell broke loose.

Apparently, I was supposed to check back with my line manager at every step of the way. Each step needed to be approved before I could move on to the next step. Since no-one above me on the food chain had the remotest idea about learning or training... and were singularly lacking in people skills, I was completely non-plussed. We had already decided everything that needed to be decided, surely? I had been given my actions, and I was, well, actioning them.

My husband's experience is similar. He will be asked to write a report on X thing, but the report is sent back umpteen times, with minor changes and edits, sometimes to changes and edits made earlier.

And it is this ethos that I think stands in the way of the successful implementation of social business, collaborative working and collaborative learning. I have been in situations where it has fallen to me to create a shared space for a certain project (for example, a wiki). Immediately I have done so, the rest of the team has then deferred to me as the owner of such space. Instead of editing material entered, they would send me an email, identifying suggested changes. I have also worked with organisations that have introduced systems such as Sharepoint in order to encourage collaborative working, but then immediately locked down all the permissions and so on, so that only management approved materials can be published in shared space.

So, I would suggest that, if social business is to become de rigeur, then the offline attitudes and culture need to be addressed, too.

When you give someone a task to do, you need to trust them to do the task, and empower them to call on such resources within the business as are needed in order to do so. You need to trust them to manage their time, to assist others with other projects as and when it is appropriate. You need to allow them to have an exchange of emails without CC-ing you in all the time. You need to be available to them, if they need your help, but not hanging over their shoulders to make sure they do the job as you would do it (if you don't have anything else to do, maybe you should have done the task yourself, huh?). You need to let them make mistakes and ask them what they learned and what they would do differently... then let them try again. You need to let them take credit for what works and own up to what fails without feeling that they are failures.

In other words, you need to trust yourself, too. If you hired them, because you believed that they could do the job, then let them do the job and appreciate the time it frees up to let you do yours!

In most of the organisations I have worked with, the nature of online relationships replicates the organisational culture offline.

Until we start to give people a bit of room to breathe, I think we're not going to be able to properly harness the power of social business.

...or that's what I think, anyway.


Mark Berthelemy said...

"... the nature of online relationships replicates the organisational culture offline."

Absolutely right Karyn. Which is why it's so difficult to squeeze it into established organisations.

Fred Sheahan said...

Great post, Karyn!

I think that you hit on a key difficultly; many organizations have too great a focus on compliance within existing systems and processes, and are currently lacking the human culture and flexibility required to take advantage of social learning. I think that technology-enabled learning professionals are often the bellwethers of cultural shift, as we continually face a pressing need for real employee ownership (i.e., it can not be mandated), in order to drive meaningful, scalable, and sustainable learning processes.

Les McKeown's book, Predictable Success, helped me to look at this problem differently. To paraphrase one of my favorite quotes, "The focus of employees' ownership and self-accountability needs to be redirected back to the attainment of real, measurable, operational results rather than the confirmation of measurable activity levels." There are definitely areas of organizational change that must be met, before we can fully realize the larger, scaled outcomes that we're capable of and driven by at a personal level.

Harold Jarche said...

In a wirearchy, you don't need all that hierarchy because the ubiquitous connectivity requires a multi-way flow of power, trust & authority. Churchill identified it, "First we shape our structures and then our structures shape us." I fear that many institutions will just fail, but not without a struggle. My advice is to find an organization that is willing to change.

Doug Belshaw said...

Hi Karyn,

I've only been using Amplify to clip things I find interesting and already it's been of value to more than just me! Excellent post. :-)

The upsycho said...

@Doug I didn't mean to come across as critical...

The upsycho said...

@Fred You make me think of a related issue. When processes first became automated, the tendency was to replicate the manual system, failing to leverage the advantages of automation.

I wrote a post along these lines way back. When the first few artificial hearts were developed, they were attempts to make a thing that looked and worked like a human heart. They failed. Then the developers went back to the drawing board and re-analysed the situation. They identified that what they wanted was a pump. So they designed a pump, and that was the turning point.

People like Jay Cross, Donald Clark et al often complain that we are using spaces like virtual classrooms and Second Life to replicate physical classrooms and, well, 'first' life, when we should be looking at what new opportunities these technologies present and how they can add value to what we offer.

Mark Berthelemy (who has also commented here) has been known to say, "Why do want an elearning module? Wouldn't a pdf do the trick?" It's the same story: if you're not adding value by using a different approach, the change of approach serves no purpose.

As Harold points, out, wirearchies don't need hierarchy. But hierarchical structures have become so embedded in our culture that we seem unable to break free of them to leverage the advantages of a wirearchy. We simply replicate the hierarchy online, which hugely decreases the advantages of having an 'online' option at all.

V Yonkers said...

I think in the US we are more like the South African culture. In fact, if you don't run with the project, you are perceived as incompetent. However, when I worked on a project in Hungary, one of the frustrations was that employees ALWAYS waited to be directed.

Your post coincides with a finding I just found while writing me dissertation: there are different types of feedback within an organization. When the feedback that is given is different than the feedback asked for or when the feedback asked for does not fit the model of the feedback those in power felt they had established, there is conflict. Part of the conflict has to do with who owns the work, who will be responsible for the work, and who has the right to direct work. You can read my post on this. I'd appreciate any "feedback" you can give me!