Cycle 3: WHAT DO THE TEAM MEMBERS THINK ABOUT OUR TEAM COLLABORATION AND WHERE WE NEED TO BE GOING?
As mentioned earlier in the overview of social learning theories, there is a distinction between work teams and communities of practice. O’Donnell (et al, 2003) states that “teams are tightly integrated units driven by deliverables, defined by managerially allocated tasks and bound together by collective commitment to results or goals.” On the other hand, communities of practice are “loosely coupled groups or networks driven by both interest in a topic or area and the value that membership provides to members as a function of their active involvement.”
I think that while a team and practice might be different enterprises, it does not mean that they are exclusive. That is to say, a team can still be a practice. My goal in this cycle was to interview my team. I wanted to learn more about them and their ideas concerning collaboration and social connection.
As with the leadership team, not only did I collect information based on the interviews, I also contributed to the ongoing development of the team’s practice. Just by instigating the interview and creating conversation, we contributed to the development of common understanding and meaning. Thus, my cycle served two purposes—the collection of data and the contribution to the practice.
How Did I Evaluate the Cycle
I interviewed my teammates. I asked them all the same questions. While the questions were structured to collect consistent reflections, my goal was to create an environment that was more conversational and informal.
The conversation centered on collaboration and team connection. I wanted to get a sense of what my teammates thought, how they felt, and to see if we had common definitions for the words we use. Part of the conversation involved getting to know them a little better. I used this opportunity to gain more insight into who they are and what background they have as members of our team.
Assessment of Peer Relations
There are six members of the team. We are located at two sites— Federal Way, Washington and Portland, Oregon. All but two members of the team are in Federal Way. The team is a highly technical group, made up of programmers, multimedia developers and instructional designers. The median work history within the organization is 8 years. The team is about 2 years old, with two of the members joining the organization at that time. We are assigned to the Information Technology line of business, as a shared services group. Thus, we support organizations across the enterprise. We produce good work and have very satisfied customers.
When asked what they liked best about their jobs, the almost unanimous answer was the autonomy. The autonomous nature of the work offers two main benefits: creative freedom and freedom to control the work environment. This autonomy was important to most on the team. A close second was the opportunity to learn and experience new things. Problem solving was also a major consideration. I assume that learning and problem solving are parts of the same dynamic, mainly that the individual is learning through the process of having to solve work-related problems.
To get a sense of who they were personally, I asked each person what they would consider the perfect type of job. While the details of the jobs were a little different, responses fell into two categories. One is serving or helping others and the other is creativity.
When asked what type of work they found the most challenging, learning and problem solving were the most frequently mentioned categories. This included conversation of mastering new skills and being stretched to learn new things.
I asked each member, what a team that collaborates well looks like. In reviewing their answers, I found that I could group them into three main categories: 1. interactive skills, 2. dispositions towards work, and 3. role definition and work responsibilities.
Interactice skills” deals with skills that contribute to communication. “Dispositons towards work” is classified by how the team might be described. “Role definitions and work responsibilities” is mechanic or structural components of the team.
Dispositions towards work
Role definition and work responsibilities
- Active listening
- Sharing of ideas
- Open to ideas
- Help each other
- No personality issues
- Not competitive
- Defined roles
- Understood skills and competencies
- Regular contact
- Share roles
- Resources allocated to who does what best
When asked how connected they felt to others, most answered in the affirmative. They felt that there was a common desire to produce good work. In addition, the team members indicated that they felt that everyone was approachable and the lines of communication were open. However, an area of concern was that there was no real social connection outside of work-related issues and that the team members did not socialize much.
When I asked how the team might be able to increase its connection, one person offered that we need more functional structure to better identify what we do and how we do it. Almost all of the other answers centered on a more social orientation. In this context, work-related solutions were to help each other think outside of the box and be more creative, while non work-related solutions centered on more informal social activity and having fun as a team.
In respect to the current state of our team’s collaboration, most felt very satisfied. The key areas of affirmation were being in the loop, having a voice, and working together to produce results. While it is a minority opinion, there were some concerns expressed that while we do generate a good final product, it is not real evidence of solid collaboration. It was expressed that what we do is non-relational and of no depth or substance. There was no real team identity. I included the minority opinion, because I think it is a more accurate assessment of the team. During my interviews with the team members, I felt that there really was no common understanding of what collaboration is.
I asked the team how they would envision our interactions and design/structure of the team. The results are in the table below. Again, I sorted by the three categories used earlier. As you can see, all of the answers were functional in nature. I assume that the functional emphasis suggests the desire to open communication and increase collaboration and that an initial issue might be in how we are required to work together.
Dispositions towards work
Role definition and work responsibilities
- Better partnering
- Work more with customer
- Team lead within team
- More functional structure
- Open work space (studio design)
As noted during the leadership team interviews, the organization recently implemented a new performance management plan. The requirements are to create “stretch goals” and to impact the organization. Half of the team had no stated goals. The other half were seeking more functional expertise or success in their respective areas. I asked what role they felt the team had in supporting each other’s development. Answers centered on providing support, mentoring, and feedback. I expanded the question and asked if they felt they had a responsibility to support the development of others outside of our immediate group. Overwhelmingly, all answered in one of two ways. The first is that we are responsible to share our skills with others. The second is that it is important that we share best practices and teach others how to do things better.
Cycle 2 & 3 Reflection
We are a team because we have been commissioned by the same organization to perform certain functions and meet specific business goals. For the most part, we have these goals in common. To accomplish these common goals requires a certain level of collaboration.
In our conversations, we talked a lot about collaboration. In the context of our team and conversations, I see collaboration as a term that identifies the collective need to help accomplish common objectives. It is a term used to represent the “work team” part of who we are. On the other hand, we are unique individuals with certain skills and capabilities. We each come into the shared work environment with these capabilities and as members of other practices. We come with various levels of competence and experience.
The ability to collaborate and meet business goals rests in a number of areas. I believe an important area is in our social connection. Where collaboration seems to be associated with the objectives of a work team, connection speaks more to the function of a practice. Thus, we have this duality in our relationship that blends collaboration as a functional mechanism and connection as a relational one.
It is interesting that in the interviews, the leaders used terms that are easily associated with community of practice—terms like active sharing, increased informal sharing, exchange of ideas and concepts, proactive engagement, mutual respect, and broadened focus or understanding. They also acknowledge the role that the team members played in not only reaching business goals, but in the active development of one another. These are all terms and ideas at home in any discussion of communities of practice. In a similar sense, the team conversation also contained many terms related to learning, sharing, and development.
Teams are “tightly integrated units driven by deliverables,” whereas, communities of practice are “driven by the value that they provide to individual members (O'Donnell et al, 2003).” It is interesting to note that in the interviews with my teammates almost none of the conversation focused on meeting business objectives. While that is an obvious collective goal, much of the conversation centered on being connected, learning from each other, and growing in understanding in that process. What I learned in these cycles is that while we work for employment and the wage that it provides, what we seem to long for is some greater social connection because it helps establish our identity and give us a greater sense of meaning.
While we often take a linear view of our work, Wenger (1999) states that we are only able to accomplish our work because of our “collective construction of local practice.” This construction is a process of sharing and learning from one another. The interviews suggest that there is a strong desire to connect and learn. What I gathered from the interviews is that they identified with a continual progression or evolution of thought and understanding. They wanted to be connected to something more personal than just satisfying an immediate business need. “We are social beings. Far from being trivially true, this fact is a central aspect of learning (Wenger, 1999).” We are always learning; and we are social beings. Thus, even when we come together to perform tasks, our natural tendency is to join a community.
I think that being a member of a community allows us to share and to learn. It extends our purpose. In Leadership is an Art, DuPree mentions a story his father once shared. The company millwright passed away and the father went to the funeral. At the service, the widow read some very moving poetry. Later the father asked about the poetry and found it was written by the millwright. On his way home, he pondered, “Was he a millwright who wrote poems, or a poet who worked as a millwright?”
DuPree uses this illustration to stress the point that people do not exist to be millwrights or any other occupation. Instead, they have a grander purpose. I think that part of identifying that purpose is being connected to others in a community of practice where we can learn and share and create meaning.
One of the challenges for me is in determining how I influence a group of people and make connections that allow our practice to grow. I believe that as we connect more in the context of our practice that the result will be a better product in our vocational endeavors.
In conjunction with my research cycle, two things happened with our team. First, one of the teammates scheduled our team for the Myers-Briggs assessment. We followed that up with a team discussion. While the discussion time could have been structured in a manner more conducive to team interaction, it did reveal some interesting information about our team. The main piece of information is that our entire team except for one person prefers introversion. From my earlier observation, this was obvious without the assessment.
One of the strong elements of introversion is autonomy and social disconnection, which makes instigating the activities for a practice difficult. On the other hand, there is a tendency to prefer in-depth discussion, which is healthy in a practice. While this is a very generic overview of a more detailed assessment, it might explain why the team members verbally affirm the ideas and discussion but are slow to act in a proactive manner.
The second event is the most interesting to me. During the interviews, team brainstorming was mentioned a number of times. Ironically, a week later we had a brainstorming session to design the template for one of our online training modules. Having taught a number of “how to brainstorm” activities, I found that what we did had little in common with brainstorming. Only one person actively contributed, one agreed on any approach as long as it was the one he was already working on and had invested time in, and the other offered nothing. It was a frustrating experience.
As I re-read the Wenger’s Community of Practice, I was reminded that a practice develops meaning through active participation. Whatever terms or concepts used by the practice result from the process of negotiation within the practice. It’s part of the practice’s history. We were using terms like brainstorming, yet as a team had not negotiated the meaning of that term. In fact, during the interview, while I was impressed with what my teammates and leaders had to say, at the same time I was wondering if these are the same people I work with. It reminded me of sitting on an interview listening to a well-coached candidate provide all the “right” answers.
Today, organizations focus so much information on team building, that it is not hard to develop a war chest of the right words. We learn to use all the right words and provide the expected answers. However, I am not sure they are anything more that just words. There is no real reification of these words. They represent a socially desirable state with little understanding of what would be involved.
In BusinessThink, the authors discuss “complex equivalents.” These are words or phrases that have encoded experiences or beliefs in small packages. The example they use is of “branding.” When you hear branding, do you think strategy, positioning, logo, marketing, image, or something else? We might use that word in conversation but all have different understanding of what it means. “Without a shared understanding or definition, you don’t get the results you want because your definition of success is not shared (Marcum et al, 2002). Wenger asserts that if our words are not reified and we use them without negotiated meaning it impairs our ability to learn (1999). Pierre Martineau says the “greatest enemy of communication is the illusion of it.”
We entered our brainstorming session with no negotiated or common understanding of what that meant. We use the term, but have no way of knowing if we are all saying the same thing. However, with increased engagement and participation, I am sure that we would negotiate a collective meaning that erased confusion and frustration and contributed to our ability to share.
One other point that I want to address is that the team needs to grow in social connection. I think it speaks to the need to have a personal connection to the work environment. All of the conversation suggested a strong desire to be connected in a more purposeful manner. We are social and we are always learning. Thus, we naturally gravitate to communities of practice. We really do not create them; they are a result of who we are and what we do.
I found it interesting that both the leaders and team used practice-like terms to identify collaboration and social connection. However, when asked how this might happen, all they could produce were functional concepts. These were impersonal and not connected to their own volition or responsibility. Apparently, someone else would build the structure and connections. If we truly seek better connection, why doesn’t it happen? If not me, then who should make the connection? I agree with my manager when she stated, "we need to step up and assume leadership." We are responsible for the environment we create.
My reflection on this cycle produced two conclusions. First, I can only control my actions and participation. Second, while we may have a stated desire to connect and contribute to a practice, we do not always know how to do so. My next cycle will try to address this.
Action for next cycle
In the past cycle, I was reminded of the distinction between a work team and a community of practice. When I first started the action research, my understanding of communities of practice was limited. In the course of my activities and increased exposure to information on communities of practice and social learning theory, I believe I made an error. I was trying to build social capital by instigating a community of practice with my work team. I assumed that since I work with them and share some common goals that it is only natural to focus on developing a community of practice with them. However, a practice develops not because I determine that one needs to. Instead, what creates a practice is when I pursue an enterprise that engages me. In turn, others are pursuing the same enterprise. As we actively engage one another (sharing and learning from each other), our collective learning becomes a practice (Wenger, 1999).
In retrospect, I think I started in the wrong area. “The heart of a team is the set of interdependent tasks that leads to a pre-determined outcome. The heart of a community of practice, on the other hand, is the processual know-how that members share, critically evaluate and develop (O'Donnell et al, 2003).” I focused on the team. Instead of trying to build a community of practice, I feel that I would have been better served to focus on the areas where I am already engaged in a practice or where I feel I can actively share and develop.
Our organization has a number of sites with their own training teams. These teams are typically not as technically sophisticated or skilled as ours. Many of the trainers use Articulate, a rapid development tool, to create some of the online training modules. It is much easier to learn than more complex multimedia authoring software. Many of our smaller sites and less experienced developers use it. They are not trained in multimedia development. Because of this, I field many calls concerning the use of Articulate and other multimedia.
By nature, I like to tinker and always seem to play around with the tools I have. Thus, I find that I have discovered many tips and tricks in the use of the software. In addition, I enjoy sharing what I know with others. Mostly, I like to help them solve their problems. An especially challenging task is to do so with severe time, technical, and fiscal restraints. This requires a lot creative thinking.
I am going to develop a best practice site for the Articulate software. My goal is to create a place where users of Articulate can share and learn from one another. My ultimate research goal is to influence my team and how we work together. My manager stated that she would like the team to step up and lead. In addition, I have a lot of autonomy and freedom to act. I think the one of the most effective ways I can impact my team is to lead by modeling the activities I think are important. So that I am not functioning in a vacuum and have connection to the team, I have invited one of my teammates to collaborate with developing the tangible site.