Building common ground

The focus of this blog is on learning and working on the web and how work and learning are becoming one in a digitally interconnected world. I believe there is a critical need for new organizational frameworks, such as wirearchy, and a shift from learning as training & schooling to a more agile approach. Evidence that the old management models are no longer effective abound – see The Future of Management or The Future of Work.

Lilia Efimova is looking into Agile software programming teams, where work is geographically distributed and has observed the challenges of communicating without “common ground:

From what we have seen, the communication in distributed teams often shrinks to purely functional and, compared to face-to-face settings, there is much less unstructured informal interactions – this works for getting the work done (at some level), but seriously limits the opportunities to build awareness of the bigger picture and relationships. Most of the solutions in respect to building the common ground in distributed Agile teams still rely on making sure that there are opportunities to visit each other, while there is a lot of space for a technology-mediated ways to do so next to the f2f.


Building common ground at work takes time and many informal interactions, such as those afforded in a shared physical space. For distributed teams to work well, they need to develop common ground through social grooming. My experience in working with distributed groups is that the more effective teams are those who know each other. I will be more forgiving with someone I know through several years of blogging than some new business acquaintance who has just joined the team. After several thousand tweets I have some understanding of people’s sense of humour, and perhaps they understand mine as well.These casual interactions make the leap to collaborative work much easier, as I am experiencing with my Internet Time Alliance colleagues.

For distributed teams, informal social learning has to take place with digitally mediated communications. Allowing, and indeed promoting, casual social media use may actually be good for work and business. Blocking these channels may inhibit the development of common ground.  This is something to consider as more work becomes distributed – break down those firewalls and let workers be people.

10 Responses to “Building common ground”

  1. Lilia Efimova

    Harold, I share your experiences about building bonds and shared understanding through blogging, twitter and other occasional/informal interaction tools. However, their effect on work is very indirect and, actually, at the first sight, reading blogs or putting informal update on twitter is unproductive.

    I often find it challenging to explain to people who have a business problem (~communication breakdowns around getting things done) that spending time doing fun and not directly productive things will actually help them with being more productive at the end. Wondering if you have any experiences/ideas on how to do it…

    • Harold Jarche

      The best explanation I have is that in dealing with complex problems we have to go at them obliquely. There is no direct line between cause & effect so we have to explore. Social interactions through blogging and twitter increase the chances of serendipitous learning while simultaneously strengthening inter-personal bonds. Because you and I blog, we are able to have this conversation and because we have been conversing for a while I would feel comfortable asking you for help if I needed it. Let me ask my network if they have any other suggestions.

  2. Jon Husband

    spending time doing fun and not directly productive things will actually help them with being more productive at the end.

    In my mind it’s related to a phrase I use pretty often .. “Go slow to go fast” .. all the talking, interaction, questions, playful double entendres,, jokes, etc. .. help clarify issues, build trust, seek out areas of disagreement and agreement, etc.

  3. Jay Cross

    From an article on collaboration published in Learning Technologies magazine:

    Commitment by team members

    It’s great to begin a long-term collaboration with a face-to-face meeting. Either in person or virtual, social bonding comes before business, for that’s the platform on which the work will be built. Begin with games and getting-to-know-you exercises. Give people time to talk and become familiar with one another.

    Social connections remain vital throughout the collaboration. People work best with people they know. Encourage people to share information about themselves. Post photographs of participants. Pinpoint their locations on a map..

    It’s important that collaborators are working under the same set of assumptions. Discuss each of these areas and ask for individual commitment to them.

    • Respect the team, and do what is best to accomplish the objective. Be selfless, not selfish.
    • Members will be active. If a member spots something to improve the collaboration, she volunteers to do it.
    • Members freely share ideas and suggestions. They do not hoard information or keep secrets.
    • Members treat each other with respect. The team is committed to continuous improvement.
    • Members care for one another emotionally, helping one another over rough spots and fears.
    • Use whatever tools are appropriate to advance the project: phone calls, on-line meetings.
    • Members trust one another. They “make this marriage work.”

    Be prepared for push-back. Workers who see collaboration as hindering their work rather than supporting it will be reluctant to join the effort. Organizations that are accustomed to a single viewpoint (usually top management’s) can become rattled as other voices begin to speak. It’s useful to recruit a band of early supporters to help sell the value of the project.

  4. Simon Bostock

    Lilia, Nonaka did useful work in this area.

    Here’s a useful quote and a pointer to his thinking:

    “The fundamental principle of organizational design at the Japanese companies I have studied is redundancy — the conscious overlapping of company information, business activities, and managerial responsibilities. …

    Redundancy is important because it encourages frequent dialogue and communication. This helps create a “common cognitive ground” among employees and thus facilitates the transfer of tacit knowledge. Since members of the organization share overlapping information, they can sense what others are struggling to articulate. Redundancy also spreads new explicit knowledge through the organization so it can be internalized by employees.”

    I think (I may be wrong) that much of what we understand about communication and socialising is that we meet to exchange news and that these meetings are powered by difference.

    It’s counter-intuitive for most people that we meet to go over common ground. The news is incidental.

  5. Lilia Efimova

    Harold, right, should think more on the complexity-related arguments…

    Jon, fully agree with “go slow to go fast”, but, still, what are the specific arguments that one results in another? Of, course, ideally I would deal with those who are convinced about it and then we just work together on “how-tos”, but in practice there is a lot of attitude change around those issues.

    Jay, a nice overview! I think most of experienced (project) managers know and do those things, intuitively or explicitly. That’s said, it’s somehow much more difficult to “drink coffee” and “have chats” when you are in the same space compared to making time for social/”unproductive”/informal things online (well, talking about more traditional orgs here and not those who live and work online 🙂

    (And so nice to see all of you guys – I’ve been lurking on the periphery for too long 🙂

  6. Jay Cross

    Lilia, here’s my blog entry from our time together in Graz back in 2003:

    “At one point in my keynote presentation, I asked how many in the audience had blogs. Of the 250+ attendees, only three of us blogged!

    Lilia Efimova, a Muscovite now with Telematica Instituut in The Netherlands, is a fellow believer in blogging. We had a tough time understanding why others just don’t get it. People asked, “Isn’t blogging sort of the same as SMS messaging?”

    People said they didn’t have time to blog, but it’s not as if blogging crowds out other activities like, say, parasailing or watching television would. Blogging is part of my work routine; it makes public what I used to do just for myself. ”

    Check this out:


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