continuous learning for collaboration

For the eleventh consecutive year, Jane Hart has polled thousands of respondents and asked what are their Top Tools for Learning. I contributed my own list of tools once again this year. In addition to the extensive list, complete with Jane’s observations and insights, she provides an interesting look at ten of the emerging trends. I find two of the trends of significant interest.

  • Learning at work is becoming personal and continuous.
  • Team collaboration tools support the real social learning at work.

Learning at work

One of the primary reasons to promote learning at work is because it is directly linked to innovation. Gary Klein examined 120 case studies and in, Seeing what Others Don’t, identified five ways that we gain insight.

  1. Curiosity
  2. Connections
  3. Coincidences
  4. Contradictions
  5. Creative Desperation

Insights lead to innovation, which is not so much about having ideas as it is about connecting and nurturing ideas. When we remove artificial boundaries, we enable innovation. In complex situations, where various people are working on similar problems, it is important to know who has done what. The challenge for distributed teams and organizations is to find ways of understanding what is happening throughout the system and ensuring it is communicated within the network.

The connection between innovation and learning is evident. We can’t be innovative unless we integrate learning into our work. For example, here are some questions that the practice of PKM can address:

  • How do I keep track of all of this information?
  • How do I make sense of changing conditions and new knowledge?
  • How can I develop and improve critical thinking skills?
  • How can we cooperate?
  • How can I collaborate better?
  • How can I engage in problem-solving activities at the edge of my expertise?

The practice of personal knowledge mastery is that we should continuously seek new ideas from our professional social networks and then filter them through more focused conversations with our communities of practice where we have established trusted relationships. You know you are in a community of practice when it changes your practice. We make sense of these embryonic ideas by doing new things, either ourselves, or with our work teams. We later share our creations, first with our teams and perhaps later with our communities or even our networks. We use our understanding of our communities and networks to discern with whom and when to share our knowledge. In a network economy, this is learning at work.

Team collaboration

Collaboration is what happens when people work together for a common cause. But it is not effective, except for simple tasks, unless people are implicitly motivated to do the work. Self-determined workers and citizens with an entrepreneurial mindset are the core of complex and creative work. As Peter Drucker said, “Nothing is less productive than doing what should not be done at all”.

To be effective, collaborative work needs to be done by cooperative people. In cooperation for the network era, I explained that cooperation is freely sharing, without direction from above, and without expectation of direct reciprocity. Collaboration is working together for a common goal, often directed from above or outside the team. Jon Friedman identified three major problem areas in collaboration.

  1. overconfidence in our collective thinking
  2. peer pressure to conform
  3. reliance on others to do the work

The three identified problems with collaboration are due to the nature of collaborative work. Someone is in charge and the objective is usually not shared equally by all group members. Therefore some may be prone to slack off or not care. Others will be more interested in their status within the group, and how they are perceived by the leader.

In the cases where collaboration works, it is more like cooperation. The example given by Friedman of Lennon & McCartney is one of two equals, not in talent, but in their position in the group, and their ability to leave it at any time. Successful collaboration requires cooperation as the basis. Getting work done then becomes an agreed-upon objective, and a temporary hierarchy is established, if necessary.

The challenge for working in today’s networked economy is to connect cooperation with collaboration. For the past century, too much work in too many organizations was focused on collaboration to the exclusion of cooperation. We need to reconnect these solitudes in order to do complex and creative tasks.

In 1970, Alvin and Heidi Toffler published Future Shock, which started the modern field of futurists who abound today. They identified how work has to change. In a post-industrial, post-information economy, work has to be about individual thinking.

“It really upsets me that people say we have to bring manufacturing back,” Heidi said. “We have to re-train people how to think! We can’t compete with second-wave manufacturing, and China is starting to realize it, too. Future Shock is about the process of change, and The Third Wave is about the structures of change. And so far we’ve proven incapable of designing the systems that prepare us for change.”—FastCompany 2010-10-15

Open and free participation ensures creativity and a focus on long-term value. When dealing with complex challenges, collaboration without cooperation yields efficiency without effectiveness, especially if creative solutions are needed. Team collaboration, with transparent knowledge-sharing, is best done by self-directed workers who are already cooperating in order to keep learning, inside and outside the organization.

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