Distributed work is here to stay, because many people like it, the pandemic is not over and there will be others, and market forces will seek to maximize profits and reduce labour costs. But Zoom calls all day are not going to create work environments where knowledge workers can deal with complex problems or create innovative solutions. The key to distributed work is social learning.
Distributed work is driving a work-from-anywhere culture and is increasingly reliant on asynchronous communication, as people move to multiple time zones. In order to share the necessary implicit knowledge needed for complex work, trust has to be developed. People only share with others they trust. This trust takes time to develop between people. How can they do this when they are not in the same office?
Those of us who have been blogging over the past two decades understand that deep professional relationships can be developed without ever meeting someone. How did we do it? We shared our knowledge, insights, concerns, and perspectives freely. Over time, people in this emerging online global network saw value in our work and gave back. In this network, communities developed. We learned from each and continue to do so. But if you do not give, you will not get anything back. To give freely is a leap of faith — faith in humanity. Of course we also learned that some people will take advantage of this. But we also share that information.
The same will happen in organizations. People who share information and knowledge of value will become better connected nodes in the network. Asynchronous communications will rise in importance. Writing, image creation, and video recording will get information across faster than video calls with dozens of participants.
Supporting workplace learning in distributed workplaces is much more than pushing content or creating courses. Social learning is about people in trusted relationships sharing and building collective knowledge. The prime role for ‘learning & development’ professionals will be to help make connections by supporting professional networks and communities of practice.
We have witnessed in this coronavirus pandemic that many disciplines disagree with others on what societies should be doing. For example, epidemiology, immunology, and public health experts did not agree with air flow experts that the coronavirus is airborne, because this would question some deeply held assumptions underlying their fields.
“They’ll die defending their view,” said one longstanding W.H.O. consultant, who did not wish to be identified because of her continuing work for the organization. Even its staunchest supporters said the committee should diversify its expertise and relax its criteria for proof, especially in a fast-moving outbreak.
“I do get frustrated about the issues of airflow and sizing of particles, absolutely,” said Mary-Louise McLaws, a committee member and epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
“If we started revisiting airflow, we would have to be prepared to change a lot of what we do,” she said. “I think it’s a good idea, a very good idea, but it will cause an enormous shudder through the infection control society.” —NYT 2020-06-04
Developing trusted relationships across disciplinary silos will become essential for all fields of human work. No single discipline has all the answers. The answer to solving complex problems is diverse, distributed networks of trust in order to take action and co-create value. Social learning through trusted human relationships is how we will get there. The way to start is to open up, share, and connect with others.
I will be discussing the power of social learning in more detail at eLearning Fusion on 23 September 2021.
Next — the social sweet spot.