Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Virtual Collaboration in Organizations: A Change Issue

If you want to build a wiki, don’t drum up people by sending them emails and adding them as users. Rather make them long for access to the important information your wiki contains. (Juliane Neumann, Radical Inclusion)

Lately, our group has been reflecting on what it takes from an organization to implement effective Virtual Collaboration (VC) processes. The question is not a new one – the idea of collective Knowledge Management (KM) has been around since the dawn of the WWW (and even before), but the great visions have turned out to be disappointingly shallow promises. We have come to the point where the tools have reached such maturity, adaptability, and user-friendliness that we all cannot help but rub our eyes asking why the adoption rates of virtual collaboration are far below even the most pessimistic expectations.

How does KM fit into the concept of VC? Wikipedia gives the following definitions:

Knowledge management (KM) comprises a range of strategies and practices used in an organization to identify, create, represent, distribute, and enable adoption of insights and experiences. Such insights and experiences comprise knowledge, either embodied in individuals or embedded in organizational processes or practice. (Source: Wikipedia).

Virtual Collaboration – Originated with the advent of video conferencing technologies provided over the internet. Two or more people working together to accomplish a task without the use of face to face interaction. Early examples of virtual collaboration include Audio Conferencing, Video Conferencing, or Computer mediated communication. With the advent of web 2.0 interactive capabilities virtual collaboration took on a much broader meaning, allowing for the full spectrum of activities and behaviors that are required for two or more people to come together and co-create new work through a process similar to stigmergy in living systems. (Source: Wikipedia)


We believe that this definition of VC is not broad enough. For us in Radical Inclusion, VC encompasses the whole spectrum of synchronous, near time and asynchronous tools and methods with which people can creat content, exchange ideas, work together on documents, make decisions, etc. without meeting face-to-face. In this sense, KM is mainly covering the asynchronous parts of VC.

So, the tools are there but people just don’t use them – why is that so? We believe it is for a multitude of reasons, including the following:

  • People driving VC and KM projects are not the potential beneficiaries of the VC tools. VC and KM are categorized as “IT issues”, and the users are rarely involved in design and implementation of the collaboration tools.
  • Knowledge and information are organizational currencies, and they are not given away for free. We share information when we get something in return, and knowledge can be a powerful asset in power play situations.
  • Collaboration is a question of trust and loyalties, and these ties don’t often follow official organizational structures. People have contradicting loyalties as most organizations have implicit and explicit organizational structures. Also, organizational boundaries in collaboration are not that clear as people adhere to and trust individuals and groups outside of the organization.
  • Collaboration is not encouraged. Few organizations have reward systems that encourage collaboration, and even fewer have a collaboration strategy.
  • Effective physical collaboration is different from effective virtual collaboration. Most organizations try to translate traditional forms of collaboration, i.e. face-to-face meetings, into virtual collaboration. Thinking that a face-to-face meeting is a pinnacle of collaboration neglects to take into account the new and different opportunities that synchronous, near time, and asynchronous VC tools offer. Virtual meetings that mirror face-to-face meeting processes end up being frustrating experiences because of technical shortcomings and poor virtual process skills.
  • General attitudes towards virtual collaboration are not favourable. VC is usually considered as a second-hand substitute for physical face-to-face meetings. Few people believe that they can be effective, efficient, and most of all, fun!
Hence, effective Virtual Collaboration is a question of organizational change, and in order to become an organization with effective VC processes, the organization needs to start from catalyzing a change process. However, there is no blueprint for a process of complex change, and no shortcut around the need to facilitate such a process. Here are a few principles that apply to a change journey:
  1. People do not resist change as a given. However, all people have concerns, purposes and circumstances that matter to them. If people feel that their issues are acknowledged and respected, they will support change.
  2. Change has its boundaries and limits. Change is partly given to us, and everything is not negotiable. There will always be conditions that we need to accept and work around. Also, we have to respect that usually the entire organization will not change.
  3. Problems become our friends little by little. We need to start small in the beginning of our change journey and improve the process along the way.
  4. Everybody needs to become an innovator. Widen the circle of involvement as much as possible and get people to buy in. Identify or create containers where new thinking emerges and smart systems can multiply.
  5. Multilevel communication about change is essential. Connect people to the content of the change and to each other by virtual and face-to-face means.

We have only just begun to understand what it takes to catalyze effective collaboration – in both the real and the virtual world!

(originally published at http://radical-inclusion.com/)
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3 comments:

  1. Thanks for your post Holger, and enlightening on the various issues relating to the adoption of VC.

    Collaboration creates the context for work and issues, where people are naturally motivated for the knowledge that's relevant in those areas. So collaboration is good and is happening, but the problem is how we do it and especially if VC is new to people.

    I feel adoption and engagement needs proper planning and cultivation. And for every different types of KM initiatives and stakeholders, the needs are different. This is why I've started to think about frameworks for designing adoption and engagement strategies.

    Hope this supplements the challenge of VC adoption.

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  2. I am having to read up on a blog for one of my classes and this is the one I landed on. It seems that people are just too scared to solely rely on VC. When Holger states •Collaboration is a question of trust and loyalties, and these ties don’t often follow official organizational structures. This alone shows why companies shy away from VC. It's almost as if they do not fully believe in the VC technology. They see it as an unstable way of communication and that face-to-face meetings are more efficient and trust worthy. It also seems that they view it as a technical thing as well. That technology has way to many flaws and glitches that would compromise meetings.

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  3. I think that the challenge the world is facing in right now is to help each other in this time where nature pays back on humanity because of the history that proved how our ancestors were very abusive of the earth.

    These collaborations are not just found on one specific field, take this account above, for example. Solidarity can surface in many ways.

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