Friday, 19 December 2008

Trust and communication

image by Nick in exsilio

Marking assignments could be a chore but I feel as if I am witnessing the results of some very interesting action research projects and listening in on some very thoughtful and at times profound reflections on what it is to be part of a dispersed or virtual team.

First conclusion I come to is that working remotely is nothing new in the NHS and certainly not in Scotland. In particular Community Health practioners of all disciplines have long been used to working away from base and their managers have had to be creative about managing such teams even before the advent of mobile phones.

Secondly, for such teams, mobile technology doesn't get much better than a mobile phone (Blackberry if you are lucky) and access to collaborative spaces like blogs and wikis is a pipe dream when you are constantly out on the road. Text messaging is essential for quick updates and social networking. (See also Ken Thompson on Bio Teaming: )

Thirdly, building Trust is the foundation stone for all virtual teams. Without Trust communication breaks down, messages get misinterpreted and more mistrust abounds... a vicious cycle.With trust, teams become more creative and more productive, and the leader trusts them more, and the team trusts in the leader more: a virtuous cycle. And what builds trust? Communication.......

Fourth - communication requires structure: netiquette is helpful and aids clarity, regular messages from the leader to all the team maintain a sense of belonging and being kept in the loop, having a place to find and deposit information for and by the team is helpful (a shared drive, a wiki, an intranet space - some sort of virtual noticeboard)

Fifth - training is needed to ensure everyone communicates in the best way for the team. Students came up with some intriguing ideas - putting a Christmas e-card on a shared drive to see who could access it; organising a Chritmas social event via the team wiki; getting the team to design and manage the induction of a new team member so s/he could get quickly immersed in the team norms.

I have also paused to reflect on my own experiencing of managing a virtual learning group - specifically one set within the Scottish NHS.

Technology is difficult and unstable: not everyone is able to access the Wimba classroom we set up so remote sessions of the normal classroom style were not a great success. Not everyone has webcam, headset and mic.

However chat on Blackboard worked well: it could equally be Skype or MSN chat. OK it was like herding cats at times, but the students enjoyed the "meeting" space and it added a much needed social dimension to the module. We covered topics related to the assignment and students shared ideas with one another about team building, developing trust and improving communications.

To inject a bit more of a personal element into the process I set up a video introduction (early in this blog) and used Jing from time to time to teach about the technological aspects of the course. These were well received. I think on reflection that podcasting would really add something here. Regular updates on key topics could be posted so that students could access them in their own time - again mostly out of work time so that NHS firewalls don't block media.

I have also since discovered - and gained access to - a community space within the NHS Scotland e-library where a discussion board and document sharing space could be set up specifically for this programme. This could provide the answer to the firewall problem and would leave students with a legacy - a space where graduates could continue to meet after the end of the programme and which they could colonise for their own work teams' use, instead of having to try and set up their own wiki with all the attendant access issues. I think there is an important learning here about using the avialable technology and what is already familiar!

My own e-learning coach asked me to think about what more I could do in terms of "teaching" on this module.....

I am not keen to lecture - with Wimba or podcast - and the evidence suggests that the learning materials on Blackboard are well accessed and provide a sound basis from which students can tackle the assignment.

Providing a space where they can discuss their responses to that material seems to me to be the key - but instead of the activities we currently have, I think the discussion boards would be better used in

  • getting students to read articles and present their responses,

  • setting up small groups to work together on short focused tasks

  • presenting short case studies or issues for discussion in the style of an action learning set

I also think a social networking element is needed: one comment that struck me is that virtual teams lack a space where they can bump into one another for a quick chat. Something like Twitter might be the answer here, if, once again, people can be persuaded to try it or can find their way around the technological problems of accessing it.

ah well - back to the marking now!

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