Shared Understanding: Bringing Together Many Voices Using Collaborative Tools and Processes

By Dr. Benay Dara-Abrams

I have a confession to make - I've had an enduring love affair that started before I met my husband and continues on unabated even though I've been very happily married for many years now. I fell in love with technology when I met my first computer and learned to program. But my husband has no cause for jealousy because my love of technology is instrumental. Unlike my love for my husband, I don't love technology for its own sake. I love technology for what it can do -- how it can connect us, how it can help us share ideas and learn from each other, and how it can help us bring together many voices and come to a shared understanding so we can accomplish amazing things together.

At the beginning of my love affair, I was given access to the ARPANET, the progenitor of the Internet. Then my love of technology really ignited! All of a sudden, we could share our work-in-progress and our ideas via FTP (file sharing protocol) and email before they were ready for prime time. Slow and cumbersome as these tools were, they provided a way to have a dialogue with other people working on similar problems. Bringing together many voices, we were able to start building a shared understanding of the work to be done and attack the challenges we faced together.

My love affair deepened at Tymshare when we were able to use Tymnet to develop our requirements documents and product specifications together, with the voices of our customers, sales people, and developers, all in the mix right from the get-go. We built our shared understanding and became a highly engaged, incredibly productive team, as we learned from our customers and people in the field, and developed our specs and plans together. As Rod Collins points out in his book Wiki Management: A Revolutionary New Model for A Rapidly Changing and Collaborative World:"Shared understanding is the elixir of Wiki Management and the organizational force that drives extraordinary performance. When all workers understand how their individual contributions fit together and how those contributions create value that truly delights customers, they become highly engaged. In high engagement environments, everyone understands what everyone else is doing. As a positive consequence, people naturally recognize problems and issues as they arise, and they know whom to involve at the first sign of trouble so that small problems don't fester and become large breakdowns."[Collins, p. 126]

Since that time, recognizing the potential of these tools to help organizations build their own shared understanding by bringing many voices together, I've been involved in a number of different efforts to develop and share collaborative tools and processes. A child of the '60s, I've wanted to share my love with the whole world.

My teams have developed and used both asynchronous and synchronous collaborative tools, choosing tools that foster sharing of ideas, and facilitate working together. Our collaboration toolkit has included Intranets, wikis, and virtual communities, allowing each person to add, modify, or delete content and offer suggestions and comments on other people's plans and ideas. These collaborative tools helped us to develop a shared understanding and to work together across time, distance, and organizational boundaries in a collegial manner. In addition to our asynchronous communication, primarily via email, one of my teams worked best by using a virtual whiteboard for synchronous collaboration. During our online sessions, we created what David Perkins refers to as a "mind meld" in King Arthur's Round Table: How Collaborative Conversations Create Smart Organizations. Though we sat at our own desks rather than around King Arthur's Round Table, during our collaborative conversations on our virtual whiteboard, our ideas came together and we experienced collective flow. The collaborative work we did together brought us not only a great deal of pleasure but also a significant number of accolades.

However, just because we have collaborative tools to support the development of a shared understanding in our organizations, not all organizations have this positive an experience. A critical component of developing shared understanding is to make sure each person's voice is heard. As Rod Collins states: "shared understanding is real only when it is built from the thoughts and voices of everyone in the organization." [Collins, p.127]

If there's a lack of transparency, or there's groupthink or impression management going on, this will interfere with developing a real shared understanding. As a big tent initiative, Great Work Cultures invites everyone to join and share his/her voice. We use collaborative tools to bring people together in each of our circles to support and plan projects. We've found it useful to combine regular conference calls with collaborative note-taking. Our collaborative note-taking helps us build and share our growing understanding as we go along. When everyone can see and add to or modify what everyone else is writing, we have the transparency we need. If someone isn't able to be on a particular call, he/she can read and comment on the notes before the next call.

To combat groupthink, I've found it important to regularly check in with everyone and encourage people to express their opinions. Sometimes we ask people to weigh in on pre-meeting questions using our collaborative note-taking pads to encourage reflection on what's been discussed and surface concerns that may not have been voiced during the previous meeting.

Then there's the bugaboo, which my millennial son (and sociologists) refer to as impression management. If people believe they have to impress each other with how smart they are, they'll be less willing to share their wild and crazy ideas. As a leader, I find it critical to set the stage by supporting an open exchange and encouraging everyone to share their ideas, without criticizing others. As a participant, I throw out my own ideas in the making to set an example and combat impression management.

Our collaborative tools continue to improve. Now it's up to us to make sure we implement collaborative processes that allow all our voices to be heard, creating the real shared understanding, high levels of engagement, and extraordinary performance that are possible in truly Great Work Cultures.

Dr. Benay Dara-Abrams is the Lead Link and Co-Founder for Great Work Cultures, and a leader in the design and implementation of collaborative technologies and processes.

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