Come Together


Come Together, Right Now

Jay Cross

Organizations have woken up to the power of people working together. Collaboration gets things done and is the most powerful learning tool in the CLO’s playbook.

Twenty years ago, colleagues at far-flung enterprises communicated by phone, mail and fax. The world moved at a slower pace. FedEx slashed the time required to receive a document, but we were still stuck with a one-way medium. Expensive conferencing equipment enabled remote meetings if audio was all you needed. Proprietary videoconferencing packages transmitted video back and forth, but most people stopped watching the pictures once the novelty wore off.

Then, along came the Internet. Today’s organizations are learning the power of people working together in real time. The use of instant messaging migrated from high school to corporate life. Cheap, simple conferencing tools let workers meet wherever there’s an online connection. Presence-awareness systems route calls to people wherever they are now, not where they used to be. Expertise locators connect workers to people with answers; social software connects them with friends and colleagues. Online team rooms keep the lights on as projects move around the world, passed from one team to the next. Skype gives people the ability to place free video calls over the Net. Software such as Second Life allows executives — in avatar form — to give presentations to one another in virtual boardrooms.

The social learning revolution has only just begun. Corporations that understand the value of knowledge sharing, teamwork, informal learning and joint problem solving are investing heavily in collaboration technology and are reaping the early rewards.

The problem? Most corporate collaboration infrastructure is a haphazard collection of point solutions rather than what one would put together given the opportunity to start with a blank slate. And what’s wrong with that?

  • It wastes people’s time.
  • Unmanaged technologies introduce security risks.
  • Communications from one medium are often incompatible with another.
  • Each technology comes with its own logins and conventions.
  • Information is not captured for reuse or the building of peer-rated FAQs.
  • Maintenance becomes a nightmare for central staff.
  • Coordination breaks down. For example, bloggers may not communicate well with IM users.
  • Overlapping technologies are subject to breakdown.

This is not atypical when companies adopt new technologies. As people begin to rely on these solutions, however, they seek out a more solid, coordinated approach. Now’s the time.

Furthermore, far too many CLOs take no responsibility for the social media that makes collaboration work.

In recent surveys, Dr. Clark Quinn and I found that less than 40 percent of CLOs are involved in corporate decisions about communities of practice, social networks, content repositories, wikis and Internet access. Fewer still are involved with learning for customers, partners, distributors and the supply chain.

A quarter of the CLOs admitted that their corporate cultures do not value or encourage collaboration and teamwork. A similar proportion reported that their people did not learn new developments via in-house discussion forums.

At the Fall 2009 Chief Learning Officer Symposium, Rebecca Ray, senior vice president of global talent management and development for MasterCard, shared information from yet another survey. She revealed that 40 percent of CLOs do not tie metrics to business performance; 40 percent or less allocate their budget to support business initiatives; and 70 percent could not provide an example of a great CLO in action, driving performance.

Counterbalancing these tales of woe, Ted Hoff, vice president of the Center for Learning and Development at IBM, described his company’s dedication to work-based collaborative learning. The goal is to create constant teaching moments. Every participant in the career advisor program has at least one mentor. IBM is linking partners and clients into its collaborative infrastructure. Hoff has successfully shifted funding from formal learning to informal collaborative learning.

Still, 77 percent of the CLOs that Quinn and I surveyed said their people are not growing fast enough to keep up with the needs of the business. I fear that the picture for many CLOs is yet another example of corporate dyslexia: the inability to see the writing on the wall.