Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Are virtual workers damaging their careers?

This article from Information Week reports a Stanford study that claims virtual workers fear they may be making themselves redundant. First, they fear that by giving away all their hard-won knowledge and insights they diminish their personal worth. Second, they fear that being virtual reduces their ability to learn from their peers.
Both notions are false, being based on false presumptions about virtual teams. Or, should I say, being based on false presumptions about how virtual teams have to be. Virtual collaboration has surely come a long way since the days of client-server spoke-and-hub workgroups.
Stanford's Margaret Neale is quoted as saying "If your knowledge, not to mention the tricks and tips it has taken years to learn, is deposited in a database for all to access, does the organization still need you?" But the essence of collaborative virtual groups is networked knowledge, not centralized knowledge. Putting knowledge into a central database is old-school library-think KM, which assumed that in order for knowledge to be available it had to be centralized, cataloged, and indexed.
And while you may be able to capture some of the knowledge of a virtual team in a database, the tacit or implicit knowledge -- that expertise derived from experience in applying explicit knowledge -- has proven very hard to capture in any formal, structured, or easily-usable way. You can't put it in a database. And even if you could, it would have a very short half-life because, unlike explicit knowledge, tacit knowledge evolves at the pace of the environment that spawns it.
The other notion, that by being virtual you lose the ability to learn from others, is equally odd. The fears of virtual workers may be real, and in many instances the way in which organizations structure and facilitate virtual work groups may validate those fears. But there is no reason why members of virtual teams cannot actually enjoy significant advantages over their office-bound counterparts. I'm not talking about the obvious things like convenience, time-saving, travel-saving and so on. I'm talking about the ability to accelerate your individual learning through exposure to a much more intimate, more diverse, more available set of communication relationships than you can ever have in a crowded meeting room. Not only do virtual team members get to be closer (in mind) to their colleagues, they get to share their own expertise and tacit knowledge in a way that is more direct, more attributable, and more visible than it might be in face-to-face meetings. How can this be bad for your career?
Margaret Neale comes up with this gem: "Technology has the potential to destabilize the relationship between organizations and employees" YES! And that, surely, is a good thing. The disintermediation of hierarchies of control, and the mutation of silos of knowledge into spheres of influence, are common themes in my presentations. It's happening, at a pace that scares those who use an organigram as a security blanket. But organizations need to understand it, embrace it, foster it, and try to influence it to their advantage, rather than fighting it, or worse -- denying that it is happening.
The Stanford report was put together by Margaret Neale (Professor of Organizations and Dispute Resolution at Stanford), Terri Griffith of the School of Business at Santa Clara University and John Sawyer of the College of Business and Economics at the University of Delaware. Their paper, titled "Virtualness and Knowledge in Teams: Managing the Love Triangle of Organizations, Individuals, and Information Technology," was published in the Stanford MIS Quarterly in June 2003. Why the report has only now hit the newswires is baffling.

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