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Online Collaboration Can Help Cross Cultural Boundaries

Written by Bloomfire Admin

Brooke Salisbury works in the customer service and support division at Microsoft as a Learning and Development Program Manager.  She has primarily worked as an instructional designer creating New Hire programs and improving the support experience of both consumer and commercial customers through the continuous training of Microsoft’s customer service agents.  To get in touch with Brooke, find her on LinkedIn.

Q. Every training and development initiative involves multiple stakeholders.  What are some of the typical challenges each stakeholder runs into?

During each project, stakeholders need to understand how the project will impact the priorities of their group, organization, or business.   I think one of the biggest challenges project members face is effectively and successfully communicating these priorities.

In our increasing global community, it has become especially important to have a solid understanding of cultural nuances revolving around communication.  For example, let’s suppose you are working on a global project and trying to get a buy-in for something (say the way the training will be designed).  In this case, we need to know how each particular region would respond to that approach and adapt it as necessary to how that culture prefers to learn in order to get the largest impact.

I’ve found that some groups of trainees, even if they’re taking brief eLearning courses, really need that classroom environment to engage and answer questions. Sometimes they will even take content that’s in eLearning and turn it into an ILT delivery.

In addition to the cultural awareness, I think it’s also important to realize what the individual stakeholders’ priorities are.  This is critical from the Training Project Lead’s Point of View. When we are aware of what is influencing and impacting each stakeholder we’re working with, as well as what constraints they might have working against them, it helps us find alternative solutions.  We can come to a better consensus and generally be more informed about each others’ business, which always makes for better training.

Q. Is there a way to increase collaboration among those multiple stakeholders?

One of the best examples of technology helping enhance collaboration is the use of SharePoint sites (or a similar technology).  When it comes designing and executing a project, whether it is training-focused or otherwise, a common project site where users can have equal access, control and opportunities for input helps to foster an environment of trust and transparency.  Users can collaborate on documents together, manage meeting agendas, track notes and create calendars that allow one another to participate equally. This allows for visibility into the organization, as well as into priorities and issues that impact other users.

From a non-project management level, I have witnessed how social networking apps such as Facebook or LinkedIn, have brought groups closer together, particularly those who work remotely or cross-culturally.  This is becoming more and more common.  I often never have a face to face meeting with the individuals I work with on considerably lengthy projects.  Becoming friends with them on Facebook allows me to learn a little more about them and can help to bring the relationship a little closer, specifically in those cultures where personal interaction is more important than getting things done.

I’ve also found that using web cams during LiveMeeting or an online web conference helps us get to know one another a little more and elevates the communication to a higher level.  It is becoming increasingly important to use these technologies to our benefit, particularly when we know that we may not be meeting each other over the lifetime of certain projects that can sometimes last months or even years.

Q. It seems technology has been a key to collaboration, but can technology improve performance?

I think that technology can make a great impact in performance improvement, especially in terms of eLearning solutions, LMS tracking and collaboration, self-analysis and evaluation, and I could probably go on and on. But I think the last point is really something that we’ve seen more and more in the past few years with increased functionality in a variety of LMS, as well as with more educationally-minded individuals taking advantage of technologies like Flash to make a difference. Using these kinds of technologies to encourage learners to take ownership of their learning, improvement and to self-monitor that learning, is something we weren’t able to do as effectively in the past.

I have seen that people can definitely learn some things better by collaborating online. In addition to using an LMS to track course completion, grades, and time taken to reach goals, we can also use it to allow our learners to work together on a group wiki, blog, or discussion forum allowing them to learn from each other.  This could be accomplished through assignments, commenting on others’ posts or by generating ideas that would impact the group as a whole (e.g. on a learner-centric and learner-driven wiki).

However, I believe that this kind of environment must be created at the beginning of training or orientation.  I don’t think learners go out with the intention of sharing and collaborating online.  If we make time for it by encouraging it in our facilitation and including specific time slots for this kind of collaboration, it can be a great way to provide a support network and a forum for learning during the first days of new employee orientation or job ramp up for a group of individuals.  With effective collaboration and brainstorming, I think it can lead to empowering a group to create change that affects the organization as a whole.

Q. As people learn more from each other, do you think this could impact instructor-led training and development 5-10 years from now?

I’ve thought about this a lot. Even now, there are times I look at training and the role of trainer and it seems like our jobs can be more like directing traffic than leading or developing training with the amount of information that is so readily available.  There are so many online resources that we often work with.  As trainers, at least in my field, I’ve found that we primarily need to ask good questions and guide the students in their quest to find information from within their own knowledge base, on a website, or within their tools. In the future, when even more information is online, I expect a larger percentage of learners to become comfortable with technology.  This will allow learners to go to one another as a resource in an online training environment, as opposed to always having an instructor present.

Unfortunately, there are always going to be restrictions when it comes to costs for some groups and what kinds of virtual environments we can build.  As the next few generations of learners enter the workplace, I believe they are going to demand this type of environment to work and learn in.

We’re going to see more gaming influences in training, more virtual learning environments, more social networking applications and very highly developed, interactive eLearning solutions. I think that is what we will have to do in order to keep this new generation of learners engaged. Regardless, I don’t think it’s going to completely rule out the role of a facilitator. People are still people and we still need that social interaction. However, I believe we will be working more through forums and collaborative technologies for learning online where the facilitator’s main role is to drive discussion and to ask questions.

Q. So, what are your thoughts on “online learning communities”?

I touched on that a bit in the previous question but I think it’s going to be the basis for how we learn. Just reflect on how we found information 10-15 years ago; going to the library, looking up books in print, and consulting encyclopedias.  Now, think about it today.  We have online libraries, online books, and Wikipedia.  If for some reason you still have questions, there is usually some place to chat online or post a question to an online forum.  It’s really amazing to see what has happened in such a short amount of time.

I think online communities will become more sophisticated and interactive in the future to meet learners’ needs.  There will be more video, more collaboration, and in general more ways to learn. It also seems to me like we’re going to have a lot more people who work remotely or work from home.  Online communities will facilitate the way that a lot of people will learn and interact with one another.

Q. Brooke, we want to thank you for sharing your time and opinions with us.  Could we ask you one last favor?  Please share your favorite books, blogs, or magazines with our readers!

Well, I’m kind of an evaluation junkie, and I think that Russ-Eft and Preskill’s Evaluation in Organizations is a great book to start building a solid evaluation framework for a learning organization.

Another book is Mager’s Making Instruction Work, which is a great basic text that everyone should read probably once a year to just make sure they’re still on the right track.

I typically read ASTD’s T&D to find out what others are doing and to keep my pulse on current training and development trends and discussions.  In addition, I like to keep up on the  Corporate Leadership Council’s Learning and Development newsletter and website.

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