Electronic Workplace Communities With Spirit

Peter+Trudy Johnson-Lenz

National Organization Development Network Conference, Seattle, Washington

November 1995

1995 Awakening Technology

Conversations are the way knowledge workers discover what they know, share it with their colleagues, and in the process create new knowledge for the organization. The panoply of modern information and communications technologies -- for example, computers, faxes, e-mail -- can help knowledge workers in this process. But all depends on the quality of the conversations that such technologies support.
-- Alan Webber, "What’s So New About the New Economy?," Harvard Business Review, January-February 1993

In our work we see an emerging but largely unfulfilled need for organization development methods to support the effective use of information technology.

Organizations are being squeezed, stretched, and challenged like never before to keep up with shifting markets, rapidly evolving technologies, and a changing and ever-more diverse workforce. The old patterns of the Industrial Era no longer work, and the new patterns are being hammered out on the anvils of our work lives. We don’t even know what the new era will end up being called, even as we scramble to keep up with the transformation. It’s much more than the Information Age, the Communications Era, or Post-Industrial Culture. Some say it’s a shift to deeper relationship and interconnectedness with ourselves, each other, our natural world, and the Mystery. Here are some aspects that are already visible:

Industrial Era ??? Era
Style Formal communicationInformal conversation
PeopleCogs in machineUniquely creative wholes
ValueThings Relationships

To be more connected, responsive, and resilient, organizations are experimenting with information technology to connect globally distributed knowledge workers in ever-changing networks of teams sometimes called "teamnets." Electronic corporate nervous systems support these "fishnet" organizations, creating lateral links never before possible. A broad class of software called groupware is particularly promising for collaborative work and learning via computer network. But some explorations into the virtual workplace are having difficulty. Communication over corporate nets can be formal, superficial, impersonal, and fragmented. Many re-engineering efforts that depend on information technology are not working either. As Shirley Richard, Executive Vice President at the Arizona Public Service Company and sponsor of their award-winning re-engineering program put it, "we left out the human factor!"

In these times of rapid change, global competition, and epidemic downsizing, much more than interconnected computers on our desktops is needed to nurture trusting connections that are the foundation of deep, collaborative learning necessary for navigating the sea change ahead. Speaking from the mishaps of their experience with technology to date, many say trust and deep conversations via computer are impossible.

Our experience over the past twenty years challenges this widely held assumption. Deeply spirited, generative conversation will flow through computer networks when we nurture the people and relationships in the same ways we know are necessary for face-to-face work. Organization development theory and practice are pivotal but still generally missing ingredients in the application of groupware.

This technology amplifies and accelerates organizational culture, healthy or not. Without parallel development of communication skills and collaborative work and learning patterns, computer technology only makes matters worse. Electronic workplaces need the new organizational "brains" made of silicon chips and fiber optic nerves, and the new organizational "minds" of whole people deeply interconnected with each other in trusting relationships. Technology provides the brain; OD helps awaken the mind. Both embody our essential interconnectedness. Together they are the key to spirited electronic workplaces.


Instead of asking "What is the information that matters and how do we most effectively manage it" companies must start asking, "What are the relationships that matter and how can the technology most effectively support them?"
-- Michael Schrage, "In Information Technology, the Key is Good Relationships," The Wall Street Journal, March 19, 1990

More than fifteen years ago, while doing research on the pioneering Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES), funded by the National Science Foundation, we realized that technology was not enough. When we coined the now popular term groupware in 1978, we said that both intentionally chosen group process and supporting software were necessary. Today most people use groupware to mean any multi-user software that supports group work, communication, coordination, information exchange, and/or learning. Popular usage tends to forget the group, although this is changing. For the first time this year, the GroupWare ’95 conferences on both coasts included OD tracks!

Today’s groupware comes in diverse forms, from enterprise-wide electronic mail (e-mail) systems to Lotus Notes to conferencing on the World Wide Web. Some forms of groupware support teamwork and collaboration better than others. In later sections, we briefly describe two kinds of tools we’ve found to be particularly useful for generative conversation: knowledge weaving tools and conversational containers that shape and focus group energy and attention.

Just as word processing does not make good writing, even with spelling- and grammar-checkers, groupware by itself, no matter how sophisticated, will not create good collaboration. Groupware introductions fail or backfire when they are not supported by a team-oriented culture, participatory planning, pilot projects, and plenty of training.

Since groupware is an electronic embodiment of collaboration, introducing it is a process of orchestrating both technological and cultural change. Organizations expecting a technological "fix" have learned this the hard way. Some companies threw out early versions of The Coordinator, a system for workflow, because it was more suited to a culture with well-established procedures than the more open-ended information exchange they needed. Another large company rejected IBM’s TeamFocus, a popular electronic meeting support system, even though it saved them time and money, because it allowed more democratic involvement in decision-making than this traditional command-and-control organization was ready for.

In contrast, organizations that embrace whole people and encourage authentic communication are able to use this technology to unleash a powerful community spirit. At the end of a recent workshop where we presented an array of OD practices we’ve found useful for working with groupware, a technology manager from Quad Graphics, a company touted by Tom Peters for its exemplary practices, told us about their successful introduction of groupware. She noted that some of the group processes we covered in our workshop are standard operating procedure at her company where groupware was quickly accepted and became invisible.

Challenges of Electronic Meetings

Organizations hope computer technology will connect their diverse knowledge workers into flexible, responsive networks of teams. However, more often, the technology creates distance between people, and electronic communication tends to be formal and data-oriented. The vision of collective intelligence is never fully realized.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to have electronic meetings across space and time where people feel heard, contribute what they think, feel, and want, and where real learning and collaboration take place. It takes clear intention, good planning, skill in using the medium, personal and group practices, and a willingness to risk bringing one’s whole self to the process.

Without intention and practice to act differently, these problems often occur in electronic workplaces:

Groupware Is Labor Intensive

Just getting people on line and hoping something coherent and high quality will happen is like inviting people into an empty room with no planning or facilitation and expecting a great meeting or conference. The popular myth about technology is that it doesn’t take much time or effort. The reality is that meeting via computer is labor intensive. You need to plan, prepare, support, and facilitate electronic meetings with the same level of care and effort as face-to-face meetings. Fortunately, OD professionals know how to do most of this well. You need only translate that knowledge into a new communications medium.

In addition to the essential role of facilitator, there is another role that may not be as familiar. A weaver or integrator is someone who sees patterns and makes connections between ideas and between people. A weaver integrates and synthesizes key points and themes and may provide periodic summaries or digests of on-line conversation. Weavers add value by creating knowledge out of data and information. Any participant can be a weaver, and it’s very useful to have the different perspectives of several weavers.

One of the paradoxes of on-line meetings is that the conversational flow does not naturally organize itself into meaningful patterns for later review or access. Without weaving it’s a lot like listening to audio taped conversations. But much of the power of computers lies in their ability to flawlessly remember everything and let it be organized in a coherent and meaningful organizational memory. That’s where weavers come in. Computers are not smart enough yet to know how to organize it. Human intelligence is needed. And weavers need tools. In addition to traditional knowledge tools like keywords, indexes, and summaries, new tools like hypertext links and visual knowledge maps are invaluable.

Presence, Listening, and Reflection

In our work with organizations, we’ve found some deceptively simple practices that can make a world of difference in the depth of connections people make with each other via computer.

Bringing your presence to the electronic workplace is simply a matter of taking time to actually read what others have written, reflect on what is true for you before responding, and to pay attention to what you write and how you express it. The word "memorandum" comes from Middle English, "let it be remembered," from Latin, memorare, to remember, from memor, mindful. Presence is what makes on-line communication mindful.

Active, compassionate, and reflective listening are even more important on line than in face-to-face conversations. Without body language and nonverbals, it’s hard to know if you understand or are understood. Active listening is paraphrasing for the purpose of understanding. Compassionate listening is paying attention to what’s behind the words (the music as well as the song). It’s listening from the heart and the mind. Reflective listening is paying attention to one’s own and others’ assumptions, to what’s unspoken, undiscussable, to what’s missing and can’t be said.

The electronic medium presents a unique opportunity for reflection. In different-time/different-place systems (like e-mail and most computer conferencing systems used for ongoing meetings), people are not on line at the same time. You receive new communications and can then pause and reflect before responding, perhaps rereading the original message more than once, "listening" for the music behind the words, and looking for underlying assumptions in yourself and others.

In this way you can slow the action down for yourself. This gives you time to be present as you read, to know what’s true for you, and to respond from a clearer, more centered place. Futurist Robert Theobald has said, "As information doubles, knowledge is halved, and wisdom is quartered." Knowledge and wisdom come through reflection and living with the questions, not speed-reading and rush-responding to hundreds of electronic messages.

Presence, reflection, listening, speaking one’s truth, and learning from the results are all individual practices. Remember that groupware amplifies and accelerates the interactions and behaviors it supports. An electronic workplace culture grounded in these practices will be much more likely to create the quality conversations that are the fabric of knowledge work.

Group Practices, Fields, and Groupware Practice Fields

We are also discovering that group practices long proven in face-to-face gatherings can also evoke spirit in electronic meetings. Traditional practices like council circles and more recent innovations such as dialogue and open space have their equivalents in cyberspace. Each practice seeks to evoke the hidden wholeness that connects a group. They work by altering normal conversational patterns and shifting attention to the group field, the source of deep, shared meaning. And like face-to-face practices, the setting makes a difference.

Colleagues are experimenting with council circles and dialogue via computer using Internet mailing lists and commercial bulletin boards whose organizing metaphors (mail, bulletin boards) and architecture are antithetical to reflective conversation. The success of these explorations testifies to the power of intention. But we all know the arrangement of furniture in a room greatly influences the dynamics.

That’s why we sit in circles.

For a series of self-development seminars via computer network several years ago, we created an on-line council or talking stick circle. Our aim was to create a process with full and equal participation (no "lurkers"). Using groupware we developed for our action research, we created a conversational container to focus and shape group energy and attention, much like a circle of chairs. Each round was a new question or topic. We also created a group software "agent" to ensure that each person responded once and only once to each weekly round. Norms and guidelines reinforced the practices of reflection, speaking one’s truth from the heart, and being present with others. The "circle" and the "talking stick" were virtual — existing in essence and effect through the medium, rather than in physical form -- but the spirit was there, and it deepened as people returned to the circle each week. The circle became a safe and sacred space for learning and discovery. Some participants volunteered that they felt more deeply connected with others through the circle than typically occurred in person. Several made major life--changing decisions during the seminars.

Spirit, whether called that or not, is rising like ground water throughout our organizations. All it needs to yield its fruits are sanctuaries where it can emerge freely. Its names are many: stewardship, values, intuition, wellness, wholeness, empowerment, community, and purpose, just to name a few. In many organizations people are searching for deeper meaning and purpose in their work. During the last year, in collaboration with the Institute for the Future, we have been gathering stories of spiritually principled practices that are making a bottom--line difference in the workplace. We’ve been surprised by how many we found and how much people want to talk about it. At the Arizona Public Service Company, concentration practice led to a perfect safety record for a crew that had a fatality the year before. At GS Technologies, a midwestern steel mill, dialogue helped turned the company around. These are just a few of many stories we are discovering. The key seems to be actively practicing new ways of being and relating, and providing safe practice fields for that work of creating new culture.

The same is true for electronic workplaces. Practices that evoke wholeness and connectedness need software practice fields that reflect and hold the hidden wholeness that connects us.

Our consulting practice is committed to the creative marriage of OD and groupware. Nudged by clients and colleagues asking how they might learn about this first hand, early next year we will open our own virtual practice field, a five--month long On--Line Community of Inquiry and Practice on the theme of Meaning and Wholeness in the Virtual Workplace. Its purpose will be for the entire community to learn together, through experience, how to create and sustain deeply transformative conversation via computer. Whether you join ours or convene your own, now is the time to lend your hand at creating electronic workplace communities with spirit.

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From www.awakentech.com on 06/23/2024 ---- item last modified on 06/02/1997.