Monday, May 10, 2004

The Tacit Knowledge of Team Leadership

Don't let the title of
Towards an Ecological Theory of Sustainable Knowledge Networksby Conklin et al put you off. Its full of insight about project teams (rather than knowledge networks in general). One thing caught my eye:

"The process of team formation is complex. Leaders have tacit knowledge about how to move a team through a process, and they access that knowledge in face to face meetings. When in virtual collaborations, they don't have that, e.g. they may not recognize that they don't have alignment about team goals"

Note that the barrier isn’t lack of knowledge, but the absence of the stimulus needed to retrieve it. The dynamic of the face-to-face interaction is what triggers the intuitive manager to take the right course. He may only sense subliminally the lack of alignment, but he'll intuitively do what it takes to correct that. Few managers would explicitly have a process with a "check alignment" gate, but they all know it must be done. Even bumping into a team member and subsequent chit chat can lead to an explicit awareness that they need information you hadn't thought to pass on.
Face-to-face we react as social animals - we meet, we chat. With email you don't 'meet' and chat is far less common. How often when you meet in person do begin with smalltalk? Whereas in email its acceptable – even encouraged – to get straight to the point. Yet without this social wavelength, few managers can access all the knowledge they need to implement a team formation process.


Anonymous said...


I like this post very much, but wonder whether the problem isn't a transient one. With VoIP and webcam technology, it can't be more than a few years before virtual F2F collaboration among team members is commonplace.


Joe Firestone

Sam said...

Many thanks for commenting Joe. I don't want to give the impression that I think there's something mystical about face-to-face interaction. However, its not when the technology is available that the problem is overcome, but when our behaviours adapt to it, and that I think will happen very slowly indeed, so awareness of the limitations of current approaches is essential for good team leadership.

One big difference would be to have permanently-on video & sound. Social interaction on Video Conferences is around 20% of that in meetings, partly because there's a sense of the 'meter ticking' (there are other factors too, though, like the inability to fluidly slip into one-to-one and back to group again).

For always-on webcams, I expect some resistance. My team has just started using Instant Messaging so we can 'see' who is in the office. At first I felt this was invasive, but then figured it was no different to somebody looking up and seeing me at my desk. All the same, its a scenario straight out of 'Big Brother'.

Perhaps the most encouraging example is a 2-location team that had a wall-size screen in each coffee room. The screen projected images from the other location, so it looked more like a window onto the other side of a room. This is probably what it takes to really remove the barrier.