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tapping the collaborative learning advantage

By Dori Digenti / February 2003

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Teamrooms as a class of Web collaboration tools are taking hold in corporations, but will they live up to their promise? This article deals with the change and adoption issues around teamrooms, covering such topics as usability, group behavior, corporate structures, leadership, and innovation. Several design and training considerations that support successful adoption of teamrooms are offered.

While leading a seminar on collaboration and learning at a large pharmaceuticals firm recently, I asked the attendees whether teamrooms—Web collaboration spaces with threaded discussion, document management, task scheduling, and other features—were commonly used in the organization. The answer? "We have them but nobody uses them." When I checked this response with other clients, they echoed this same observation: "It's like a ghost town"; "It's a dead space"; "It fell into disuse." These responses were surprising, given the promise of teamrooms as collaborative spaces that can support informal learning, knowledge exchange, and deepened personal networks. I set out to explore teamroom adoption and use in more detail.

First, a little background: Teamrooms are Internet-based collaborative tools that enable a team or network of people to communicate by posting messages and documents that can be accessed at any time from any place. Teamrooms host a whole suite of features, including threaded discussion, shared documents, chat, Web conferencing, calendars, whiteboards, application sharing, and project management tools. Leading providers of teamrooms, including IBM/Lotus, Instinctive, ERoom, Webcrossing, Crossdraw, Caucus, Intraspect, OpenText, and others, have seen a strong uptick in interest and installations since 1998. The Web collaboration market is projected to grow from $700 to $1.5B by 2003, according to Collaborative Strategies, a California-based consulting firm. Teamroom technology has stabilized and designs have gotten increasingly user-friendly. All indications are that teamrooms have the potential to be a central strategic support for successful teams.

Returning to the question of the under-utilization of these tools: There is a surprising level of agreement among managers that the issue is not about finding the ultimate best tool, it's about changing behavior. How do we get people to change their habits, specifically to treat the teamroom as a support for accomplishing projects and sharing team information? Let's have a look at some approaches for building participation in teamrooms, and in the process explore our assumptions about change, innovation, and technology.

Motivation for Change

Our received wisdom on change tells us that there is a basic human need for stability, and that our motivation for change usually is prompted by crisis. That crisis could be a competitive threat, a loss of profit, or a threshold of frustration and inefficiency. How does this relate to teamrooms? In most organizations, while the "new ways of working," such as e-business or supply chain integration, are taking root, we have still been able to make those new ways work with existing technology, such as face-to-face meetings, phone, email, fax, and the corporate intranet. However, we are rapidly reaching the crisis point with existing technologies (see The Email Crisis, below) that will force us to take seriously the new capabilities teamrooms offer us. While many organizations are working on programs to make existing technologies more efficient, it will be to our advantage to recognize that there are limits to the standard set of distance communication tools on hand. Leading companies recognize the need for a combination strategy: streamlining the use of existing technologies, such as phone and email, while spreading the word on newer technologies that may resolve some of the limitations old technologies exhibit.

Teamrooms and Innovation

Teamrooms are a central support for knowledge management in the organization, but beyond merely organizing and providing access to existing knowledge, they can act as engines of innovation and learning. Everett Rogers, author of the acclaimed Diffusion of Innovations, identifies the following attributes for successful practice adoption:

  • High perceived relative advantage: This is necessary for users to replace their current practice with a new one or to alter their existing practice.
  • High compatibility with the user's current practices
  • Low complexity: The easier it is to understand and use, the more likely it will be adopted.
  • Trialibility: The ability to test the practice before adopting it will lead to better chance of adoption.
  • Observability: The more visible and immediate the results of the practice, the more likely it will be adopted.

If we put teamrooms to the innovation test, we find that the first three items may be significant barriers to teamroom adoption. While the IT department is implementing the teamroom technology, whose job is it to do the internal marketing to help the perception of the technology's advantage take root in the organization? There is often a gap between the real advantage that the technology offers the organization and the perception of the advantage of using the teamroom technology. If teamrooms are perceived as just another add-on, in addition to phone, fax, email, conference calls, etc., then why bother? Organizations need to develop a strong case for the teamroom advantage and then promote it actively. Also, if the teamroom does not reduce phone and email time, then people will quite accurately see it as just another burden.

Compatibility with current practices means that the design of the teamroom with an email- or threaded-discussion-type interface will help it seem more familiar to new users. Likewise, eliminating unnecessary "clicking around" will help. Thirdly, the MS Office paradigm of folders containing subfolders and files is a format most knowledge workers can manage well; wise teamroom designers will try to build on that familiar taxonomy.

What about all the bells and whistles? Great, but don't expect the typical user to take advantage of even one-tenth of what is available. We are creatures of comfort and habit, and most of us are wise enough to find out what we need to know in the teamroom and keep ourselves up to date on that segment of information. Few will bother to explore all the views, notification, and permission options of the teamroom.

Senior Executives' Role

Efforts to change receive strong support when senior executives reinforce the need and expectations around the new processes, and also use the new ways of working themselves. But, how often can we expect a senior executive to actively participate in a teamroom? They are too busy to get involved in line business processes. Executives are not the answer to teamroom acceptance because they typically do not engage in keyboarding activity or IT skills training. Take the case of GE: When they began their push into e-business, they realized that none of the senior executives knew anything about the Web. A corporate-wide "upward mentoring" program was enacted to assist 1,000 GE senior executives. They spend 3-4 hours a week with e-business mentors who teach them to use the Internet and analyze competitors' Web sites. GE is seeing results in expanded market share and increased customer loyalty due to this training program. Short of making the same level of coaching effort as at GE, however, we cannot rely on senior executives to lead the charge on teamroom adoption. It seems likely that the spread of teamrooms will need to happen at the grassroots level, team by team.

Self-Organization and Facilitation

A well-designed teamroom means that all team members can access and use it anytime from the Web. While this "self-service" feature is one of the advantages, it could also lead to the assumption that teamrooms do not need to be facilitated or maintained. This laissez-faire approach is one of the main reasons teamrooms face adoption hurdles in organizations. If a team member goes to the teamroom and finds that there has been little or no activity, that there's no one watching the store, it's a heavy disincentive to participate because it isn't clear that anyone is "listening." There is no substitute for skilled facilitation in the teamroom to avoid this type of downward spiral in activity.

Skilled facilitation takes the form of archiving aged posts, prompting for input or work products, monitoring activity in the room, and making design adjustments as the team's charter evolves. It is also important to acknowledge and complete discussion topics by aligning them with new or existing projects, summarizing and distributing the outcomes, or making them available to other interested parties outside the specific teamroom. While vendors of teamrooms may claim that they are self-service tools, it takes a concerted effort on the part of the team to make sure their teamroom a vibrant and active meeting place. One note of caution: Don't make the presence of a facilitator an excuse for non-participation by others; the facilitator cannot do all the work of the team.

Definition of Boundary

In some cases, teamrooms are made available to the organization because they are a good idea or there is some evidence that they may enhance communications and collaboration. "It's a good idea" is a necessary but not sufficient reason for implementing the technology. Rather, the teamroom design and rollout needs to be based on a strong boundary definition. By boundary, I mean a clear definition of purpose, guidelines for use, agreements on content, and a defined core of participants. Defining the boundaries in a teamroom will likely evolve over time, but to start with, there must be some basic understanding of the benefits of using the teamroom, as well as the purpose for its existence. It is best if all team members also understand why the teamroom technology, as opposed to other tools, was chosen to support that purpose.

Training Methods

Like skill training for other IT tools, teamroom training is often accomplished by bringing together a diverse group of people in the company who are interested in using the tool. However, when a new IT tool is introduced in an open classroom, participants may feel some anxiety about their proficiency with Internet tools. Whenever that anxiety comes up (termed "learning anxiety" by Edgar Schein of MIT), it brings with it fears of both loss of competence and the negative consequences of being perceived as incompetent. Therefore, as one company reported, when they offered a lunchtime seminar on a collaborative tool, only five people showed up, even though many more said they were interested.

What can we do? It will be more effective when introducing teamrooms and skill training to:

  • Tie the use of teamrooms clearly to increased job performance and corporate strategic initiatives.
  • Offer the training through individual coaching, or better yet, approach individual teams or departments and encourage them to train together with their entire team/department.
  • Encourage instructors to use humorous anecdotes about their own efforts to learn new IT skills; this creates a safe environment for learning.
  • Help "spread the word" between teams when several have adopted the teamroom technology.
  • Keep the coaching and support available and easy to invoke, not just during initial introduction but well into productive use.
  • Provide specialized training for the facilitator role.

Right Tool for the Process

Teamrooms offer one type of environment in which to collaborate, but there is a whole class of tools now to support varying types of virtual collaboration. By design, teamrooms are best for document sharing, threaded discussion, task/calendar scheduling, and simple forms. When the team is nearing a critical review or submission deadline, it will be best to bring the team together in real time to work out important details in a onsite meeting, or a phone or Web conference. Often, a volley of last-minute emails will lead up to a real time event as well. While this process is somewhat organic, it is important to have a view of how information is travelling in the team, and encourage members to use the teamroom and other media appropriately. For example, important project documents should be posted in the teamroom, not just circulated as email attachments. Email is particularly poor for managing processes that occur in stages or in multiple versions over long time periods, because the flow of decisions and documents is difficult to track through a linear series of messages. Likewise, every knowledge worker configures his/her email archiving scheme differently, so there is no standardization on document handling. This means that if a critical team member is missing from the team, no one will be able to access or likely make sense of their email repository, which could result in critical gaps in knowledge. Getting members to internalize the "right tools for the process" mantra will be accomplished if the best application of each class of tool is explained when teamrooms are first introduced.

Teamroom Research

Teamrooms are a new technology. This means that many organizations have not had sufficient depth of experience to build best practices or to draw lessons from teamroom utilization. To make matters worse, academic research to date on virtual teams and teamrooms has been largely limited to individual team case studies. There is a dearth of longitudinal, statistically valid research that looks at, say, 50 companies and how they are using teamrooms. Several reasons for this come to mind:

  • The growth of private consortia that do the research but only disseminate it to members (membership fees are usually very high).
  • The lack of clarity between "ownership" of teamroom research in academia: Is it the property of the business school, sociology, organizational behavior, or information technology?
  • The lack of willingness among companies to sponsor this type of multi-company research. On the other hand, such sponsored research may exist, but the company who has sponsored it considers it proprietary.
  • A general cutback on public research funds for universities since in the mid-1990s, right when collaborative technologies began to spread.

This lack of broad research results emphasizes the need for forums, discussion lists, and seminars focused on collaborative technologies that allow companies to share experiences with each other and learn from emerging practices.

The Email Crisis

Email provides us with a potent comparative tool to the teamroom. Why has email not only caught on, but become a tool without which we are unable to run our businesses? The answer is fairly simple: ease of use, pervasiveness of the technology, immediacy, and the fact that email comes to us, bidden or not. Yet, in a recent study by Christina Cavanagh of the University of Western Ontario, 80 percent of those who receive more than 50 emails per day believe that email is out of control in the workplace. This wonderful boon to business in the last decade has now become a major barrier: Much wasted time is spent on sifting, filtering, or preventing unwanted email from flooding our inboxes. The miracle of "push" technology has now become a virtual flood of useless information, interspersed with communications we need to run our businesses.

Teamrooms offer one antidote to the email overload lament. A well-designed teamroom has defined membership, scope, topic focus, guidelines, and permission-based notifications. In contrast to email however, teamrooms exist in virtual space as a "pull" technology and so must be "visited," requiring the user to leave his/her email inbox and go onto the Web. Even if the email notifications for new posts in the teamroom is used, it generates yet another inbox item competing for attention from inundated recipients. It makes little sense to me to try to make the "wrong thing righter" by focusing team communications back to email; our best choice is to work on embedding new teamroom behaviors in our virtual team members.

In order for behavioral change to occur, the current ways of working must become so ineffective that we are forced to overcome our resistance to change and experiment with the new processes, as mentioned before. We are nearing that stage with email, particularly as complex, cross-functional teams become the norm for project work. We realize that loading up email messages and broadcasting them out to the team does not allow for lag, accountability, or sequence. Intel's case illustrates the point. While worldwide Intel is clocking three million messages per day, the more compelling statistic is that some employees individually were receiving 300 messages per day. This is more than is humanly possible to process efficiently. So, they have embarked on a plan to streamline, structure, and be strategic about email use, including coded subject lines, cutting down cc: lists, and limiting attachments. Other efficiency measures are being used by leading companies to analyze email traffic patterns and send in the "email SWAT team" to re-educate certain email offenders when they are discovered. This is all good work, but still does not fundamentally bring us to using the right tool for the right job. Email is not an effective team history, sequence, or tasking tool.

To increase teamroom adoption, it's important to capture stories, examples, and cases of how the teamroom structure can better support complex team processes and have the ancillary benefit of reducing email inbox load. By this, I am not suggesting that teamrooms will replace email, or that they are The Solution for email overload. While there are any number of "email etiquette" training programs around, we are still largely caught in the cycle of defaulting to the familiar set of tools until it becomes completely unworkable. As complex organizations reach the crisis point, their ability to capture, analyze, and disseminate the failure data on the limitations of existing tools will work to cut the innovation lag time down. In other words, we need to focus not only on promoting teamrooms as a possible solution to a certain set of complex communications issues, but also show that when we stick with only what we know and ignore failure data with email, we will be much slower to make the change.

Spontaneity, Knowledge Sharing, and Teamrooms

There's one other key factor that impacts teamroom adoption: the spontaneity and serendipity that occurs when groups meet face to face for knowledge exchange. This is a stumbling block for virtual communications as a class, as we have not been able to replicate the kind of free and easy, unplanned exchange that takes place in those hallway conversations. Certainly teamrooms, with their logins, loading time, and layers impede spontaneity. The fact that most are 100 percent text-driven also adds to the feeling of "dead space." It is foolhardy to think of replacing vibrant face-to-face interaction with teamrooms. The more strategic approach is to integrate meetings and activities with teamroom functions so that linkage is sustained among the group between meetings. One of the biggest gaps in continuous learning—the loss of energy and momentum that occurs between face-to-face meetings—can be effectively addressed through well-facilitated teamrooms. Likewise, the connections and trust created at live meetings can carry over into the teamroom space, and that trust and familiarity are critical to support active posting. What we may find is that if we can keep interest and connections alive over time and between events, spontaneous exchanges in the teamroom may occur naturally.

Conclusion: Design for Successful Adoption

  • Make sure that your teamroom strategy means that certain classes of communications that took place in email are now occurring in the teamroom. One virtual team accomplished this by the manager stating at the start of the project: "I will be reviewing all project status reports in the teamroom. Do not send them to me by email. If it's not in the teamroom, I won't see it. Also, we will do no status updating at our staff meetings, all updates are in the teamroom; we will focus on resolving issues only."
  • Introduce teamrooms to the organization as a change project with a defined schedule, budget, objectives, rollout, training, and performance measures. Make sure that the group who will be using the teamroom is meeting together face to face on some regular basis to build familiarity and trust.
  • Assess each team individually in terms of its interaction styles and needs before introducing the teamroom software. Avoid the "Use-It-Starting-Monday" syndrome.
  • Consider both incentives and sanctions to support the use of the teamroom. If your organization is serious about adoption, users need to have clear rewards for contributing, and also clear consequences for not following usage guidelines.
  • Plan to have ongoing coaching and help desk support for the teamroom. One user that cannot get access repeatedly to the software will become discouraged, and before you know it the grapevine will be full of stories about how the teamroom doesn't work.
  • Take the time to assess today's and tomorrow's needs in the teamroom. Will you be inviting contractors or suppliers into the space? Will they need special permission layers and access through the corporate firewall? What legal considerations will be needed to protect intellectual property? How will archiving of teamroom content take place? What roles and functions are needed to support the life of the teamroom?
  • Promote, promote, promote. Cull and broadcast teamroom stories of ease-of-use, time-saving information, new relationships formed, new ideas exchanged. Much of teamroom adoption is building both individual and corporate-wide confidence in the return on investment for learning this new way of communicating.
  • Finally, help the team and the organization realize that in this era of resource constraint, cycle-time and efficiency focus, as well as transition to the knowledge economy, helping your team and organization become proficient with teamrooms is a sure competitive advantage.

Thanks to Dave Feineman of bp for comments on this draft.


"Collaboration On The Desktop," by Marion Agnew, Information Week, July 10, 2000 (

"GE's Cyber Payoff," Business Week Online, April 13, 2000 (

"Researcher Questions Usefulness of Email In The Workplace." Press Release from the University of Western Ontario, March 8, 2001 (


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