ISSUES AND INSIGHTS
This second stage proves useful in several ways. It provides more insights into some of the CoP characteristics that we saw in Stage One and also provides evidence of more CoP characteristics. It throws more light on some of the issues that were raised in Stage One, and it also brings some new issues to the surface.
There was more evidence of war stories in Stage Two. Most of these occurred in the meetings, but there were also examples evident in an e-meeting during the final session with the UK core after its return to the UK.
In the meetings, people were asking direct questions of others. The answers often took the place of stories. Stories were told about the network in Israel, about the system being under simulated attack, about the Americans' experience with ISDN—"What we do is…." "What we've done is…, Do you remember…?" The listeners listened and applied their knowledge, leading them to understand, to transfer the story to their own situation, or to point out problems. The stories therefore often fired up further questions, issues, and discussion. People were therefore able to learn from hearing the stories and from further discussion about them.
Stage Two offered the opportunity to view a newcomer to the CoP. During Stage One of the study, Don was the manager of the Applications Team, but he had left prior to Stage Two. Graeme had been a member of the team but had been promoted to take Don's place, so he was now part of WWITMan. Most of the other members had already met Graeme either face-to-face or in e-media so he was already accepted by them. However, there were some aspects of the job to which he was new, so as far as the UKIT members were concerned, he still had to earn the trust for part of his role in WWITMan, and the relationship still needed to be develop. The visit helped move this aspect forward very quickly, as illustrated by Stan's comment after his visit:
Graeme was new, and I've known about him…ever since I came to [the organisation], the first time I went to PA, but not in the role he's doing now, so that relationship needed to grow because he's now taken on supervisory control of the parallel operation. So I achieved success there in terms of growing that.
We have already heard how WWITMan had evolved from a bidding group into the CoP that is WWITMan. Stage Two showed how the CoP evolves further but also shows how the evolution is linked with the development of relationships.
Both Robert and Ray (US members) felt that WWITMan was still evolving and developing.
I would say it's still developing. I think it's going in that direction. (Ray)
It's still a developing Community of Practice, if you will, in some…respects, rather than an established Community of Practice. (Robert)
The CoP continues to evolve as the relationships are developed. Stan explained how the relationship has developed to the point where the members are comfortable with each other:
The first time I went to PA it was chucking plastic at each other…and I don't do that any more. I don't need to go blow-by-blow what everyone does. The atmosphere is so much more relaxed. No one's trying to prove anything any more.
Mike's experiences showed that the relationships should not be forced, but should also be allowed to evolve:
…six months or a year ago I was very much in the "we should be working closer, let's work closer together" and just trying to find reasons to work closer together. I've gone about circle on that now…if I end up having a friend-based relationship with either Robert or Ray, great. But I don't see myself in a business relationship with them in the way that I will with Graeme and Zelda…This time last year I was all of trying to make it happen…I was putting an awful lot of energy into creating relationships with everybody and getting frustrated that it wasn't happening with some people. Now I've grown through that…because there's no need for me to have like a working relationship with those people.
The issue of legitimation has already surfaced in the example of the newcomer to the CoP. Stage One showed how relationships are important and the role they play in legitimation—as people develop strong relationships they also develop trust and confidence in each other. As they gain confidence and trust in someone, (s)he becomes an accepted and established member of the group. This also came through in Stage Two, as evidenced by Wayne's comment:
…in the last two years we've gone through the process of the managers getting to know each other quite well and so we all recognise kind of how we work…we've got to the point where we can predict how people are going to react to things…we've got degrees of trust. All these kinds of things are in place so when we're meeting, the purposes of our meetings have moved on from build trust, build understanding. We've got that now so we're sort of spinning on to the next thing now which is to say "OK, so how do we get our teams to work?"
Stage Two of the study also illustrated how legitimation is closely linked to the two elements of participation and peripherality. This was well illustrated through the experiences of the Japanese member, Chakaka. It was shown in Stage One how Chakaka is on a physical periphery as she is the single member in Japan. There is no time window when the two cores and Chakaka can participate together in an e-meeting. If Chakaka wishes to participate, it is 0200 for her. The language also causes a problem in an e-meeting as she has difficulties with the British accents. She therefore tends not to participate in emeetings unless absolutely necessary and therefore can feel isolated at times. However, Chakaka is fully accepted as a legitimate member of the group and has a good relationship with the rest of the members—a relationship where the other members will "go the extra mile" to include Chakaka in the face-to-face situations and to help her participate. In the meetings when Chakaka is rather quiet, Robert is good at making a point of including her and getting her participation. When she says she will not be able to attend the UK meeting because of budgetary constraints, Wayne and Robert immediately say that they will find some way of getting her there—they want her to be present and participate. This is, however, more difficult when they are not in a face-to-face situation. Chakaka says she feels she is out on a periphery, but she is now copied in on the USIT e-mail loop, which makes her feel more included, more comfortable. She would therefore also like to be copied in on a UKIT loop.
Stage Two of the main study highlighted what the CoP members considered to be the greatest of the hurdles posed by working in a globally distributed environment—the time zone differences.
The time difference is an inherent problem for internationally distributed working, and this was seen in Stage One of the study. The issue was also raised in Stage Two and, interestingly, was generally held to be a greater barrier to the functioning of the CoP than physical distance. Although they felt face-to-face communication to be essential at regular intervals, it has also been shown that regular frequent interaction is important. Although Lipnack and Stamps (1997) showed that interaction decreases as proximity decreases, Stage Two of the case study demonstrated that temporal distance is a greater barrier than physical distance:
Time zone is a problem. I either find it inconvenient to be at work at an early hour or I feel guilty about inconveniencing somebody at a late hour. (Ray)
I think…if PA was in South Africa we would maintain a high level of communication. Because it doesn't matter in that instance that they're 8000 miles away. The fact is it is still 2.00 in the afternoon when it's 2.00 in the afternoon here. Having this one and-a-half-hour window, and it's a window that for them is the most difficult hour of the day. It's when they come in and pick up all their e-mails and problem reports…and they're not really necessarily interested in talking about problems or projects. For the first couple of hours of the day you're fire-fighting, you're in fire fighting mode, you want to clean out your e-mail, clean out your voice mail and so on, so it's very difficult…for them to be able to knuckle down to our level at that time of day and for us it's quite difficult sometimes…if you can't phone them until half four, five o'clock. If you've had a hard day, it's the last thing you want to do. (Mike)
During Stage Two there were several more examples of the CoP members finding opportunities for working together on projects or identifying areas where members of their teams could usefully collaborate.
As in Stage One, different people had different media preferences. Stage Two also supported the idea that people selected the media for the task they wanted to undertake and the context of that task. However, because of individual preferences, where one person might choose one medium, someone else might choose another. Where Stages One and Two differed was in the view that was held of video facilities. At the beginning of the case study, UKIT did not feel that having a video facility was important. In Stage Two, UKIT was much happier to have a camera to provide context. High fidelity video was not felt necessary—just something to provide context:
I like NetMeeting for what it can do and I like being able to see. I don't rate high fidelity video in that sort of meeting. I don't necessarily think that you need high fidelity, high transmission rate, and high frame ratio. I think maybe that's going over the top, but you do need and you gain enormously from having an impression or image of what's happening at the other end. (Mike)
The UKIT core members feel that having the camera provide a context has added a benefit to the meetings, as illustrated by Dave's comment:
That's added something…that's definitely an improvement. It's really…more than anything else you see the commitment, you see people at least present. You know there's an element there of…you're both making an effort on either side. On the end of just a polycom, a voice bridge, you're not really sure whether someone is still in the room or not.
They were very clear that they did not see video as a replacement for face-to-face interaction, however. In that regard, Stan remarked:
I had a good chat with Sandy. I'd never met her before. I've seen her on the video before but it's a totally different impression when you meet and we talk the same language so it was good.
Ad Hoc Communication
Stage Two supported the importance of opportunistic communication, which we also saw in Stage One. The members of UKIT went to visit their colleagues with the express intention of using the opportunity for ad hoc communication, to encounter people in corridors, to be able to drop into their cubicles to say "Hi." This helps maintain relationships and can lead to opportunities for collaboration:
I said, "Oh, that's interesting. My guy, Gary has been working on EHS projects and he's done something very similar. What you're doing here is very complementary to what he's done." And then we went to talk with the EHS project sponsor and told her what we'd done, and they said "Oh, Corporate is doing something in this area," so when I came back I went back to Gary and I went back to Mary and said, "This is what I found out in PA. There's overlap here, there's stuff which you could use on-site, and stuff that we've done which they could use," so…I was going away and trying to oil the wheels, put people in contact. There's no way I could have done that without meeting, and it was one of those "head round the corner" jobs. I think those are great ones. (Stan)
This was felt to be much easier in a face-to-face environment. When operating in a distributed environment, it is easier to get a pre-arranged meeting:
There's a lot of pressures and you have to be very conscientious and very fixed and very booking times to speak to people and arranging meetings for people rather than having the informal telephone contact with them. If I say to Robert, “OK, we need to talk about this, let's have an hour on the phone starting at half eight your time next Tuesday, we'll book it, we'll have it. I will be here on the phone for an hour with him. No problem. But with Wayne I can pop round and see him…a different style of communication there—formal versus informal. (Mike)
The difficulty here was held to be temporal, rather than physical distance. Support for a distributed CoP would need to support ad hoc communication as suggested by the use of instant messaging software such as ICQ.
During the analysis of the data from the study we looked for cultural issues as influencers (people who affect or constrain work), influences, and breakdowns (problems that interfere with work). In Stage One we saw that cultural issues can be problematic for a distributed CoP on three levels: national, organisational, and group levels. Stage Two extended this by highlighting another "breakdown" that caused problems for sustaining a distributed CoP: local issues. One example was Robert and Ray were sharing the job of Wayne's equivalent on a temporary basis in addition to doing their own full-time jobs. This meant that, in some cases, they were unable to give some tasks the attention they needed. It was also felt that, in general, local issues tend to appear more pressing and therefore take precedence over on-going CoP work:
We put aside our day-to-day responsibilities to a large extent when we have the team and that's where we work very effectively as a team, but then we have to go back to our regular lives and when the phone is ringing constantly and there are three people in line standing outside my office to see me for the entire length of the day, and my meeting schedule means that I don't even have time to have lunch or go to the bathroom, then I don't have time to think about [the UK] in that context. (Robert)
The local issues that obstruct the ongoing CoP work can therefore reduce participation. The local issues are overcome by a mix of having a task focus and by the motivation/desire that drives the CoP.
It would need a focused task in order to break, like you say, the local dependency…I think that, personally, I'm really keen on seeing the security stuff…so that's probably why I'm more optimistic about the levels of communication because I've got the need there. I've personally got the desire and the need to support those programs and see them carried through. If I see the progress slowing down because of PA dependency, then I personally have the commitment to do something about it. I know them well enough (emphasis added). (Dave)
In Stage One, the importance of forging strong relationships was identified by the highlighting of the face-to-face aspect. The theme of relationships also came out very strongly in Stage Two.
Stage One showed that, even though the CoP operates in a distributed environment, the members still consider face-to-face communication to be essential. This was supported in Stage Two, both for starting to develop a relationship and for maintaining it. For example, Ann had worked with Mike over e-media and had seen his face in a NetMeeting through video, but had not actually met him until she visited the UK for the previous visit. After her face-to-face meeting with Mike, Ann said:
I don't feel that I knew him well. Well, I thought I knew him but not in the sense that, like after you have face-to-face contact that you really feel like there's strong teamwork feeling when you can work face to face…last year was my first trip. I've worked with Bristol on and off, mostly over the phone, and mostly actually over e-mail and voice-mail because of the time difference. Although you are able to get information exchanged, you don't get that bonding…really human bonding.
Having face-to-face communication was also felt to be helpful with overcoming a language barrier. Chakaka had no difficulty with the American accent but found the British accents difficult. Robert said, "Face-to-face meetings help to bridge those language barriers a lot more than working at a distance meeting." This was not just the case with Chakaka but had also been found to be the case with other Japanese colleagues.
The opportunity to have face-to-face communication also resulted in several projects being resolved, completed, or at least given a boost. All of the UKIT people experienced this, and it was described by Mike as follows:
We actually got to, we got some things done, which is…things that we spent months and not getting very far on and then all of a sudden…in two hours we have a common, complete understanding of the common goal and the common way of getting there. For a number of different issues that arose that have been around for a long time.
Mike also expressed how having face-to-face communication highlights the difficulties of communicating across time zones:
Every time we go there it emphasises to me that…there is a limited set of stuff you can do on sort of videoconferences or audio conferences and that you need to get there and discuss things with people over breakfast and lunch and in the corridor or pop round their cube and be free to be able to talk to people eight or nine hours a day instead of two hours a day.
The visit of the UK core to the US provided further examples of how face-to-face visits can affect the relationships in a distributed environment.
Stage Two confirmed that there is some relationship decay in periods of e-communication, but it was also emphasised that the relationship does not decay to the same level each time—core members described it as having an upward trend curve. Robert described this as follows:
Basically, the wave is lifting everybody's boats higher than they were before…where it was previously.
The upward trend curve was supported by the fact that the relationship reaches a point where it can sustain the CoP through a period of e-communication. This was exemplified by Robert and Wayne's relationship, which has reached the "comfort zone":
Wayne and I were able to be flexible in the way we actually communicated. I mean he has my home numbers, I have his and…he's left me a message and I'd respond to him the same day. If not, the next day. He'd call me at home and say "Why haven't you responded?" or something like that. I think it works quite well because of the nature of our relationship. I think, particularly with Wayne, there has been a considerable sort of exposure, personal exposure which has been helpful. (Robert)
Strengthening the Relationships
We also saw other aspects of the relationship development in Stage Two. For example, it provided examples of how the members were growing the relationships they had with their colleagues. The UK team went to Palo Alto with the express intention of strengthening the relationships, of giving them a "turbo-boost." Mike said:
For me, personally, strengthening relationships and so on is really very important and every time I go there it really does help an awful lot.
They did this not only in the meetings but also by using the opportunity for opportunistic meeting and enjoying joint social occasions, as described by Stan:
If you check on relationships, the Doug Hall stuff, being invited back to their houses, for dinner. I think that was really good. I mean…there's obviously some relationship there. Every time I go across, Doug and I and Lucy will go out for meals in the evening. We've done wine trips, and you may not communicate every week or every month after that but when you come back you just walk straight in and say, "Hi, how about going for a drink?" You don't need any preamble. The time distance becomes…not always relevant.'
Stan's relationship with Doug and Lucy is a good example of how the relationship can develop to the "comfort zone" even to the point of not needing so much interaction between visits.
Spreading the Relationships
In addition to growing existing relationships, the two core teams were also taking the opportunity to spread the web of relationships, both for themselves and also for their vertical teams. In the first place, some of the meetings and the UKIT presentation to all of USIT were "get to know each other" exercises. The UKIT people were also making new contacts within USIT. This also happens in reverse:
I've been to [the UK] a number of times now. Part of this is the network research for [the organisation] is done in [the UK] so I have a lot of established relationships there that relate to my responsibility here for networking and I suspect that some of the others don't have quite those same relationships outside of Wayne's team, but every time I go to [the UK] I become more familiar with the people and programs that are of interest to me. (Robert)
However, most of the new contacts were ground preparation for spreading relationships through the wider WWIT group. The CoP members were all intent on setting up contacts between members of their teams:
Since I came back…I haven't had a chance to put, especially Karen, in touch with one or two people from Ann's team who she would, they would probably gain benefit from talking to each other in some fashion, be it just e-mail rather than telephone and e-mail. And similarly, Gordon would benefit from communicating with his direct equivalent over there. (Mike)
In some cases, they were planning to send some of their team members abroad for face-to-face collaboration. In that regard, Wayne said:
There were some specifics that have come out of [the visit]…some of the ones that strike me as most significant is that it's led to arrangements for a number of exchanges of people in the other direction, so we've got in April now, we're likely to see four or five people come from PA to [the UK] but these are not full managers…four out of the five are going to be individual contributors from the teams, engineers coming over.
In Stage One, we saw how participation was closely linked with the development of relationships. Stage Two provided us with more insights into the issue of participation, demonstrating how it might be achieved in a distributed environment. In Stage One, the CoP members felt that the relationship deteriorates to some degree over a period of time and that there is a need for face-to-face contact to refresh the relationship. Stage Two confirmed the need for face-to-face contact to refresh the relationship but also provided some pointers as to how participation and the maintenance of the relationship could be helped.
Keeping in regular and frequent contact can help to maintain the relationship, as illustrated by Dave's comment:
We don't regularly swap e-mail just for the sake of it. But you would maybe just have a regular telephone conversation for the sake of speaking or hearing each other's voices and just coming up-to-speed on certain things. You wouldn't need to have an agenda item, so every three weeks is something I would predict would be the frequency of keeping in touch.
However, the relationship needs to be there first, probably developed in a face-to-face environment. The regular and frequent interaction cannot happen in isolation—it needs to have either a task focus or a willingness or motivation. The motivation to keep in frequent contact is a result of the development of a strong relationship. This was shown in Stage One where Wayne had reached the stage in his relationships with some of his colleagues where their opportunistic communication had increased. Even with the motivation, local issues can hinder the interaction, therefore it needs to be made easy, hence the need to support social awareness. This means that a user can see at a glance that a colleague is at his/her desk. This does not need to be a video image, but something small such as an icon on the desktop (for example, ICQ, as mentioned earlier).
Having a task focus aids participation as it helps overcome local issues that can hinder distributed participation. It gives more of a reason for having frequent interaction in cases where the relationship has not developed to a point where distributed opportunistic communication is more frequent.
Having a task to focus the interaction helps with the frequency of interaction that is necessary.
If we've got very clear tasks to accomplish, then the activity will keep going…the things like the…Knowledge Base is a very clear task. We'll keep that going until it's finished. Event management…as new events come up, we'll do those. (Wayne)
Another example of this was shown in that WWITMan meets electronically as a group every month. As a result of the company restructuring, the group was going to have to work on its response to the new situation and was going to increase the meetings to fortnightly.
There were several examples, both within WWITMan and the wider WWIT group, of how having a task focus is helping relationship development. Some of these were part of the evolution of the group as WWITMan members encouraged people in their vertical teams to collaborate with their peers in the other country. One example was described by Carol:
Alastair here and Al in [the UK] actually do have services that they are keeping synchronised and managing together so their communications are much more frequent…and the same with Micky and DaveW over there, cause they're working on things that they have to keep synchronised.
An issue that came to the fore in Stage Two was the need for the members of a CoP to have a shared interest, a desire, and a motivation for the CoP to succeed. It became clear that all three aspects: regular and frequent interaction, a task focus, and the interest/desire/motivation were all necessary in varying degrees. They all had a role in the maintenance of relationships, in the growing of relationships, and in the extending of relationships to other people.
There is a cyclical aspect to the effects of these issues, for as the relationships develop so the motivation and interaction can become greater. This was exemplified by Robert looking after Chakaka during the weekend. They had developed a good relationship, and he was willing to go the extra mile to help her feel at home.
There was an agreement within WWITMan that there was an internal motivation and a general desire to make the CoP work. This was stated explicitly in interviews and was shown in the goals the group had for the planned off-site meeting where they were going to look together at developing a longerterm plan. "The intent," according to Wayne, "was there in the off-site to think as one group and develop a long-term vision. The fact it didn't happen was due to external factors."
But despite the external factors affecting the off-site meeting, the group demonstrated how it has become one unit by reacting as a single entity and working on a single unified response to the new circumstances.
One interesting episode demonstrated the importance of the desire to do something, and how it can overcome problems of distance. Wayne's description of it follows:
[UKIT] arranged meetings with Corporate IT—[USIT] wanted to come along. They were only 200 yards away and had never made the contact. We wanted to. We had a lot of questions to ask people about…"What does this mean?" "Where are you going?" "How can we work with you?" All kinds of questions. And we initiated these meetings from [the UK] because…we kind of assumed that in PA, because they're just up the car park, the people in [USIT] could just any day of the week ring them up and go down and see them and find out what's going on. Because we don't get that opportunity, we'd made some specific meetings there, and it was really very interesting that the folks from [USIT] were very keen to join the meetings, and when we went to the meetings it became absolutely clear that…these people who [are] literally 200 or 300 yards apart don't know each other, never talk to each other, know nothing about what each other's actually doing and so…it was quite interesting to go to those meetings and I think…the [UKIT] team acted as a catalyst there to get those discussions going.
Having seen the importance of a shared artefact in Stage One, it became a central focus of Stage Two, but concentrated particularly on the development of the planning document. Figure 3 shows the overall development of the planning document.
Figure 3: The Artefact Timeline
The current version of the document had changed considerably. It had started out as a UK document, but then the two cores wanted to see it as a joint document. However, the process has forked, and it is now regarded as a UK document rather than a PA document. This does not mean that the PA people were not involved. As the UK team has made changes to the document, it has passed it to PA for comment and put it on a server in PA, so the people there also have access to it. It has gone through several stages of refinement—there is a "July version," a "September version," and an "October version." The September version has a lot of notes on it, as the UK team started to do a list refinement. They used the document to help them make a transition—by the September version, they were in a position to differentiate between items that were site specific, joint or "leverage" (that is, one side keeps the other informed). They finally came out with ten or eleven different areas where they could group workloads together.
Since then Wayne has also printed the published outline for distribution and has put it on the intranet for the PA people to comment and improve. The outline is intended to be a boundary object and states Part X is PA-relevant, Part Y is UK-relevant and Part Z is joint. The intention is to review timelines and the document on a monthly basis and update it so the document evolves. The key issue, however, is the process. The UKIT team learned from the process of the creation, and the document has provided a focus for this. By the time of the visit, Wayne wanted an iterative way of keeping the plan up-to-date and was inviting comments from PA. Between December and the following February (the visit), UKIT had not had chance to revisit the document, as Dave had been away from work; however, the intent had been there. The document was, however, clearly to be used in the visit to PA:
Several meetings were based on topics extracted directly from the document.
Wayne, Mike, and Dave all based their presentations on the document.
Mike, at least, had taken the document with him with the intention of using it in face-to-face communication.
The US team confirmed what we saw in Stage One and agreed that the planning document was stimulative, that it drove meetings, that it helped with planning and coordination, that it was used as a communication tool, that it was propagated across different states and media, and that it crossed boundaries. Robert also pointed out that its use in e-meetings was helpful in cases of linguistic difficulty:
What the NetMeeting added is, my gosh, if we can see the document and we can point and then you add audio to that, you are not just looking at a piece of paper and talking back and forth. You've sort of improved the level of communication there quite a bit…And if you talk to the people who are working between PA and Japan, they've found the same thing to be true dramatically. Because when they were using just audio, you'd have a much worse language barrier between English and Japanese than you do between English—American English and British English. They find that, "Ok, I hear and I partly understand what someone in Japanese or English is saying here, but I can see it on the screen in crystal clear print in English," and I think that—you'd have to check to be sure but I think I've discerned that—they, the Japanese, say they are better able to read English than they are to hear it and understand it, you know as you're increasing your competency levels. So when they can see it as well as hear someone, the actual communication and therefore useful work that happens is more effective and more work gets done so things move along more quickly with less confusion, less people diverging because they didn't really understand what was being said.
In Stage Two, we also saw other examples of artefacts being used in the CoP. Ray and Wayne had together created a schedule to coordinate the visit, and action item lists were created. Stan wrote a note-form account of the visit for his team and accompanied this with a PowerPoint presentation. None of these artefacts fulfilled all of the roles of the planning document, but they provided further examples of some of them.
What we saw primarily in Stage One was the articulation work of the community. Stage Two, on the other hand, highlighted even further social issues and their importance—trust, friendship, confidence. In this successful CoP, there is only a vague distinction between work and friendship as they build strong relationships to sustain the distributed CoP. It can be seen how the culture of the managers in the community is that friendship is the way to achieve work.
In the case study, we have investigated and explored the inner workings of a successful CoP in detail. This has highlighted a range of issues that appear to be important, or even essential, to the functioning of a distributed international CoP. In particular, the social issues (relationships, motivation, trust, identity) and shared artefacts have emerged as key points. What we need to do now is to explore these issues in the context of other CoPs in order to confirm (or otherwise) their importance.
Stan means that for his first visits he was well prepared with OHP slides and that they had to make a lot of formal presentations
EHS (Environmental Health and Safety)
ICQ is an Internet instant messaging Tool which enables quick and easy communication with a user-defined list of contacts. This can include quick messages, chat, e-mail, file transfer. Importantly, there is a window on the desktop (which can be minimised) which shows by virtue of color which of the user's contacts are logged onto their machines and whether they are available for contact or not. A fuller description is available in Moody, G. (1998, July 2). Searching for a Net Community Computer Weekly, p. 47.
cube = cubicle. Open plan offices.