Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Collaborative work: what is important?

H817 Learning Design Studio

We're entering into what I feel is going to be a very exciting phase within the H817 module: collaborative work. We've digested so much in the way of academic readings, blogs posts and asynchronous discussions about theories pertaining to collaborative work that now it will be interesting to evaluate how these are applicable in practice.

According to Salas et al. (2005) the 'big 5' of teamwork are:

  • team leadership
  • mutual performance monitoring
  • back-up behaviour
  • adaptability
  • team orientation

And the coordinating mechanisms to support these elements are:

  • shared mental models
  • mutual trust
  • closed-loop communication

So how would I implement one or more of the 'big 5' and the coordinating mechanisms into our group project? Our team is a distributed team, which means that the spatial distance is not proximate as it would be with a co-located team and communication is not face- to- face, but will be mediated through synchronous and asynchronous channels of communication. We're in the orientation week of the project at this point in time and are about to set up a synchronous meeting to discuss the project and designate roles.

Although I feel that all of the five elements are significant, I believe that effective team leadership will aid in keeping our distributed team, focussed, motivated and organized. Keeping an overview of the project and how each member is coping will prevent work being duplicated, save time and enable us to adapt and adjust our plans if necessary, especially when we are engaged in individual taskwork. I see this role as being carried out more from a background position i. e. a supportive person who allows members to work, but maintains an overview.
    Depending on what needs to be discussed and as a means of maintaining a certain level of social presence, I envisage synchronous communication being used on a weekly basis via Elluminate, Google Hangout or Skype. It would be preferable to have the whole team present (four members), but this is perhaps too optimistic. Otherwise, an option would be to have two to three members attend a meeting and either record or relay what was discussed to the absent team member/s.

Implementation of the coordinating support mechanisms

Shared mental models
  • creating a central space which enables a clear overview of what is current; what has been done and what needs to be done, will assist the workflow and prevent time being wasted.  A tool such as Google Drive would be suitable for this or creating a Wiki using the OU VLE ( virtual learning environment). The advantage with Google Drive is that it is a collaborative writing space and comes with a chat box, so we would all have editing possibilities and could leave comments on a regular basis thus eliminating the need for unnecessary asynchronous communication. The challenge here will be with how members feel about the thought of using new tools. Other team members will need to be prepared to offer assistance and support  in this case.
Mutual Trust
  • I feel this goes without saying. Being open and transparent will contribute to the level of mutual trust felt and help strengthen interpersonal relationships. It will be important for members to communicate early enough if they' re having difficulties so the rest of the team can back them up and keep the project on schedule. I would rather take some extra work on board than have to rush work at the end where quality will be compromised.

Closed-Loop Communication 
  • without closed-loop communication it is difficult to imagine that the project will run smoothly. As stated we are a distributed team and will need to establish effective communication channels (synchronous and asynchronous) but shouldn't abuse these. I don't think any of us will have time to tweet, mail and contribute to forums around the clock seven days a week. So by establishing a central meeting place where logs can be kept, comments made and material deposited, we can keep each other in the know and use the other channels for clarification or to discuss the next steps in the project and as a support mechanism. This will be a challenge in the initial phase until a certain routine has developed but I'm positive that this will settle down and we'll find our feet. This is where I feel a Wiki ( wherever it is hosted), will be more suitable than using the OU forum site. The forum site does not provide a clear overview due to the fact that posts have to be opened and links and chunks of information continually brought forward for ease of reference.

Have I experienced a positive or negative effect from implementing any of these elements before?

From a business aspect I've never really been involved in any tight collaborative work like this before,  but have from a sporting perspective. I was asked to be a swimmer for a team wanting to participate in a weekend Gigathlon in Switzerland. The team is made up of a runner, swimmer, mountain biker, racing biker and roller blader who work together to traverse lakes, mountains and long open stretches of land. A physical and mental challenge. 

 Leading up to the event we kept each other informed about our training progress and if there had been any injures or illnesses. We had regular face-to-face meets and trainings in all disciplines together, which gave us insight into each other's favourite sport and the challenges that this person might have to cope with. The team leader did not compete but drove us around, provided motivation and additional support such as ensuring that we were eating, drinking and resting. Each team member assisted those who were about to compete and looked after those who had done there bit for the day. 
     On race weekend there were unexpected challenges to cope with such as cramps, stomach problems, exhaustion, lack of sleep, but as we'd come to function as a team we managed to overcome all of the problems thrown at us and achieved our goal. 

On reflection, I would say communication was a vital factor that contributed to us reaching our set objective, as were robust interpersonal relationships and having a team leader who kept a good overview of everything and gave us emotional support throughout.


Salas, E., Sims, D. and Burke, C. (2005) ‘Is there a “Big Five” in teamwork?’, Small Group Research, vol. 36, no. 5, pp. 555–99.

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