Making Knowledge Work

July 1, 2017

The Benefits of Collaboration

Filed under: Collaboration, Communication, Work environment — virginiahenry @ 2:42 pm

I wrote an article for the Jinfo  team on an issue that takes up much of my thought and time.  Here is a shortened version of the piece:

The Way We Were

Last century (but not a lifetime ago), when the only electronic device on your desk was the typewriter, and computing was carried out by big machines owned by large, wealthy, institutions such as banks – your experience of communication and collaboration was very different.  To fix meetings or ask questions, you would use the internal phone system.  To communicate with several people at once, you would type a memo with a number of carbon copies, drop them into the internal mail and wait for the responses.

You would leave your office and go to the print room to use the photocopier, or run off some Gestetner or Roneo copies, and encounter colleagues from different disciplines and functions.  You’d meet them in the corridor, on the stairs, in the tea bar or by the notice board (where much of the organisation’s shared information was pinned).
In today’s offices, it might feel strange to phone someone a few desks away to ask if they have a moment to speak.  But before open plan, it was the norm to phone or pop your head around an office door to talk to a colleague.   The constraints of old tech and outdated architecture didn’t get in the way of getting to know others.

Today: Coping Strategies

The move to large open office spaces, in which people share islands of desks, was expected to deliver greater opportunities for communication and collaboration.  The walls, literally, came down.  Interestingly, in many offices, the opposite effect has been observed.  It’s not uncommon for people to send emails to colleagues just a few feet away – rather than speak directly to them.

Do you work in an open-plan office?  If you look up, how many of your fellows do you see with earbuds firmly in place?  How many are scowling at the person opposite them indulging in an amplified and animated call?  A number of recent reports  (for example, Rachel Morrison’s “Get out of my face!” published in The Conversation and Oxford Economics’ “When the walls come down“) have highlighted the disadvantages of close-proximity work spaces.   Noise levels and intrusive distractions rate highly as problems for employees and, rather than increasing opportunities for communications and collaboration, these “in your face” environments can make people much less receptive to interaction.

 Opening the Doors to Empathy

Another common feature of contemporary office working is the project team: often multi-disciplinary, formed to deliver a tangible product or result, time-bound and target-focused.

A project team can include members from across the business who know little about each other.  People from Management, IT, HR, Sales and Marketing, Finance and other areas may never have spoken to one another (except, perhaps, via email). Their perceptions could be formed from a negative experience “IT took three hours to get back to me when my laptop died, and when they did they couldn’t retrieve the document I was working on”,  or borrowed judgements “I’ve heard that Sales promised a client we would deliver services we don’t even have!” simple ignorance “I have no idea what those folk in HR do all day”, even aggregated prejudice  “I’ve never had a manager who knew the first thing about managing”.  Yet it’s within project teams that the hidden benefits of collaboration can be uncovered.
When people come together with a shared purpose, confident that their skills and experience will contribute to the team’s success, they are primed to collaborate.

The Collaboration Climate

Much depends on the project leader, perhaps with support from their sponsor, creating the collaboration ‘climate’.  A thoughtful project leader will ensure the ‘rules of engagement’ are clear and explicit.  For example, not only notifying relevant team and sub-team members of the frequency and focus of meetings, but demonstrating respect for them with consistently unambiguous agendas, defined start and finish times, agreed actions and follow-ups.  Overt demonstrations of respect for peoples’ time, and understanding of their workloads are effective ways of encouraging empathy.

Equally enabling behaviours the insightful project leader will exhibit are –

  • Learning about team members’ skills and interests: reading the profiles they’ve created on the internal system, looking them up on LinkedIn, getting to know what their role in the organisation entails
  • Using that knowledge to draw on experience: if someone’s been engaged in a similar project before, what they learned is worth knowing about
  • Identifying and explaining complementary strengths within the team: without getting bogged down in Belbin (or any of the other type-defining tools), it’s worth explaining to team members why their unique perspectives are of value to the project and of benefit to one another
  • Asking for assent, rather than assuming compliance: silence may indicate confusion rather than agreement
  • Enjoying, rather than enduring, debate: making time to talk demonstrates that peoples’ views are valued

 You don’t have to like me………

Making new friends can, of course, be a hidden benefit of collaboration – many of us enjoy friendships that extend beyond project deadlines, or survive long after we’ve moved away from an organisation.   But friendships are added bonuses to the hidden benefits.
More common, but very valuable to us as individuals, is our increased understanding of the varied approaches and perspectives of colleagues from different parts of the business.
This empathic attunement can help free us of misperceptions that might cause tension and conflict – allowing us to move away from assumptions and toward deductive reasoning.
For instance, you might now realise that when Colin seizes some marker pens and starts to sketch a flow chart on the whiteboard illustrating the simple process you just, very clearly, explained, he’s not obliquely criticising your communication skills.  He simply needs to see the information, rather than hear it.  Or when Sue closes her eyes, she’s probably not signalling boredom but more likely fitting pieces of the project puzzle together in her own mind map.

Along with increased empathy, or enhanced emotional intelligence, can come improvements in negotiation skills.  An experienced and much-admired negotiator, Chris Voss, founder and CEO of The Black Swan Group emphasises the powerful role of empathy in successful negotiations.  He believes that “emotions aren’t the obstacles to a successful negotiation, they are the means.”

Tuning in to others’ language and communication styles also sharpen listening skills.  If your day-to-day colleagues are in the same department or discipline, you might share a common language and have established communication routines.  If you’ve been immersed in a collective or corporate style of communication, you may feel it’s entirely normal – until you are exposed to the equally normal, but very different, approaches of members of your multi-disciplinary project team.

As a project team member, you can uncover these benefits for yourself.  But, as is the case in many work situations, the tone of team dynamics is inevitably set by the leader.  In a small study involving business students, researchers found their satisfaction levels in collaborative assignments were heavily influenced by the listening, negotiating, collaborating and assertiveness behaviours demonstrated by the group leader.  The study’s title: “You Don’t Have to Like Me, But You Have to Respect Me” .


March 3, 2013

LIKE 43 – Coaching without the Why

Filed under: Communication, LIKE — virginiahenry @ 3:27 pm

It’s been my experience that only the most expert of practitioners can explain the basics of their discipline in simple terms.
Where those who are less-than-expert blather and quote theory at you, the expert converses with you, sharing their personal knowledge in accessible language.

Karen Drury  is an expert Executive Coach, and at last week’s LIKE she provided us with an impressive and accessible introduction to Coaching.


Karen started by getting us to listen to her explanation of four levels of listening we engage in:

Cosmetic Listening: Familiar territory for nearly all of us!  The kind of listening that engages your face and body (so the speakers feels you might be listening) while leaving the mind free to roam from shopping lists to planning the next hour or the next holiday.
Engaged Listening: During which you actually listen, but with maybe half an ear – whilst preparing what you’re going to say when the speaker draws breath.

Active Listening: These conversations progress quite slowly, because the listener is really listening and, when they speak, asks relevant questions – rather than making statements or offering unsolicited advice.

Deep Listening:  The intense level of focused listening that professional Coaches are capable of.  This deep level of listening entails noticing not just what is said but the way it is expressed, the accompanying non-verbal signals and the thoughts behind the words.
it’s skilled and difficult work, because the Coach is not simply a sounding-board, but a trusted guide – helping the person they’re coaching to investigate issues, examine options, decide on courses of action and find the resolution to act on those decisions.

So the questions asked by a Coach must be carefully chosen and worded.  Karen told us it was important to ask open questions (those which begin, for example, with ‘What’ or ‘How’), and very important to ask only one question at a time .  And, she explained, a Coach should avoid beginning a question with “Why…..?”.  “Why” questions are likely to throw those questioned onto the defensive – implying they should justify a decision or action.




Karen then got us to examine the balance in our Life Wheels (similar to this one) where the outer rim was 10 out of 10 and the inner scores decreased to zero in the centre.

When we’d all completed our wheels, Karen pointed out that it was as much an exercise in identifying how blessed one was, as it was in noting areas for attention.  And she was right – we all had a number of high-scoring spokes near our wheel rims.  But if we’d taken any of the wheels on the road, they’d have made juddering progress, as specific spokes, such as Self-image and Recreation/Fun, dipped toward the hub.



So we paired up and, using our new awareness of active/deep listening, discussed with each other what could be done about these neglected areas of our lives.

As Karen had predicted, being listened to in such a focused way was enough for some of us to diagnose the problem, examine optional actions and come to a resolution – while the listener barely uttered a word.

It’s amazing what you can get done in the hour before dinner.  Especially with the help of an empathic ear and an expert guide.


Before we settled to dinner and further discussion Karen gave us lots of tips on free online resources to follow up on – but those notes are lost………I’m still working on the “organise your note-taking” resolution!  Just don’t ask me “why is it taking you so long?” – you might undermine my resolve 🙂

April 25, 2011

Mobile Information. LIKE 23

Filed under: Communication, LIKE — Tags: , , — virginiahenry @ 3:46 pm

On the last evening of March Mark Needham – the far-sighted founder of Widget (UK) Ltd – presented us with information at the speed of LIKE 😉

Just a few days before we welcomed the 500th person to join the London Information & Knowledge Exchange, it was especially appropriate that one of our newest expert members should give us a lightening review of the evolution of ‘pocket computers’.

Mark told us how a Starship hero in “The Mote in God’s Eye” had used a pocket computer in 1974, long before they were available to us in this tasty world.  By the 1980s you didn’t need so much imagination to see the future coming.  Mark was then working at Psion and their Organiser 1 . was a revolutionary device.  Its 2k of RAM and 8k or 16k memory cards may seem puny now but, Mark told us, the evolutionary line from Psion to Smartphone is clear.  And the great inventions – microprocessors, the worldwide web and wireless networks – that enable us all to carry pocket computers have been around for over two decades.

Mark compared the delay between the emergence of such innovations, and public uptake of them, to the time lapse between the invention of the internal combustion engine in the late 19th century and the mass production of the Model T Ford in the 1920s.  And, just as cars have remained basically recognisable for the past century, handheld computers are likely to undergo lots of minor improvements, but remain consistently familiar to us.  It may become common practice for us to use our phones for video calls and to make movies – but Mark’s iPhone will still carry the data he’s been transferring to each new device since he first saved it to his Organiser 30 years ago.

Henry Ford, with his vision of consumerism as the key to world peace, would probably have been delighted by the ubiquitous Smartphone and, maybe, even more chuffed that its development is so obviously being driven by user demand.

Andrew Swaine, another expert member of LIKE, runs knowledge sharing and internal communications at ARM 

Andrew explained the powerful influence Smartphone users were having on the evolution of his industry.  The focus used to be on how fast a computer was, now it’s all about power consumption: pocket computers need to run for an entire day (his Smartphone works for 10 hours, but his laptop battery lasts for 2 hours!).  And although battery technology isn’t progressing very fast, people are writing programmes taking into account not only how fast they are, but how much power they consume.

Speed of performance is high on Users list of must-haves too, so Andrew foresaw a pretty rapid evolution from multi-core (lots of phones are now dual core) to many-core.

And platforms are being consolidated – impatient users will demand a single working environment across all platforms.  Andrew hoped one day to be able to plug his iPhone into a docking station, as he currently does his laptop.

There’s lots of change happening in his industry, not least because it was taken rather by surprise at the big deal applications on phones became – in such a short time.  The web wasn’t really ready for it.  Andrew reckons that we’ll end up using web applications a lot more, to overcome carrier and storage issues, and improve user experience.

Users rule!  When, as is the case, the interactive experience is more important than the underlying hardware – anything that irritates a user is “officially” a bug (music to the ears of anyone who has worked with uncompromising, unempathic Developers :-))!   If you’ve lost data because you didn’t save a document, you are not a stupid user – the interface is wrong.  So on mobile phones and tablets, you don’t need to remember to save stuff.

Andrew said it wasn’t because there’s anything special about mobile:  it’s just that at this period of change in the industry it has been possible to change underlying assumptions about user behaviour quite rapidly.

After the inevitable comparisons of what mobile devices we all had on us (to my perverse delight – it’s not like I don’t know how desirable Apple stuff is – we HTC users seemed to outnumber the iPhoners, and lots of us had business Blackberries) we got down to a pre-dinner exercise. Groups around different tables were asked to identify the kinds of information different professionals need to access via their pocket computers, and the barriers to doing so.

Requirements included:

Office documents, contact details, schedules, spreadsheets etc, legal information, research papers, reference sites, Hansard (for MPs), news reports, business systems, audio and video, sites for the co-ordination of activities (in case of Aid Agencies), lesson plans and registers (in the case of Teachers)

And among the Constraints were:

Tiny screens, the need for the device to be as effective at ‘ input’ as it is at ‘consumption’ of data, lack of single sign-on, lack of  voice recognition, unreliable infrastructure, employer policies, information management issues such as document versioning control and lack of confidence in data security – eg of cloud hosting under US regulatory system.

Well, Ford cars may not be the most inspiring of analogies, but the Maserati brothers  started creating their steel symphonies just a couple of decades after Henry’s Model T first came out – and look where that’s led in a relatively short time!  It surely won’t be long before our pocket computers can do all the stuff we want and need them to do.  Probably rather stylishly.

Talking of innovative chaps, my wonderful husband has just ordered me a Kindle.  On the basis that “you’ve always got your nose in a book, might as well have a lightweight collection to carry around”.  Among my first downloads will be a chapter or two of Mark Needham’s new eBook “66 Famous Plots Updated with Modern Technology”   Apparently it all started with Bill Proud’s tweet from Anna Karenina……

August 28, 2010

Active Listening

Filed under: Communication — Tags: , — virginiahenry @ 3:03 pm

Do you find it difficult to read to the end of an email message before deciding what it’s about?  Have you ever scanned the first few lines of a missive then hit ‘reply’ and dashed off a response?

I’ve done it lots of times, and had it done to me far too often!  It’s frustrating and time-consuming.  You end up having to send another email, repeating the question you asked or the statement you made in your original second line or paragraph.  What should have been a straightforward exchange can become a convoluted maze of misinterpretation…..

So now I try to keep email communication as clear and brief as possible: unambiguous subject line, short sentences, clear statement of the action I’d like the recipient to take.

I try to do that every time, but don’t always succeed.

Active listening is a much harder habit to adopt.  When listening actively you need to give the person speaking your undivided attention – it’s important not to allow intrusive sounds or other conversations around you to catch your ear.  You must fight the temptation to begin formulating your response before you’ve fully heard what the speaker has to say.  You have to let the other person finish their point – not jumping in early, for example, to counter their argument.  On top of that, you need to avoid assumptions – if you’re not completely sure what’s being said or meant, you need to ask for clarification.  And, when it comes to responding, you have to “do as you would be done by”:  delivering your reply with the same respect and consideration you expect to receive.

Demanding stuff!  It takes a lot of concentration and self-discipline (well, I find it so), and it’s hard enough to do in ideal acoustic circumstances.  So in the pub the other night after the LIKE picnic I was finding it darned near impossible.  Moving from the relaxed environment of the York & Albany’s downstairs room to the Edinboro Castle was too great a contrast for my ears to cope with.  I was fine when sitting very close to my conversational companions, but the minute they moved more than arms length away their voices were drowned in a tidal wave of music, clanking glasses, hearty laughter and dozens of other deafening conversations….  Found myself wishing I could lip-read.

The chats I had and heard were well worth actively listening to though.  LIKE members invariably share fascinating insights to their expertise and interests.  And it was good to have the chance to talk to Luisa Jefford and Tracey South about the next LIKE meeting where we’ll focus on what it means to be an “Info Pro” in the 21st century, and strip away the jargon to examine the practical skills we all use to build the businesses we’re associated with.

The group gathering at the Crown Tavern in Clerkenwell will have a great range of backgrounds, experience and skills.  So there’ll be lots of opportunity to practice active listening, and learning.  And the upstairs room, the Apollo Lounge, should have just the right acoustic – an off-switch for the music speakers, and a solid Victorian door to act as a baffle against the bar noise from downstairs.

Active listening is, of course, only part of the successful communication equation.  Considered speaking is another essential component.  Organising your thoughts, employing brevity, eschewing jargon – all come into play.  If a person, or an audience, has extended the courtesy of giving you their attention, it’s your duty to be as clear and concise as possible.

So, if you’ve read this far, thank you.  Enough said!

Blog at