Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell, authors of Learning to Fly: Practical Knowledge Management from Leading and Learning Organizations, were members of BP’s Knowledge Management team. They wrote the said book based on their experiences at BP and elsewhere. Chapter seven focuses on learning from one’s peers.Collison and Parcell make a useful conceptual cross section about the meaningfulness of collaboration in problem solving. Their conceptual model lends itself well to illustrating the benefits of collaboration within an organization and the benefits of collaboration between client and vendor teams. But before I step into the collaboration discussion, I will briefly counter some of the authors’ dubious fundamental assumptions about knowledge management.
The authors suggest that the best way to learn from one’s peers is to set up a meeting for such, called a “Peer Assist”. Or, at least I assume that they feel a Peer Assist is the best way for peer-to-peer learning, because they mention no other form for individuals to learn from one another. A Peer Assist meeting would be an important component to the knowledge management processes of any successful learning organization, but it would not be the only peer-to-peer learning tool available, nor would it be suitable for all types of organizational knowledge management. The authors make some spurious assumptions about social learning, such as: social learning will only occur through formal meetings, and all the knowledge that you need can be shared explicitly. They overlook whole genres of academic and professional literature on the workings of social learning, including explicit, tacit, group, individual, distributed, legitimate peripheral participation, apprenticeship, and communities of practice. Collison and Parcell erroneously assume that the mechanism within the different aspects of social learning can be treated the same, as to be collected in a formal Peer Assist meeting for the purpose of later reproduction. Having made this disclaimer, I will return to the heart of this post.
Collison and Parcell make the case for collaboration in problem solving by crossing a vertical domain of what “you” know in your context with a horizontal domain of what “I” know in my context. Two additional epistemological domains result from the cross section: What we both know and Creating what is possible together. The benefit of this illustration of a collaborative relationship is that it defines the space where co-evolution of ideas and practice may develop between you and your collaborators. This co-creation domain is epistemically and socially distinct from the status quo within my, your or our domains of knowledge. The co-creation domain is a resource that only exists as part of the living negotiation between the collaborators. The collaboration resource exists, not by adding a new person to the organization, but by teaming individuals already part of the organization.
So, what are the best combinations for effective collaboration in problem solving? Collison and Parcell suggest that if there is little knowledge/practice overlap between the collaborators, then there may be too many possibilities for effective collaboration. Without a reasonable common base to reference, more time may be require than it is worth for individuals get on the same page and solve problems together.
According to Collison and Parcell, the other end of spectrum from “too many possibilities” is group think, which results in too few possibilities. In other words, if the collaborators have too much common knowledge, there will not be as much potential for innovation or problem solving.
Because collaboration grows out of the epistemological space between collaborators, the combination between them may have a dramatic effect on their problem solving potential as a group. So, it is important to create groups that have enough degrees of freedom to explore ideas outside the box, but not composed of individuals so different that they cannot easily develop a common understanding.
Why is this important for Allen and other matrix service/product organizations? It may be an advantage to Allen and other training companies to approach training design with collaboration between lead and senior designers, rather than making design responsibilities mutually exclusive. When resources are thin as a result of the economy, organizations like Allen need to strive internally to find innovation. A greater emphasis on Peer Assists and informal, collaborative design may open up new wells of innovation that our clients need. Additionally, if we see our clients as collaborators, we may be able to develop stronger relationships and more innovative products with them, rather than for them.