Imagine yourself on the first day at a new job. You are standing in a corner of your work lobby, waiting to be shown to your desk and introduced to new teammates. Anxiously your heart races, faster than normal as you get familiar with your new environment. Excitedly walking to your desk, all five senses come alive — including the elusive sixth — as they open up to capture endless streams of environmental data. Ranging from colours, the smell of fresh morning coffee in the air to the sound of frantic typing by teammates logging onto their workstations as they reply to their backlog of messages and emails. A brief glance at the dark green plant standing in the top-right corner of what seems to be a meeting room. People are streaming past you to get to their desks with passing quick smiles and hellos. You arrive at your workstation, ready, as one among millions of knowledge workers in today’s digital economy.
Like most new grads from university, or anyone that recently started a new job, this was my experience at my most recent internship after graduating with an engineering bachelor. I was hired as a product innovator for an air filter manufacturing company. During the first few weeks in my new environment, interacting with teammates and other work colleagues helped me to quickly build mental models about my new organisation. This included internal processes, overall company objectives and know-how that could serve as context and anchors for my work. Like most regular people, I rely on the tacit information picked up by my brain to serve as a guide on how to reach and collaborate with existing expertise on my new team. This access gives me a feeling that I am an important member of the team and that my contributions will result in driving the team’s growth.
According to this Stanford study, our immediate environment is a reservoir for learning, problem solving and reasoning. It also suggests that since it takes intense effort to maintain coordination of our mental resources, we offload a good chunk of this mental effort to our immediate environment whenever we can.
The plot thickens…
Two months into my work experience, the city was quarantined as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak and every employee in my organisation was asked to work remotely. My once visible and reachable teammates suddenly disappeared from sight and arms-length. The initial feeling of disorientation gradually turned into a lack of motivation. Friends shared with me a few of the “How to adjust to the new normal” articles and I found some points useful. Yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was disconnected from the actual work I was doing.
Virtual team meetings were mostly useful in providing structured information including project updates and brainstorming sessions. I immediately figured out that the general purpose of these virtual meetings was to share information, transfer knowledge and align team efforts. However, I observed myself coming to the meetings unprepared without prior context. During these virtual meetings, project leads/experts spent more time on structured content: “know-what”. The “know-how” and the “know-why” formed by a combination of the experts’ personal experience and the team’s best practices were barely transmitted and, consequently, rarely captured for any future learning. There is a gap between information seekers and information providers.
On a broader scale…
As more companies will begin to work from home, context and meaning will become a competitive asset.
Remote work will allow more teams to design products and services that are a result of collaboration and knowledge sharing within and outside the enterprise.
It is not enough to have amazing talent in organisations. It is now, more than ever, important to build context for work done and to use this new knowledge to bring new team members up to speed with the ever-growing organisational knowledge. Leaving this critical task to chance, HR, or remote meetings poses the risk of spending so much time redoing the work and feeling more disconnected. CNBC surveyed over 9000 workers on whether it’s gotten easier or harder to do their jobs effectively since the transition to remote work began. 34% said it got somewhat harder, while 20% said it got much harder.
In his bestselling classic The Fifth Discipline, MIT systems scientist Peter Senge describes how organisations can achieve sustainable competitive advantage through the organisation’s ability to spark genuine learning.
He writes that:
“Complex organisations are tied together by millions of invisible connections of interrelated actions. It becomes harder to see the whole picture as a participant. Instead we tend to focus on snapshots of isolated parts of the system and wonder why our deepest problems never get solved…”.
The ability to see the trees alongside the forest, he notes, is essential for building a team’s macro-creativity.
To learn and innovate at a faster speed, tacit knowledge and their surrounding meaning must be updated and reused in an agile manner. The effects are that remote workers will achieve greater cohesion, less burnout due to overwork and a more precise meeting of customer and employee needs.
What is context…
To truly define context, it is important to show the relationship it has with other types of knowledge.
Explicit knowledge is formal and structured (e.g. FAQs, compliance and training manuals). It can also be the results of brainstorming sessions, sprint retrospectives and formal presentations. This forms the majority of the knowledge in organisations. It is easy to document, codify and share.
Implicit or tacit knowledge is experiential and is made up of personal lessons learned, “how- and when-to”, and new insights gained during continuous problem resolution. This highly useful knowledge is developed in a specific context. The challenge with this type of knowledge is that it is difficult to capture, codify and transfer as it involves a lot of human interpretation. When it is considered in an isolated form, it is about as useful as having a tennis racket without strings.
Context is then “the situational opportunities and constraints that affect the occurrence and meaning of organisational behaviour as well as functional relationships between variables”
The importance of context
- Builds team spirit: The very habit of documenting experiential knowledge increases team cohesion. Linking work done to inner sentiments and meaning can create deeper commitments and serve as an emotional driver of a team.
- Smoother task allocation: Learning by doing is really fun when you have a starting point. Projects become approachable, since you can draw from similar contexts documented by teammates.
- Prepared meeting participants: Coming to meetings will become more exciting. We relish the feeling that comes from meaningful contribution. The team becomes energised with this new contribution and the process repeats itself.
- Better priority of actionable items: Your personal workflow becomes your asset once you know how to navigate previous knowledge from similar tasks.
The difficulties that surround sharing this type of knowledge is that most people are not even aware that they hold this type of knowledge, and even if this awareness is present, there are no right ways to verbalise it and capture it. Additionally, the value of this knowledge can be hard to quantify, causing organisations to fail to provide the right incentives for this knowledge to be effectively dispersed.
As more companies join Twitter and Facebook to encourage employees to work from home, there is a challenge to provide meaning through context for the work we do.
Creating customer value is dependent on the specific set of knowledge and competence that an organisation has and can easily reuse. Without the visibility and transparency of timely and continuous documentation, working from home can suck sometimes.
Trust is an essential factor for context documentation. The feeling of not being confident enough to share personal know-how can be risky for many of us. When there is psychological safety and a shared understanding in teams, documenting and sharing contextual knowledge becomes less scary.
There is a need to re-examine context capture and sharing within organisations. The office of the future will be required to maintain strict social distancing guides to ensure safety of employees that decide to come into the office. Office layout as we know it will be a thing of the past. Gone will be those water cooler conversations and visual cues that previously increased our awareness and the feeling of connection we had to tasks.
As I continue to enjoy other good sides to working from home which includes the opportunity to learn “how to juggle”, I envision a future of remote work where the water cooler conversations can be moved online and captured; a future where context and meaning for remote work become abundant.