Increasingly employees do not go into the office to get their work done – they are able to work quite effectively from a remote site. In this virtual world, when they do go to the office it is for something quite different. They go in order to meet with others to talk together about the planning and coordination issues their team or department is facing. They meet to have conversation. In our virtual world there is no longer any need to come to the office to sit in front of a computer. But there is a need to convene in order to draw on the collective sensemaking capability of the whole, to understand what is occurring across a variety of settings and contexts. Equally important there is a need to renew the relationships that make it possible for organizational members to work virtually toward a common goal. Those periodic face-to-face meetings are the heartbeat of the organization.
Distributed organizations bring with them enormous benefits. Both Cisco and Deloitte claim that the major value of their very distributed organizations is the ability to draw on the global talent pool. And both note, that if they required employees to relocate they would lose critical talent. “It is the talent that matters,” observes James Brooks Director of Employee Engagement, at Cisco. “We would not have nearly as much talent if we forced them to move locally. Location challenges can be overcome more easily than talent shortages.”1
Cost saving is also a benefit of working virtually, particularly through reduced office space. Hewitt’s2 study estimated cost savings of $2000 per employee. IBM claimed $100M per year as a result of 42% of the workforce remotely located.3 Cisco’s study of 2000 of their teleworkers in five global regions provided an estimated $277 million in annual productivity savings, and more than 47,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases avoided.4 These savings brings with them enhanced reputational and brand value for sustainability as well as leading edge HR/talent programs.
Distributed organizations also the advantage of autonomy. Almost by definition, remote employees are knowledge workers and studies of knowledge workers show that they require autonomy to do their best work. Being remote increases autonomy, providing organizational members with greater opportunity to experiment and try out new ideas. Cisco’s study shows that remote employees are most productive and creative when allowed to self-manage.4
Above all there are performance benefits, for example, being able to respond quickly to local customers, bringing together diverse disciplines to address complex problems, and being able to draw on the limited expertise of the organization.
The Down side
But distributed organizations bring with them a set of problems as well as benefits. One of the greatest deficits of a distributed work force is that one part of the organization all to frequently takes action without reference to how that action may impact other parts of the organization or the whole. Autonomy without a way to achieve integration becomes a problem.
Equally serious is the “lessening in the sense of community, cohesion, social connectivity and belongingness among employees.”1 Which in turn can result in increased turn over and employee disengagement from the mission that holds the organization together.
The research on virtual teams shows that they have more conflicts than face-to-face teams, and the integration among team members is more troublesome making speed to market is slower.
Recognizing that there is a problem, some organizations have begun to pull workers back to the office. Notable among them have been Yahoo, Best Buy, and Bank of America. However, if employees come back to work only to sit in their cubicles emailing their colleagues down the hall, as most of us do, they will still lack a sense of responsibility to the whole. Whether in the corporate office or sitting behind the computer in a home office, we have all come to rely on virtual as a means of efficient communication. The question is how to get the benefits of distributed organizations without suffering the downsides.
The Heartbeat of the Organization
There is a way to offset the deficits of a distributed workforce without losing the benefits. What is needed is an oscillation between virtual work and coming together to make collective sense of what is happening. In between face-to-face meetings, distributed organizations need to make effective use of the many social networking tools now available, such as, webinars, chat, blogs, teleconference, Skype and Google Hangout. Virtual work should be viewed as a part of a full suite of work styles, options, and tools- a blended approach.
Many organizations, both large and small, are exploring this oscillation, for example,
- ProQuest is an information company that connects people with vetted, reliable information, from dissertations to governmental and cultural archives to news. The Research Solutions Division of ProQuest is made up of 30 software engineers who come together for a three-day Summit every four months to plan the work they will be doing virtually over the next four months. In between Summits, team members, who are scattered from Amsterdam to San Diego, are in constant communication with each other using several forms of social media that includes Flowdoc, Trello, and Google Hangout.
- At Cisco, managers and employees meet face-to-face two or three times a year for team building or planning sessions. This is in addition to a large array of video, meeting software and a Facebook-type social network site available to them.4
- Adobe makes it a management responsibility to hold periodic face-to-face meetings “so that virtual employees can meet with supervisors and co-workers to create ‘personal equity.’”1
- Automattic (WordPress.com) is a company of 190 employees that is almost 100% virtual. Automattic employees get together once a year for seven or eight days for a Grand Meetup in an exciting location like Santa Cruz or Quebec. Mullenweg, WordPress creator and Automattic founder, says, “We literally bring every single person in the company together." The company has a huge travel budget so any team can meet whenever they want for a "hack week" in any location in the world for fun and brainstorming. To stay in touch between meetings the company uses chat rooms, Google Hangout video, and its own blogging tools.5
- K&S is a consulting company based in the Netherlands with sister organizations in four other countries: Belgium, South Africa, India, and Germany. Some 50 consultants work with client organizations on strategy, change, workplace learning, innovation, leadership, and development. Every six weeks the K&S consultants in the Netherlands come together for a “K&S” day to discuss consulting projects and professional development. Once a year the full organization, that includes the international branches, meets for “Working Days.” These 3 days of conversation explore how K&S is working as an organization.6
What is critical, even more than the fact that such organizations convene, is what happens when the group is convened. These are not meetings where leadership brings everyone together to listen to pronouncements or to get the new marching orders for the year. What is happening in these leading edge organizations is that organizational members are gathering to participate in conversations that that are of importance to that unit, whether the unit is a team, a department or the whole organization.
I use the term “collective sensemaking” for those events to differentiate them from presentation type meetings. Sensemaking is a familiar term because as individuals we do it constantly - almost automatically. For example, late on a Friday afternoon I notice my neighbor pulling out of his drive way. His SUV is packed up with the canoe on top and his family in tow. The story I make out of these bits of information is that the family is off on another camping trip.
We exist within an on-going flow of information and sensory experience from which we select what to attend to. In the example of my neighbor, I do not weave into my story the sirens I hear a few blocks over, the dog that is chasing a cat across the front lawn, nor the “for sale” sign two doors down. To create meaning we select some information and ignore other input. Sensemaking is so ubiquitous and so easy that it does not even seem remarkable to us - a taken-for-granted ability.
Yet it is a remarkable ability – that we can weave together disparate inputs into a “story” that has meaning to us. It is only when events or data are ambiguous or contradictory that individuals become aware of themselves as actively struggling to make sense. And in such situations, we say to ourselves, “It just doesn’t make sense to me that …..” And we worry the situation over in our minds until we can find some way to weave a plausible story out of the cues that we are able to recall. “In the sensemaking process, individuals scan the environment for relevant information, interpret that information to give it meaning, and then base their actions on these interpretations.”7
The sense that an individual makes is not a definitive answer, rather, it exists as a moment in time, an understanding that is adequate for the individual to plan or take action, if required. Rather than making a camping trip, my neighbor may have been on the way to Grandmother’s house and is just dropping off the canoe so a friend can use it for the weekend. When my neighbor returns from Grandmother’s without the canoe, I will have to modify the “story” I created. Sensemaking is ongoing. As we get new information we revise the “story” we created to accommodate the new information. Weick, the seminal theorist on sensemaking, notes that sensemaking, “neither starts fresh nor stops cleanly.”8
Organizations make sense of what is going on both within the organization and in the external environment. “Organization members interpret their environment in and through interactions with others, constructing accounts that allow them to comprehend the world and act collectively.”9 For example, an organization may have lost the bid on a large project that they were depending on for new capital. Each individual who was involved in the bid will have thoughts about why the bid was lost, but until the whole group meets together to share the events and conversations that occurred along the way and thinks through what those events meant, the organization will not have learned. Taylor and Van Every’s definition of sensemaking makes this point, “Sensemaking is a way station on the road to a consensually constructed, coordinated system of action.” And a “consensually constructed, coordinated system of action” is what distributed organizations are too often lacking.10
Designing Collective Sensemaking
The structure for Collective Sensemaking is based on Argyris’ values of valid information, free and informed choice and internal commitment to that choice. These values support organizational learning. For organizational members to enact those values they must experience what Edmondson calls psychological safety within the group that is meeting.
Design elements for Collective Sensemaking include:
- Enabling all voices to be heard
- Providing adequate time to explore differences
- Encouraging dissenting views
- Where possible making knowledge visible through boundary objects (e.g. diagrams, lists, drawings, charts)
- Making available all the information that is pertinent to the issue
- Framing the issue in a way that opens it to new ways of thinking
- Connecting participants with each other in order to know who is in the room, what knowledge others hold, and that others are trustworthy
- Creating shared experiences (e.g. site visits, benchmarking visits, celebration of an organization accomplishment)
Collective Sensemaking disrupts the existing conversational pattern by changing the way a meeting is designed and how the topic of conversation is framed. The environment in which the conversation takes place includes the meeting room, the configuration of chairs and tables, how a meeting starts, who stands and who sits, who is in charge, who is allowed to talk, who controls the agenda, etc. All act as cues to participants to interact in familiar patterns, e.g. to sit in the same seat, to not bother listening to Bob, or to know that once the boss has given his opinion the discussion is over. To break the patterns, participants need to meet in an unfamiliar setting, with unfamiliar conversational activities, and to significantly modify how the topic is framed.
The frequency of the oscillation and duration of the periods of collective sensemaking differ widely as the earlier examples illustrate. Many organizations experiment with several time frames before settling on one that works for them. ProQuest’s team leader, Taco Ekkel, explains, “We started out holding a Summit four times a year. But we discovered that sometimes we had not completed the planned work before the next Summit. Also it takes time to plan a Summit and we found we could be more careful with the plan if we met less often, so we shifted to three times a year. But after four months we are out of steam and have a loss of shared sense of direction, so we know we can’t go longer than 4 months without meeting again.”
In general, the interval between collective sensemaking depends on two factors:
- the interdependencies of the task the unit is doing, and
- the complexity of the issues.
- A virtual product development team that is designing a product for an emerging market might need to come together for 2 days every two months.
- A long-standing team with less complex issues might come together every 3 months for one day.
- A division engaged in a change initiative – one that requires employees take into account the whole system so that changes planned for one part will not conflict with other parts - might bring everyone together for two days to initiate the change and then come together as a whole every six months, with individual departments meeting for a day once a month.
Regardless of the interval it is critical that collective sensemaking meetins occur on a regular schedule rather than on an “as needed” basis. Maznevski and Chudoba’s study found that when a regular schedule is established, the members of a unit can make effective choices about what media to use to discuss different types of issues. They explain the types of issues the teams in their study dealt with: “Members of these teams gathered simple information with quick e-mails, faxes, and phone calls, and solved problems using longer phone calls and conference calls. The two-day face-to-face coordination meetings were used for generating ideas and making comprehensive decisions.”12
The Role of Leadership
Leader-as-problem-solver has been the predominant model of leadership for thirty years - taught by most business schools, management development programs and propounded by best-selling management books. However, concurrent with the rise of distributed organizations, a new way of thinking about leadership has been gradually emerging. There is a growing recognition that no one person has the breadth of knowledge nor the sensemaking capacity needed to deal with the issues distributed units face. Pascale, author of Surfing the Edge of Chaos, explains, “In such an environment, the task of leadership is to frame the challenge and characterize it in such a way that creates immediacy. Leadership must then draw the community that is affected into tackling the new challenge. By definition, leadership in these situations does not have ‘the answer’; it typically emerges piece by piece from the community as a whole.”13
In such situations, rather than framing self as problem solver, the leader frames his/her role as the conversational architect. The tasks of the conversational architect are to:
1. Identify complex challenges the organization is facing
2. Frame the topic in a way that opens it to new ways of thinking
3. Identify who needs to be in the conversation – ensuring diversity
4. Provide transparency - making all information on the issue available
5. Design for interaction
6. Give the work to the group and participate as an equal group member
All of us have fully bought in to the idea of a virtual work. The distributed workforce has so many benefits in terms of meeting local customer needs, the use of scare human resources, not to mention savings in cost and the wonderful convenience. So we are not going to move back toward co-location. Yet in this world that we have created ourselves and continue to create, we have lost something that is needed to make organizations both humane places to work and effective places to work. (We have already unquestioningly made them more efficient.)
The way to fix what is broken is to periodically bring organizational members together for Collective Sensemaking to address issues they care about and to renew the relationships and trust that are necessary for an organization to learn in this time when learning is so needed to meet the relentless change that confronts us. Conversation is the heartbeat of the organization and without it the center will not hold.
I am in process of writing a book about this pattern of oscillation and about how to make Collective Sensemaking work. I currently have in-depth cases written about three organizations that use this pattern, a consulting company, software project team, and a government agency. I am looking for examples from other industries. The benefit to the organization is a deeper understanding of their processes and the opportunity to review the cases from other organizations that can provide them new ideas to support their own work.
If your organization does this kind of oscillation, even if you don’t call it “Collective Sensemaking” I’d be very interested in have an exploratory call with you. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Mulhern, Frank “Engaging Virtual Employees: Innovative Approaches to Fostering Community". The Forum (2012).
- “Trends in HR and employee benefits: Employers’ try to ease workers’ commuting pain." From AON Hewitt Associates online (2008).
- Mulki, J., Bardhi, F., Lassk, F., & Nanavaty-Dahl, J. (2009). Set up remote workers to thrive. MIT Sloan Management Review, 51(1), 63-69.
- Cisco. (2007). Understanding and Managing the Mobile Workforce.
- “How Automattic Grew Into A Startup Worth $1 Billion With No Email And No Office Workers.” Business Insider (2013)
- Dixon, N. Collective Sensemaking: How One Organization uses the Oscillation Principle
- Gioia, D.A., K. Chittipeddi. 1991. Sensemaking and sensegiving in strategic change initiation. Strategic Management Journal. 12 433-448.
- Weick, K. E. (1995) Sensemaking. London: SAGE.
- Maitlis, S. 2005 “The Social Processes of Organizational Sensemaking” Academy of Management Journal 2005, Vol. 48, No 1, 21-49.
- Taylor, J. R., E.J. Van Every 2000. The Emergent Organization: Communication as its Site and Surface. Erlbaum: Mahwah, NJ.
- Dixon, N. “Trust Versus Psychological Safety”
12. Maznevski, M.L. and Chudoba,K. M. “Bridging Space Over Time: Global Virtual Team Dynamics and Effectiveness, Organization Science September/October 2000
13. Pascale, R., Milleman, R., Gioja, L. Surfing the Edge of Chaos. Crown Business, 2001