When I started thinking about this post I wanted to write about ‘team’ work and how to do it virtually. Team seems such an overused word it means little anymore when used to refer to groups of people working together physically or virtually.

In my work I am often asked often how to manage groups of people who are not co-located but have to collaborate. There is literature on it but it mostly says just ‘use what we know about teamwork in the physical and find ways to apply it to the virtual’.  Trouble is, this advise does not work very well. Or, more accurately, if you have the right people for the job they will make the advise work. But then, they would make any advise work. It matters to me to find out what is the difference that makes the difference practically not theoretically.

I set out at the beginning of this year to learn about virtual collaboration by becoming a student again. It is easy to think about the theory of effective team work and say to my own students, this is how I would apply it to working virtually. It is quite another to say, this is how I made it work. This post is about how I made it work. All I offer here is a personal view, informed by many years of teaching and facilitating groups for the purposes of learning and getting business done.

I want to compare a negative experience with a positive one. I studied with the Open University (#H817) earlier in the year and we had to to get a project done in project teams. This ‘teams’  were little more than a collection of individuals mandated to work on a disposable assignment, in the sense the sense David Wiley uses the term:

These are assignments that students complain about doing and faculty complain about grading. They’re assignments that add no value to the world – after a student spends three hours creating it, a teacher spends 30 minutes grading it, and then the student throws it away.

Much of that course was designed through disposable assignments, this was managable when working in isolation, but took a new level of complexity and learnt helplessness when having to engage others in order to succeed at something nobody (including the educators) cared about.

We were handed over content on the theory of team work, most of it dated and derivative, and asked to apply it to our situation. If I had designed the course I may have used more current research, but my approach would have been similar with my own students.

I took the papers we were given, did my best to apply their content to our situation and failed. I added some reading of my own and whilst it helped me make sense of what was going on it did not help us function any better. You can read my full account of the experience of setting up this team here. My reading and experience on that virtual group led me to challenge the feasibility of effective virtual team work. David Wiley asks that we ‘kill these assignments’ and I agree.

During my experience working on this virtual team, we spent a significant amount of time trying to make this assignment non-disposable. It did not work. I was left with a view that unless you physically met during the initial stages of team development and found a way to develop shared mental models it would not work. It turns out I was too hasty in jumping to this conclusion. Perhaps motivated by my attachment to the importance of working with group dynamics to make team effective – after all this is how I pay my bills.

I said in my original Open University blog post,

If team work is ‘a set of interrelated thoughts, actions, and feelings of each team member that are needed to function as a team and that combine to facilitate coordinated, adaptive performance and task objectives resulting in value-added outcomes’ then how do we do the interrelating? It seems to me that we can work well virtually when we have a shared domain of operation, a shared goal and are able to share something more than a forum or a virtual board. Video links approximate physical interaction, but in the context of this project we were limited by the fact that part time study was not a good simulation of the demands of a real project

Generally research tells us that whatever the task we need to develop group process, set the right procedures and norms for a team to work before we get on with the task at hand. Time and effort spent doing this matters if the team is important enough to the organisation. In the context of closed online learning with a team set up only for the purpose of completing a disposable assignment, we were also taught that we had to spend time evolving a vision, getting to know each other, set up explicit procedures and make time to develop shared mental models.

I now turn to another experience of virtual team work, this time with an open online course; the digital storytelling course known as DS106.  We also had to do a collaborative project as part of that course. We worked on the open web, in a self selected group, no registration walls and no disposable assignments. I wrote whilst the project was going on, “We are choosing to learn together, we are interested in the topic and we are strangers spread across all continents.”

We were just asked to get into ‘groups’ and create a radio show.

I loved the fact there there was no mention of any ‘psycho-babble’ about ‘team building’ but a matter of fact Google document that just said: sign up. We had to go through the whole process of production of a radio show which ended in a live premiere of the show on the course’s own radio station, DS106Radio. We had 2 weeks to do it and were left to our own devices to pull the show together. We did it and I think the quality of what we produced is superb, considering we are novice radio stars!

In the rest of this post I want to reflect on what made that work; not just for me and the group I was in but for 4 groups on this run of the course. Whatever ‘it’ is has also worked well in past runs of DS106.

The guidelines such as they were, were straight forward. There was a clear focus on procedures and a clear output: A date for the radio show premiere. There was little attention on the guidelines to group process, beyond ‘be nice’. A key difference I experienced was that there was no time at all spent away from task. The group (which included a real talking doll, but that is another story) spent no time agreeing norms or process – relationships formed through the task at hand.

Howard Garner said recently that we could do worse than to look at Wikipedia’s behavioural guidelines to understand how to collaborate online. I was not familiar with these guidelines so I read them. Campbell said that whilst we may argue about its limitations, we had to accept the fact that ‘Wikipedia is impossible but it exists.’

A key guideline is ‘assume good faith’. There is a lot of material on Wikipedia about how to behave. Etiquette, principles, dealing with conflict of interest, pages and pages of how to ‘be’ a Wikipedian. In my search I did find a short and handy list of bullet points that sum up how to behave:

  • Make others feel welcome (newcomers, veterans, and everyone in between).
  • Create and maintain a friendly, supportive environment.
  • Turn the other cheek (which includes walking away from potential edit wars).
  • Model civility, always.
  • Give praise (especially to those you don’t know).
  • Forgive.
  • Refrain from policing articles. You do not own any article.
  • Encourage others.
  • Empathize.
  • Remember, people grow.
  • Remember, you’re not always right, even when you think you are – and sometimes you’re wrong – and sometimes you’re dead wrong – even when you think you’re right. And even when you know you’re right, it still sometimes better to concede or forget it.
  • Maintain the dignity of others (even of those you despise or don’t respect).
  • Leave well-enough alone.
  • Do your research before intervening, refereeing, casting votes or discussing policies, blocks, etc.
  • Don’t bite newcomers. When a newcomer adds new information, rather than revert it and fight against it, try to work with it and either find the appropriate reference or help the newcomer track it down.

They really can all be summed up with ‘assume good faith’ – in yourself and others. I am reminded of Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology  4 principles and 1 Law:


Most of my positive experiences learning on open online courses can be summarised as having followed the 4 principles and 1 law above.  The butterflies go from flower to flower, the bees pollinate flowers – it is okay to move on and it is okay to offer what you have learnt elsewhere in a new group you join. As far a behavioural guidelines for being part of a group you could not ask for more permissive ones. It is like Garner Campbell says about Wikipedia – it is impossible but it exists.

Clearly my hashtag classroom experience with #H817 was not an open space or Wikipedia experience. It seems to me that what fundamentally changes the dynamic is the assessment issue – in the OU example the locus of control was external and in the DS106 experience it was internal.

Recently, in my process facilitation in business I have started framing team work as an individual literacy. It seems to me that to offer a frame that locates control within the individual offers a counterpoint to the uncertainty inherent in remote working with virtual teams. Team work as an individual literacy is not about external conditions but becomes about adjusting our own patterns and expectations to get the task done. This distinction was made by Jenny Mackness in relation to another hashtag classroom (#rhizo14). Quoting the excellent book by Barnett (2007) ‘A will to learn’ she raises the tension that always exists between singularity and universality in different learning environments,

‘There is here a key spatial tension: to let learn, to let go, implies singularity. By this I mean that the student is to be permitted to become what she wishes, to pursue her own intellectual inclinations, to identify sets of skills that she wishes to acquire to come into her own voice. However, the teacher in higher education has a kind of tacit ethical code of ensuring that that student comes to live in keeping with the standards of her intellectual and practical fields. The student is going to be judged by those standards, in any event, but standards of this kind imply universality.’ (Barnett, 2007)

This is a tension that exists in higher education but also exists in corporate environments when individuals are asked to work in teams. In my experience on DS106 there was no tension. The educators are there to allow singularity to develop – in a sense the whole idea of a personal cyberinfrastructure which the course has as a meta-objective is about singularity. When it came to working in groups for the radio show, there was no confusion. We were there ‘to become what we wished, to pursue our own intellectual inclinations, to identify sets of skills that we wished to acquire to come into our own voice.’

Putting the emphasis on group process and ignoring the role of the individual in a group may balance physically co-located individuals, but an emphasis on self direction in virtual team work may be a better way to get a result. Virtual team work is essentially a series of conversations between people who share a responsibility to get something done. The key in all of this is of course that you need to have ‘something to get done together’ and ‘that something’ needs to matter enough to stay in the group for the duration of the project; not to just to get a badge but to ‘get it done’ for its own sake. In connection with this I was struck by a post by Natalie Lafferty in which she reviews preliminary MOOC data from FutureLearn and asks,

Are MOOCs really just like the traditional evening classes or adult courses that Universities have been offering their local communities for decades but now thanks to technology accessible to a global community?  Is this the disruption – delivering evening classes online to a global audience rather than an end to higher education as we know it?

What is relevant about this image for me is the idea that evening classes are something I choose and do in my own time. Clearly virtual team work at work is not like this, but learning on open online courses is. But I also feel I can use this kind of framing to enable me to offer guidance to virtual teams at work. I often use the ‘as if’ frame to help individuals navigate the complexities of the workplace. In this case it would be ‘ act as if you were joining an evening class’ – take responsibility for your own role and commitment to the task at hand, forget about everything else but the task at hand.

We can use the individual behaviour guidelines from Wikipedia and apply the open space ones to the coming together of a group virtually – we can support collection of individuals to work jointly through each person attending to their own behaviour. In some sense this is not surprising as the affordances of the web and remote working are such that to have too great a focus on surfacing group process would make working in a group difficult. In this sense may be my search for the interpersonal contract of MOOCs is off the mark – my experience with DS106 shows that it is possible to succeed in working virtually without it and to  develop bond-based commitment through identity-based commitment to the idea of a successful radio show; some of the relationships I developed during the final project are still in my life today.

In the radio show example we are talking about getting a task done with shared responsibility for an end result. In a sense that is the interpersonal contract that is implicit when we sign up. The result is what matters, and individuals do what they can to get the result. The group is unlikely to come together again after opening night, much as it did not beforehand. Individuals might have strong relationships with other individuals which continue after the project is finished, but the group identity is about the end product not about belonging in and of itself. We came together to get something done. Much of the group work we do on online open courses is like this. We come together with no expectations, just a shared interest.

What we have in the radio show example is a collaborative ensemble, we are all equal before the task as Piers Ibbotson suggests is true in the theatre and in business. A safe space has to be created where:

“failure is encouraged and accepted. There must be a universal attitude of support and acceptance of one’s own first thought and others’. There must be fearless commitment to the maddest proposition and everything that bubbles up must be tried out, explored and its useful parts named and absorbed, before it is forgotten”

Hierarchy is put to one side in service of the task at hand, we have a shared rather than an individual goal. The goal is ‘to put on the best show possible’ not to get an individual qualification where team work is mostly about using others instrumentally to that end.

Ibbotson believes that it is not useful to talk generally about ‘making people creative’ or ‘encouraging innovation at all levels’. We need instead to stamp out nouns and focus on creating the conditions for a collaborative ensemble. He says:

” Innovation may occur where people are creatively engaged, but it cannot be dictated and it cannot be planned, it must be found from the emergent actions of people who are struggling with a task. “

He believes, however, that certain things will make creative collaboration less likely to happen, I quote:

-Competitive individualism is antithetical to creativity in groups.
-“Freedom from all constraints” is not a help.
-“Getting it right first time” is antithetical to creativity – as are the three fears: fear of being mad, fear of being wrong, fear of being rude.
-Feedback and assessment are antithetical to creativity.
-Speed and efficiency are antithetical to creativity.

In the article he suggests that these are exactly the conditions that exist in business. As I look at this list I also see these are the conditions that obtain in higher education as we seek to balance singularity with universality in Bartlett’s sense.

This takes me full circle to James Hillman. Perhaps the biggest learning about virtual team work for me this year has been to remember to treat each thing in the moment as if it were alive. Each thing requires above all else,

careful attention to its properties, their specific qualities. This plant needs little water; this wood won’t bear great weight and burns with a smoky fire. Look at me carefully: I am an aspen, not an oak. Notice differences, pay attention, give respect (re-spect= look again). Notice what is right under your nose, at your fingertips, and attend to it as it asks, according to its needs.

If we do that each moment, and it is this educational presence that is so clearly role modelled in DS106, virtual teams give results. But then, this is no different from anything else we do that has, at its heart, human beings relating to each other and feeling most of the time like Tibby the cat:


The focus on the task at hand, the what of the interaction, allows the safe space to develop and allows people to contribute what they can freely. Paradoxically, advising people to consider virtual team work as an individual literacy we seem to be able to achieve self organising networks that come together to produce quality output without dysfunctional dynamics. This challenges much of what I have considered the received wisdom of effective team work to date and also confirms that the forgotten art of being civil to one another and giving people time beyond the purpose they may serve in my echo-chamber matters. ‘Solutionism’  in the sense described  by Evgeny Morozov will continue to keeps us looking at how technology and/or ever more convoluted ‘nominalisations’ may save us time relating.