About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Lessons Learned in Working with International Virtual Groups

Christine Martel's blog last week journaled about her participation in a course on culture, technology, and communication. Each day, as she worked in cross-cultural groups, she gave her insights into working with an international group in a virtual environment. Many of her insights mirrored my students as they worked in on international projects in France, Peru, and Italy. I promised her I would give some of those insights after she completed the course (I am sure her instructors gave her the project so the class could experience the difficulties first hand).

So here are some of the most common "lessons learned" my students have come up with in the past:

  1. Don't assume anything
  2. Outline the communication and work process at the beginning, including ways to communicate, communication contact information and back-up information (in case of problems with primary contacts, another person that can track down what is happening), expectations of quality and quantity of work, and a tentative schedule.
  3. Build in sufficient time into the schedule. There should be regularly scheduled updates and work should be divided up and planned in pieces, with early milestones given priority over other work.
  4. There should be multiple channels of communication which allows for regular updates. If one system or process does not work, groups should be flexible enough to change it so it does work.
  5. Analyze "silence" to make sure that everyone understands what is going on. What is causing the "silence": cultural differences? technology problems? problems with the group (dynamics)? Other problems that can't be seen?
  6. When setting up a virtual group consider: time differences (time zones, including the change from summer to winter time), seasonal differences (there are different business systems for those in summer time and winter time--vacations, whether related work delays---between those in the northern and southern hemisphere. Those around the equator have differences between the dry and wet seasons), holidays, work schedules (how long the work day is, time for lunches, days of the week), access to technology (types of technology, training, accessible power sources--some countries turn off power in the night or early morning, others might have unannounced blackouts on a regular basis), and communication structures (gatekeepers to authority, organizational structure, language ability).
  7. Have patience. Plan that things will go wrong and develop a plan of how to troubleshoot when that happens. This is especially important for language and cultural misunderstandings.
  8. Be sensitive to differences in culture, values, concept of time, office relationships, and language. Ask, don't tell. Realize that others in the team are trying to figure you out as much as you are trying to figure them out, so be explicit and explain EVERYTHING. Don't be insulted about ANY questions that might be posed to you and don't assume that any question is dumb as long as the intent is to make the group work more efficiently. Put yourself in the others situation.
I have been doing international projects on and off for over 20 years now, and still these same issues come up. You will notice that Christine came up with almost the same issues. While I am very committed to international communication and business, I also feel I am successful if some of my students conclude that they just are not suited to international work. Often my students come into my courses either anticipating that they will be able to jet set around the world if they work in international business or they will be able to save the world with the "American way". By the end of my courses they have a much more realistic idea of the frustrations, challenges, and exciting new opportunities that working in a global context presents.

I feel that these are experiences that all new workers in the US should be exposed to. As the world economy shifts to Asia, Americans need to start recognizing that English may not stay the world language of business, and at the very least, more and more decisions and groups may have members outside of the US.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Reading in the Digital Age

My sister forwarded an op-ed from the New York Times about reading skills for this generation.
The piece commented on things I have written about and commented on over the last year, namely there being a need to support our students in writing (and reading) non-linearly.

What I found interesting was what was lacking in this article. Two issues I thought about that were never brought up were:

  1. Does current standardized testing test the skills needed in the digital age? They do speak about the decline in standardized test scores which some put down to "computer time" (funny how they don't point to the effect that NCLB legislation and its focus on regurgitating information rather than "learning" might have on those scores). They also mention how the US in NOT part of a pilot program to test digital literacy skills (where is AERA or any of the other professional organizations that are trying integrate technology into the classroom).
  2. Literacy is more than the "reading skills". It is how to decode symbols and interaction with text. Most literacy experts see that literacy is embedded within a culture and determinates of literacy include an understanding of the context of a text. As a result, is it possible that there is a shift in our culture that those in power would like to prevent (which really is impossible) in order to maintain the current status quo? The article speaks about looking for other viewpoints (that may be contrary to the "authoritative" publishers, opening up new venues). Of course, this also may necessitate teaching students DIFFERENT skills that include analyzing their assumptions, author intent and bias, and checking/rechecking facts. So what happens when they do this to "authorized" versions and find them lacking?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The use of the internet to "chill out"

Okay, I admit it. I'm blogging when I should be transcribing tapes for my dissertation. One problem with the dissertation process is the "loneliness" of doing research on your own. I feel totally disconnected from the discussions I have with my students, colleagues, etc... So I find myself clicking on my RSS feeds rather than doing the mindless transcription (was that a or two phrases they just said).

As usual when I don't want to do something, my mind took over and I began to think of the workplace. In a traditional office, there are various ways to recharge your brain for the more tedious tasks. One thing I am aware of with my students is that they are not prepared for the boredom that are part of many jobs. In most cases, workers will do the tedious tasks that are required for their job (i.e. my husband is a programmer and 80% of his job is just in revising current programs rather than creating new ones; my niece is a pharmacist that requires her to fill prescriptions most of the day with occasional interesting problems to solve; my other niece is a recruiter for faculty in a college which requires helping them fill out the necessary paperwork).
It is during this time that I take a break from tedious work and search the RSS feeds, write up a blog posting, etc... I feel it allows my brain and muscles to relax from the repetitive work and stretch (sort of like mental calisthenics). I then find I am more prepared to do the necessary work with an attention to detail that I would not normally have without the "thinking break".

Oh well, enough of the exercise and back to transcribing!

Monday, July 21, 2008

The impact of organizational politics on workplace learning

As I get deeper into my dissertation study, I am finding that office politics have a great impact on knowledge management, what employees learn, how what they have learned translates into how they work, and how they work impacts the learning environment. I am still the beginning stages, but here are some of the trends I am looking at:

  • there is a tension between the way an interdisciplinary group works (prioritizes, accomplishes tasks, what they "know", roles, and leadership) and the department from which an employee comes. Which one will take precedence when there is conflict is dependent on the political situation and the employees perception of which group will impact his work most immediately.
  • Leadership seems to influence what "knowledge" is needed and how work is accomplished. Workers take their cue from leaders and without leadership, there is a "herding cats" mentality which results in lack of coordination, duplication of effort, and a void in terms of direction.
  • Some personalities just prefer not to work in a group. Others do not feel comfortable in a leadership role. The most effective groups are those in which there is a safe environment for conflict and differences of opinion, a process to make meaning that allows others a voice, and a sense of support rather than criticism.
  • Employees that do not know where they fit within the organization as a whole or feel alienated from the organization tend to work independently. This may result in conflicts during group or team work as they will continue with their own work rather than conform to organizational dictates (especially if they don't understand how these organizational dictates fit into their own work).
I don't remember learning about the office politics in any of my management courses. Specifically, there is little said about the "unwritten" rules of authority and how a new worker is supposed to learn these rules and their role in the organization. It seems to me that this is an important skill in the new "flat" management structure as there is no longer a job title cue that will tell where one is in the organization.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Developing "mind velco"

Related to comments Ken Allen and Tony Karrer made on my blog, I began to think about the mind of the adult and the "basis" on which adults learn (the "mind velcro" on which we can build on).

The first two phases of Learning

I was recently watching a TV show about teenagers (living with two, I need all the help I can get!) and they presented some information on some of the research that has been coming out of brain scans. There are basically two times in a person's life when there is great growth and change in the brain: around 3-7 years old and at puberty. It has been an accepted fact that early childhood is a time when the brain develops exponentially as language skills especially are developed. However, new research shows that at puberty, old connections that have not been used (experiences that are not reinforced, information used only once) the brain culls to make way for new learning. As the brain changes during puberty, some areas such as reasoning finally growing, teenagers can learn just as much as in young childhood.

This brings me to something Ken pointed out. If young children don't have the ability yet to reason, then it is possible that they learn the motions of reasoning, but not the abstract concepts. As a result, what they have really learned in not in abstract form. That does not happen until the reasoning portion of the brain develops.

When I think back on my school days, I remember the mechanical processes (how they were taught, instructions from teachers and my parents) learned in Kindergarten to 3nd grade. These were rules for reading, multiplication tables, spelling words. I don't remember anything but the mechanics. Middle school is a blur and I can't recall any of my experiences in school (except for the social angst associated with being a middle school student). When I think of what I learned in high school, I think of much more abstract ideas (rhetoric, subtle differences in vocabulary, scientific method).

However, certain concepts are still stronger from my elementary years (the laws of addition) without the understanding of the abstract ideas (algebra). For example, it was not until I had to work with my children that the laws of addition made sense from a conceptual level. While I am sure we went over the concepts in algebra, I maintained the simplistic understanding from grade school as it was not necessary for me to truly understand the math behind it. I mastered the functions of arithmetic so a deeper understanding of the math behind it was not necessary.

What Does This Mean for Adult Learners?

Language teachers know that the hardest skills to change are those that were learned incorrectly originally and "fossilized" at a young age. With the new research on puberty, I would also suspect that those that were reinforced during puberty (again without critical thought, the meaning may be fossilized in a distorted manner) are especially difficult to change. Perhaps this is why some people still hold on to the "lessons" they learned from high school and refuse to change (such as what is the "correct way" to write, communication tools, etc...).

Over the next few weeks I will be exploring some of these issues while I work on my dissertation. One thing I have noticed already is that adults become entrenched in their learning, holding on to the "truths" they learned at a young age. It is important to 1) change fossilized skills that are built on a lower level of learning, 2) create experiences that require adults to look at the assumptions (velcro) that is the basis for their learning, and 3) push adults to recognize there may be gaps in their understanding (not what they learned but how they came to make meaning of the content) that may require a new adult perspective at fundamental skills (such as knowledge, writing, analysis, arithmetic, communication). The last two are tricky, because by making them look at basic skills, many perceive this at too "elementary" or that we, as trainers/educators are underestimating their intelligence.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What do businesses really want?

Well, the Financial Times just confirmed what I have been saying all along: Businesses SAY they want a certain type of worker, but they really aren't hiring those that meet the criteria. In the article written by Stefan Stern, there were a number of studies done looking at what attributes were being advertised for (in this case the article focused on entrepreneurship) and what managers and HR personnel actually chose.

While many businesses want a sense of independence and creativity, what they chose was a person that fit the company personality (conformity). Quoting Alan Bennett, Stern says that most companies have the attitude "I am all in favour of free expression provided it is kept rigidly under control." This is a good explanation for why social networking and other Web 2.0 are not readily accepted by many businesses: like those with an entrepreneurial spirit, communication and the dissemination of new ideas can't be managed or kept under control, not to mention covering the company from possible risks associated with the networking of ideas both inside and outside of the company.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Is constructing knowledge based on analysis a work literacy skill?

I have been reading "Constructing Grounded Theory" by Kathy Charmaz for my dissertation. As I was reading it, I began to think that many of the points she brings up could very well be used for the workplace.

One problem I see with all of the data and communication tools available to students is the lack of training on how to problem solve and conduct an analysis. In recent years, I have had to dedicate at least one entire class in how to conduct and analysis, and give a lot of support to students as they do their own analysis.

The idea came to me, as I was reading, that I could use the framework presented in the book to help develop analytical skills in my students and to help them to learn to construct knowledge from data by:

  1. learning how to collect relevant data. This requires skills in:
  • interviewing
  • document retrieval
  • story telling
  • interpersonal communication skills
  • searching skills
  • creating links between content and perception
  • the ability to see the other person's perception
2. Coding and identifying trends in the data. There are two different types of coding in grounded theory: initial and focused. In initial coding, a researcher uses action words to describe the data (categories). After the initial coding, the researcher then goes through the data to see if any of the data supports those initial categories. This process allows gaps in the analysis to be more obvious. These gaps then require further data gathering.

Since initial coding requires constant interaction with the data as it is collected, it is a better mechanism to identify gaps in the data early and to construct theory that is less biased (less likely to look for data that supports the theory rather than reading the data to create/construct theory which is then supported by the data).

Imagine giving workers this tool in knowledge work. Attach labels to information (perhaps using programs like delicious?) that is the initial categories. Then going back and reviewing the data to see if it fits into the categories or if there are gaps in the data. From this, their analysis was begin to emerge. The book includes other types of coding (which I am still reading about) that would help to structure an analysis.

3. Memo writing: I haven't gotten to this chapter yet. However, just by skimming the chapter, I perceive this as a way to reflect and document the knowledge creation process. By putting the analysis in words, the individual is creating knowledge for both themselves and others, making their learning transparent. I could see using a blog for this portion.

What struck me about reading this book, is how useful qualitative research methods could be in helping to prepare the 21st century knowledge worker. There still is a focus in most business schools and training programs on the quantitative data (hard facts) while qualitative research methods are considered "soft". However, much has been developed over the last 20 years in the field of qualitative research methods that makes qualitative research as valuable as quantitative research, as long as the research uses a systematic approach. In addition, the deeper thinking skills needed in good qualitative research could create opportunities for the construction of new knowledge and more complex ideas.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Work Processes

There have been a couple of good discussions on the Work Literacy Blog. One has to do with Visual thinking/literacy.

I would like to see more research (or at least find more research) on how visual rhetoric has changed over the last generation due to the internet. I also think there is little research on the process for spatial thinking/hypertext writing (although the use of hypertext has some very good research written about it).

Finally, I have a question as I read about visual literacy: is visual thinking the same as spatial thinking? If they are two different things are they connected? If they are connected, is it because both require right side thinking? Or is spatial and visual thinking the same?

Note: I took the picture above at Chicago's Millennium Park. Can you tell what it is? (Hint: my daughter and I are in the picture).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Importance of Culture

One area that has been missing in the discussion of Work Literacy is the ability to adapt to different cultures.

Defining Culture
I feel it is important to begin by defining what I mean by culture. In the US, we tend to use a narrow definition of culture as something that is: a) foreign (different than our own US culture), b) uniform (everyone within a culture thinks the same and a person belongs to "a" culture), and c) identified through rituals and artifacts (rather than differences in values and beliefs, communication styles, or ways of thinking).

I use a much broader definition. I believe: a) a person can belong to and move through multiple cultures depending on the circumstance, b) is defined fundamentally by shared values and beliefs, c) can be manifested in multiple ways within the same culture including different ways of communicating, thinking, dress, behavior, etc..., d) is difficult to identify members for those outside the culture, e) is a complex system difficult to categorize with members not even able to articulate.

Given this definition, an individual might have simultaneous cultural forces affecting him or her in any given situation.

How does this affect work literacy?
We often make assumptions about work, processes, information, other people, based on our cultures. As a result, when working with new people, in a new situation, on new tasks, our preferences and assumptions will affect how we work, what information we feel is relevant, and the way we interact.

I find that I am able to change with the culture in which I am immersed, while still able to maintain my core self. This ability to move in and out of cultures requires me to identify the values of the culture within which I am working (e.g. working within a conservative business culture such as banking and insurance will be different than working in a creative business environment such as marketing or a Non-profit arts organization). I then need to know how to adopt my own values and preferences to the new culture. This does not mean compromising my own values, but rather understanding the values in which I am working (or living) and dealing with them so I don't lose myself or insult those within the new culture. It also requires good observation, negotiation, listening, and questioning/interviewing skills.

I am hoping as I delve deeper into my dissertation, that I will be able to dissect what skills allow some to move in and out of cultures yet paralyze others from working within a different culture.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The "soft skills"

The Financial Times has had two thought provoking articles this week. The first was an entry in an MBA student's journal (they have a regular series written by MBA students in world class programs). In it, William McKenzie, formerly of the US Air Force, identified some skills that he would not have noticed had he not studied for his MBA. To paraphrase his article, I would say these skills include:

  • Networking
  • Interacting with others on a wide variety of topics to create better understanding
  • Journaling as a form of reflective learning
  • Collaboration
  • Problem solving in a dynamic environment
  • Being open to change and comfortable in taking risks with the best data at hand
In today's digital business section, editor Peter Whitehead points to the opinion that many business leaders have that Business is changing because of the Web 2.0. Another article indicates that Web 2.0 are best suited to small and medium sized companies because of cost as long as the technology is "simple" (I think the term "user-friendly" is more suitable as simple is not necessarily simpler for the user to use).

This has me thinking about what "soft skills" (those that may be difficult to identify) will be needed for workplace literacy. Communication skills (listening and reading feedback especially) should be included. So should the ability to "read" a situation that is unknown and ambiguous be a skill workers need. Once the situation has been "read" the ability to generate and test out various options and scenarios is important. Also, the skill of being able to interact with others, understand their perspective (perspective taking), and build a common understanding (meaning making) is a vital skill that I think is being lost. A contributer to the FT article noted "the Web 2.0 generation may be shocked to learn that everyone's opinion is not equally valid on every subject." It may be generational, but a good worker needs to understand the political structure of the workplace. This can be especially difficult as many are no longer in the same location, nor is there "personal" interaction within or outside of work tasks in many companies (especially global companies). This is just the beginning of the list of "soft skills". What else might I be missing?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Getting older workers to learn off of each other

I recently spent some time with my sister, a former science teacher who now does teacher training. I was helping her to load and try out new technology that she can integrate onto her computer. We are only 3 years apart, yet when working with her, she felt we were from different generations. "You at least have an understanding of the computer system and how it works. I just can't conceptualize it," she told me.

Part of the difference, when discussing it with her, was that I took computer courses in college (BASIC, and later for my MBA in International Business, a number of computer based programs for logistics and decision making on both mainframes and pc's). She felt that because she did not have a formal education in those areas, it is harder for her to figure out how to use the computers.

However, in speaking with her, we came to the conclusion that many older workers feel they need someone with "expertise" to talk them through a technology. Younger workers and students feel very comfortable asking others how to do things when it interests them (as opposed to only learning it when it is mandated). Rarely do older workers talk about what they can do or offer to show someone else how to do something unless they feel "qualified". I am not sure why, perhaps having lived abroad for some many years and relying on others to give me insight, but I have never felt shy about working with someone on how to figure things out. I am irritated with my children when they will "do" something for me (like put in names to my address book) rather than show me how to do it (as they will with each other).

I wonder, therefore, if we should be developing training differently between generations.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Skills for the 21st Century

The vacation away from thinking has allowed me to think more about the skills for the 21st century. I came across a list of skills written for Tech Valley high, a local school designed to create a new learning environment in the Capital District in New York State.

These skills include:

  • Taking initiative in their learning and becoming “lifelong learners.”
  • Working successfully on a team.
  • Taking responsibility for their work and their learning.
  • Confronting and solving unforeseen problems.
  • Managing and planning for short- and long-term goals.
  • Presenting and defending what they have produced
What I find interesting is how different this is from the skills listed on the most current post on the work literacy blog.

I feel that there needs to be more integration between schools and work place in identifying key skills. I think Tech Valley High (which brought together experts from the regions schools, universities, business, policy makers, and community) is a good starting point for this discussion. I hope more people from various professions and levels of education can be recruited to discuss this issue on the work literacy blog.