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March 9, 2014

Team Learning is Different

This is another one of the posts that got pushed aside from a book review because the topic was thorny enough that it needed its own post. This post was largely sparked by The Fifth Discipline, but has its roots in other books as well. More importantly, team learning is at the heart of how every organization becomes better and more effective.

I’ve spent much of my life working on learning and teaching. I’ve always wanted to help folks understand the skills they need (See the Shepherd’s Guide, for instance). I’ve tried to help folks think about problems differently (See the Psychology of SharePoint Adoption and Engagement). I’ve researched instructional design (See Efficiency in Learning). I’ve learned about how adults learn (See The Adult Learner). Learning how individual adults learn and how to teach them has been a passion of mine for a long time.

However, helping teams learn is something very different. It’s more about team dynamics and trust than the skills of teaching (See Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy). I’ve done my share of research and thinking in this area, too. There’s a long list of books that talk about leadership of teams, innovation, and efficiency, for instance – Leading Change, The Heart of Change, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Heroic Leadership, Good to Great, The Advantage, etc.

Individual learning is about pedagogy, andragogy, instructional design, and principles of learning and teaching which have long been studied. Certainly individual teaching can vary by topic and by the learner, however, the long history of training individuals in skills and knowledge has created a relative wealth of information about how to do the individual instruction well. The profession of instructional design has arisen because there are people who have focused on learning about learning. As with other professions there are good and bad instructional designers, however, the fact that there’s a more-or-less established professional discipline is an indicator of the level of maturity in designing solutions for individual learners.

Learning individually is a different set of skills than team learning. There’s a sense of emergence that comes with team learning that’s like the way that fish school and birds form flocks. There’s no single characteristic that identifies when a group of fish become a school or birds become a flock. Nor is there a central coordinating intelligence that defines that fish should school or when birds should flock. It just happens. This is very similar to the way that teams learn. In many cases, there’s no one thing that triggers teams to learn.

There are certain conditions that are optimal for team learning. There are themes for how teams are able to become effective at learning as a unit. Some of those themes are:

  • Trust – Trust is the great lubricator in teams and is also a prerequisite for vulnerability (as I explained in Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy). Trust may seem like a strange theme until you realize that it’s important to be vulnerable in order to learn.
  • Emotional Intelligence – Certainly teams learn about what it is to do the technical tasks of their work, but more importantly they learn how to work together. It is not working together in the sense of the mechanics but rather from the point of view of the sensitivities of one another that must be considered for everyone to effectively contribute. (See Emotional Intelligence.)
  • Identity – Good teams learn to connect their personal identity with the identity of the team. The more that people are able to form a shared identity with the group the less internal fighting and positioning will happen – and therefore the team will be more effective and will learn more.

Team Effectiveness

In the discussion of learning themes above, there was the inevitable slip into a discussion about how teams learning is measured. The desired outcome of team learning is that the team will be more effective. As a result team performance is a rather obvious measure of how a team is learning. That is, the team that is performing better is probably learning better, or so the thinking goes. However, how do you determine which one is doing better?

One can compare the results of two teams and decide which one is doing better. Although that isn’t as simple as it would seem – except for two very important challenges.

First, no two teams are solving the same issue with the same resources so getting a calibrated comparison is difficult. The teams have different people, with different experience and skills, thus different resources. Without a control group, it is hard to tell what the normal performance would be – so it’s hard to measure how well the team performed compared to normal.

The second challenge is that success on a single project is a short term metric and teams are most frequently together for several projects. That means that we need to sample their performance on enough projects that we’re sure we’re getting a representative sample of their work, not a one-time blip.

If we look at measuring a team’s effectiveness for solving a particular problem, it can absolutely be that the team wasn’t well aligned to solve that type of problem, or there was a mental block, or some other unforeseen barrier. Most organizations, while they desire teams to have excellent success every time, don’t expect it. The expectation is that every person and every team will have projects that are challenging for them. The trick is, that measured across the long term, the team should be able to deliver reliable results on a wide variety of projects most of the time.

If your organization believes that every team should succeed every time, then perhaps the organization isn’t challenging its teams to solve new and novel problems. No professional baseball player bats perfectly. No organization succeeds on every initiative. Failure is always an option – and is necessary for success.

If we look at long term measures, it’s hard to take corrective action in the short term if your measures are long term measures. In fact, team learning is itself a long-term measure. You can’t measure learning directly. You’re measuring effectiveness through measuring specific results. That’s three derivations away from where you started. You can’t measure the rate of change of effectiveness – which is the rate at which the team is learning. In fact, you can’t really measure effectiveness – although, you can measure the results that were achieved. Learning is the rate at which the effectiveness of the team is changing. Effectiveness is the rate at which there are successes in projects.

A Good Example

Years ago I read and reviewed The Wisdom of Crowds. It was a book about how crowds can be either very smart – or very stupid. One of the things I wrote about when I reviewed it (which wasn’t in the book) was about the Skunk Works at Lockheed Martin. Kelly Johnson’s team cranked out some of the most sophisticated and radical aircraft designs of his era. The important part of the Skunk Works was the way the team worked together. If the assembly team had trouble getting a part to work, the engineer and the machinist would meet on the floor, the engineer would “fabricate” a piece of cardboard and tell the machinist to make the part in the shape of the cardboard – and then return the cardboard shape to the engineer so he could draw it up later. That’s a team that’s working well.

There was no accusatory finger-pointing going on. Instead, everyone was lending their experience to the project and working towards the common goal, rather than remaining focused on who didn’t do their job or who was to blame.

Kelley Johnson is arguably responsible for a very results-focused environment that didn’t allow “the blame game” to be a valid option. Everyone knew what they were doing was intensely difficult, so there was no point in focusing on failures. Much of their work was considered impossible. Consider the SR71 Blackbird, the aircraft that could fly higher and faster than a missile fired at it. It’s incredible to think that that aircraft could be created with the technology of that era.

Creating the right environment for team learning to flourish requires utilization of the themes that were discussed here, possessing the character to create the right environment, and implementing the techniques to keep the team together despite difficult circumstances. While it may be difficult to measure the ability for a team to learn, it’s not impossible to do if you have leaders with the right passion and emotional intelligence of their own to be able to discern how to lead the team.

Retro: Harness Properties in SharePoint Search

Originally published on 8/21/2005

Most users of SharePoint Portal Server rapidly become enamored with the ability to add new fields (containing meta data) to documents in the document library. All of the sudden it becomes possible to associate information to a file beyond the file name that we’ve been limited to since the beginning of the computing era. However, few users have the opportunity to understand how this meta data is used by SharePoint for searching. This leads to problems when users decide that it’s necessary to use SharePoint Portal Server Search to search on information contained in a field that they have added. In this article you’ll learn how SharePoint uses document library fields to create properties which are searchable and how to enable searching on those properties.

The Power of Properties

SharePoint Portal Server’s search facility really works in two different ways. First, there’s the full text search. This searches across all of the text in every document that is in the index. This search is what most people think of when they think of SharePoint’s search capability.

Second, there is the property search. During the indexing process, the IFILTERs which extract the text out of the documents put property information into special property buckets which are kept separate in the index so they can be searched separately. This allows you to set properties in your Office documents such as department, project number, author, keywords, etc., and then you’ll have the ability to search on those fields individually. You can use the search engine in SharePoint to search for documents where the department is engineering and the project is 123. Where a full text document search for engineering and 123 may find hundreds of entries because the words engineering and the number sequence 123 appears in many documents, a search via properties may yield the 10 or so documents that are truly relevant to your search.

Properties are what most people believe that they are creating when they create a new field in a document library. That’s not actually true. The meta data fields in a document library don’t have anything to do with properties directly.

Office Does a Slight of Hand

However, during the edit process Office perform a little slight of hand. It takes the information you enter in the meta data fields for the document library and makes corresponding custom properties in the document. The net effect is that although you’ve only created fields in a document library, you’re documents now have custom properties.

These custom properties are picked up by the indexing process (more specifically the IFILTER for Office documents) and they are placed into the search index. You can then use those properties by making them available via the advanced search page in SharePoint.

However, this also means that non-Office documents don’t share the same relationship between fields in the document library and the properties of the document itself. So if you’re trying to develop a searching mechanism for documents like TIF documents or PDFs you’ll find that setting up a meta data field for those document libraries won’t allow you to search for those documents directly via their properties. You’ll still be able to organize the information

Setting up a test

Now that we understand the basic mechanisms of how SharePoint uses meta data and properties let’s demonstrate how it works. Here’s what you need to do to set up the demonstration.

  1. Create a site. For instance, I used /Sites/Test.
  2. Open the Shared Documents library by clicking on the Quick Nav Bar link to Shared Documents.
  3. Click on the Modify Settings and Columns link in the left bar.
  4. Click on the Add a new column link
  5. Enter a name in the Column name box. You can select any name you would like, I used Rob, Try, and IntranetJournal as my field names.
  6. Click the OK button.
  7. Repeat steps 4-7 for any additional columns you want to create. I repeated the process two additional times to get my two additional fields in.
  8. Click the Go Back to “Shared Documents” link to return to the Shared Documents Library.

Putting it to work

Now that you have a document library with custom fields, you can create a few new documents. Here’s what to do:

  1. Click the New Document button on the task bar.
  2. Enter some basic text in the document. (This text can be anything you would like.)
  3. Click File-Save.
  4. Give the document a name and click the Save button.
  5. Enter the meta data into the fields which are displayed. You should consider entering different text than the text you used in the document.
  6. Click the OK button.
  7. Close Word.
  8. Verify that the text that you entered is visible in the new fields on the document library.
  9. Click the document you just created in the document library list and click OK to the warning dialog if necessary.
  10. Click File-Properties. Notice that the meta data properties from the document library appears.
  11. Click the File Properties button. The standard Word document properties dialog is displayed.
  12. Click the Custom tab.
  13. Note that the meta data that you entered for the document library also exists as a custom property of the document.
  14. Click OK to close the properties dialog.
  15. Close Word.

Now you have a document in SharePoint with properties so you can go setup the search for them.

Ensure that the Document is Indexed

Before you can search on your new property you have to first ensure that SharePoint has indexed the document. This is done from the Portal by following this procedure:

  1. Open the SharePoint Portal
  2. Click on Site Settings in the navigation bar on the top of the window.
  3. In the Search Settings and Indexed Content section, click the Configure search and indexing link.
  4. In the Content Indexes section, click on the Manage content indexes link.
  5. Hover over the Non_Portal_Content link, drop down the menu via the arrow on the right, and click Start Full Update.
  6. Wait for the Last Update Status for the Non_Portal_Content index to display the word Idle. The page will automatically refresh itself.

Set up the Properties for Search

We had to ensure that the document was indexed so that the new properties would appear. During the indexing process the IFILTER which processes Word files automatically created new entries in the SharePoint Search Property list for the properties which were discovered in the document we just uploaded. The final set of steps are to enable the properties on the advanced properties page. To do this follow these steps:

  1. Open the SharePoint Portal.
  2. Click on Site Settings in the navigation bar on the top of the window.
  3. In the Search Settings and Indexed Content section, click the Manage properties from crawled documents.
  4. Click the plus sign to the left of urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office.
  5. Scroll down to one of the names of the fields you added to the list above (and verified became a property). Click the property from the list.
  6. Check the Include this property in Advanced Search options checkbox.
  7. Click the OK button.
  8. Click the Return to Portal link at the top of the page.
  9. From the Start Menu select Run and then type in IISRESET and press return.
  10. Click the magnifying glass to the left of the drop down list containing the text All Sources.
  11. Expand the drop down underneath the Search by properties: label to see that your new property is available to be searched.

You can now search SharePoint Portal Server for just the field you added in the list . Of course, as you have seen, you’re actually searching the property that was added to the Word document, but the effect is the same since Office is managing the transition to the document properties.

Retro: Drawing a Target on Your Users with SharePoint

[I’m reposting a handful of articles which are no longer available on the Internet as blog posts so that they’re not lost forever.]

Originally published on 6/10/2008

One of the challenges with most portals, including Intranets is maintaining relevancy of the information that the user sees and interacts with. You’ll hear a ton about search relevancy but relatively little is said about what is displayed on the home page. Some organizations approach the home pages as simple landing pages, a place for links to other places. Others try to serve up relevant content but all too often there are substantial portions of a corporate intranet home page that just aren’t relevant. If you’re in Indianapolis, how important is the company picnic taking place in New York?

In our information overload culture we’ve gotten adept at blocking out advertising and other non-content items on a page and still ad blocking software is in widespread use. We can filter information ourselves but the more we can filter information for users the better they like it. The more focused we can make our content the better the user experience. Luckily SharePoint has several ways that we can deliver customized content to users and groups.

One Size Fits All

Perhaps in some things one size does fit all. Golf balls are regulation size so in that sense one size does fit all. However, in most things we want to be unique, expressive, and interesting. If you don’t believe me walk into mall and notice the wide array of mobile phone covers that are available. There’s enough face plates that you can have any color that you want. That’s not all. Your mobile phone should be unique like you so there’s holographic screen protectors, and other kinds of “bling bling” to make it unique.

While I can’t advocate putting “bling bling” on the home page of your portal, one cannot ignore that individuals are just that – individual. They need different information at different times and for different reasons. Part of developing a portal is focusing on development of a solution that adapts to the major groups of users and tries to meet their specific needs.

In SharePoint there are three basic ways of accomplishing this as discussed in the following sections.

In-Part Personalization

Perhaps the easiest way to manage personalization is to have the web parts that you include on your page manage the personalization themselves. Whether it’s a web part for the weather that asks for your ZIP code and remembers it from visit-to-visit or a web part that remembers your search preferences, web parts in SharePoint can have personalized information that allows users to personalize their unique preferences – if the web parts support it.

Although the easiest to manage In-part Personalization does have the disadvantage that the web part itself must be coded to support the personalization – it’s not something that you can add in later. The out of box personalization support in SharePoint means that support for personalization in the web parts that you develop is transparent. Literally, there’s only one attribute that changes to make a property of a web part work for user level personalization.

In part personalization is great for web parts that you create – however, it simply doesn’t work for some third party solutions and some of the out of box web parts. It also can negatively impact performance if there are a large number of users customizing a larger number of web parts on a page. As a final note, this is truly personal personalization, meaning that it must be done on a user-by-user basis and it must be done by the user. That means most users won’t take advantage of the functionality unless the web part makes this process very easy.

Peacock of Parts

A somewhat more challenging approach, but one that offers the ability to layer on personalization no matter who wrote the web part or when they wrote it, is the targeting engine in SharePoint. Targeting in SharePoint is best known through the MOSS audiences implementation. Audiences are compiled groups of users to which web parts and information can be targeted to. The implementation of audiences is on top of a public interface called IRuntimeFilter2. Without going into too much detail, it allows you to add additional editing controls in the editor zone and supports the events necessary to make sure that these extra editing controls receive their data back when the properties are saved. They can then be validated.

Once targeting is enabled (through having a value in the correct property) the IRuntimeFilter interface (which is a part of the IRuntimeFilter2 interface) is called to determine whether the web part should be displayed on the page.

The net effect of the personalization framework is that SharePoint can show or hide web parts to individual users or groups of users. This means that you can have a web part that is only displayed to operations team members (even if the rest of the organization has access to the data). Similarly you can surface or hide information based on the time of day, or any other criteria that can be tested.

This is a great strategy when you have a way that you want to be able to filter all of the web parts in the system. So showing different things based on location, time of day, or other criteria will work great. If you need to change what information is displayed in the web part – such as the weather for Carmel, IN vs. Daytona Beach, FL – this isn’t the strategy for you. Although you can show or hide a ton of web parts – one for each city. It’s really not practical.

Pages for People

Another, lower tech solution, which requires neither web part support for personalization nor the SharePoint targeting infrastructure is to have each user have their own page. With MOSS My Sites are available which do essentially this. Each user can have their own personal portal starting page. However, the challenge with this is that changes are hard to implement across the system. If each user has their own page just adding a new web part to the portal means adding one web part for each of your users – if you have 10,000 users you’ve just turned a simple change into 10,000 operations.

Still, the greatest flexibility is offered by having each user have their own page so that they have the flexibility to configure the page exactly as they would like – without concern for impacting other users.

Drawing the Target

In reality there may not be one answer to how you want to personalize your web part pages. In order to produce consistently relevant content to users you may need a variety of strategies. You might create different portal sites for each of the different departments so that users have the option to see content relevant to their department, implement My Sites for a personal view, and customize the home page so that the current weather conditions and predictions for the user’s current location are shown. There isn’t a single right answer to getting the right content to users at the right time.

Having a set of tools that allow you to filter and direct the information that users see is essential to driving relevance and therefore driving engagement in your portal. Go target your users.

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