Peter Cardon, Academic Director, University of Southern California - Marshall School
Nearly all business students are trained in communication skills. That’s not surprising since nearly all employer surveys show that the most sought-after skill set involves communication.
Yet, the communication skills that business students and business professionals need are changing. Over the past few decades, new technologies have profoundly affected how professionals communicate. The pace of change continues. Business leaders and professionals still need the interpersonal communication skills of traditional workplace environments but also need a growing range of digital communication abilities.
Just over five years ago, several other professors and I concluded that our business students needed better training in digital communication skills, particularly for the work environment. We set up a project called the “Virtual Business Professional.” The gist of this project is that students from various institutions work on an intensive, six-week project where they never meet in person. They collaborate entirely online. In the process, they engage in online meetings, co-edit documents, participate in online forums, coordinate via messaging and email, and use a variety of project management tools.
At this point, roughly 4,000 students from 25 institutions in roughly ten countries have participated in the project. We continue to grow globally and hope we will reach tens of thousands more students in dozens of more countries.
By using IBM Connections (facilitated by Workplace ON), we’ve been able to create a positive collaborative environment for Gen Y and now Gen Z business students. This Fall we’ll begin to use Watson Workspace for this project. We’ve learned some lessons along the way, which we view as relevant to professional and student experiences with collaboration software.
Using a single collaboration platform. We allowed students to choose their own communication and collaboration tools in the early years of the project.
We think leaders everywhere need to focus on creating a unified, predictable communication environment
When we moved to IBM Connections and students used a single platform as their communication hub and collaboration space, performance increased dramatically. We measure team satisfaction, team coordination, and a host of other team-level variables. A single collaboration platform has resulted in roughly 90 to 100 percent improvement in all these variables.
We think leaders everywhere need to focus on creating a unified, predictable communication environment. This engages Gen Y and Gen Z employees by ensuring they see their organizations as transparent and helping them feel “in the know.”
Providing training in online collaboration and virtual teams. Working with others is often challenging, and it’s even more so in online environments. While Gen Y and Gen Z generations are often labeled digital natives, not all collaboration technologies are intuitive or natural to them. We recognized early on that we needed to provide training on how to collaborate in digital environments. This involves non-technical issues, such as team development and working across cultures, and technical issues, such as how and when to use forums or activities. Consistent, chunk-sized (three to five minutes maximum) training is key to capturing the attention of younger students and professionals.
We urge leaders to commit resources to effective training for collaborative software. Gen Y and Gen Z professionals prefer this training to be fun or light, regular, and chunked.
Encouraging real-time, rich communication. We carefully track how students use the various tools in IBM Connections. One clear lesson is the high-performing teams use online meeting tools more regularly, more often, and for longer periods than the low-performing teams. In other words, real-time, deep conversation is a key part of the collaboration process. This is no surprise. Most professionals know this intuitively. Yet, research about virtual teams consistently shows that, in practice, professionals rely too much on asynchronous tools (i.e., chat, email) and not enough on real-time online meetings that allow deep dialogue. In other words, what professionals know they should do and what they actually do varies significantly.
We believe leaders need to strategically and consciously create a culture of real-time online meetings to make sure their collaboration platforms are used most effectively. Gen Y and Gen X professionals who rely more heavily on online meetings not only work more effectively, they also enjoy their work more, have fun with their teammates, and select the various collaborative tools more wisely.
Modeling effective communication on digital platforms. Our work with Gen Y and Gen X business students as well as our research in organizations is definitive about this lesson: Collaborative software platforms, such as IBM Connections, rarely work well unless there is extensive participation by leaders and managers. For leaders who are serious about making these platforms improve collaboration and communication, they must devote their most precious resource—time—on a regular basis to model and encourage constructive behaviors with collaboration software. We have consistently seen this investment of time builds stronger cultures and leads to improved communication and collaboration.