Designing and Using a Course in Organization Design to Facilitate Collaborative Learning In The Online Environment

by Tracy C. Gibbons, Ph.D. and Randi S. Brenowitz, MBA

This chapter appeared in The Handbook of Online Learning by Kjell Rudestam and Judith Schoenholtz-Read, Sage Publications 2001.

Online Learning For Real World Experience
In today's computer-mediated economy, distance learning provides more than just an opportunity to unite students from different locations toward a common educational goal. It serves as a bridge from the often theoretical basis of academic studies to the real-world practices necessary for success outside university walls. With workers in both traditional and technology-based companies using computers and the Internet to accomplish their tasks, developing technological skills through learning by doing becomes increasingly important. In addition, people must learn how to engage one another on a personal level and develop mutual respect in an environment where face-to-face interactions are absent or scarce.

More and more organizations, particularly those with satellite offices across the country and around the globe, seek alternatives to flying participants to a common meeting site. Leveraging the unique talents of diverse employees and applying them toward a singular project or goal requires a collaborative process that may be new to some. An increasingly common solution to this problem is the creation of Virtual (VTs) or Geographically Dispersed (GDTs) Teams. These are groups of people who share responsibility and accountability for a product or other output, are interdependent for the purposes of its development or creation, and are not physically co-located. Students accustomed to researching and writing on their own and employees performing certain tasks that were previously done in relative isolation (such as writing or programming) often find collaboration to be a challenge above and beyond the project itself. Groupware applications are one way to accelerate projects whose contributors are geographically dispersed, adding to shared information and messages through the Internet and e-mail. Online education allows students to gain practical experience using technology to accomplish tasks and develop interpersonal relationships, which increases their value as future employees.

Addressing how distance learning prepares students for the business, social, and collaborative realities in the Internet economy, this chapter provides a summary of our experiences and discoveries teaching an online, experience-based seminar in Organizational Design at the Fielding Institute. For the coursework a group of geographically dispersed students-often working in different time zones-collaborated to create a redesign of an organization they selected from among their real world cases. This chapter reviews the factors that are essential to the success of online collaboration in general and examines the insights we gained from our specific experiences working in a distance learning environment.

Organization Design in the Online Environment
Among the offerings at Fielding, our Organizational Design seminar presented unique challenges and opportunities for online learning. Organization design is the process of developing or modifying the major elements of an organization so that they are in alignment with the overarching purpose, mission, and goals of the organization as well as with each other. A complex undertaking, organizational design requires the ability to work in real time with often competing organizational needs and variables. The very nature of organization design demands a comprehensive understanding of the varying dynamics of a company or institution. In order to do this, an individual may need to step outside his or her functional role to view the circumstances from another perspective.

Increasingly, teams that represent segments or cross-sections of the organizations that are being designed or re-designed do design work in organizations. By collaborating with a group composed of diverse individuals with different job titles and roles, each person not only contributes a unique perspective, but also sees other viewpoints that may be new to him or her. A successful collaborative team will incorporate all these perspectives to find the solution that best meets the organization's needs. And performance is measured by the outcome, the common product of the collaborative team.

We developed an online course through which the students learned by creating their own organizational design: examining a case study from a variety of perspectives and then merging their findings into a cohesive, relevant design. The students defined and developed their project by working as an interdependent, geographically dispersed team (GDT) where the success of each student depended on the success of the team. To work collaboratively in an online environment, the group needed to first develop its own method of organizing the task at hand. This provided the students with an unusual level of "meta-learning," that is, doing that which they were learning (organizational design) in order to learn about organizational design. All the while, the group members were also learning to use computers and a groupware application to accomplish their tasks. This experienced-based approach gave students practical skills in using technology to transcend barriers of time and space, collaborating with a multicultural and multifunctional group, and building an organizational design model informed by a variety of perspectives.

We found that in order for this learning and working model to be effective, the size of the team was a critical variable, ranging from six to ten. The minimum number was a function of the workload vis a vis time constraints of the course: fewer people could not have completed the assignments in a semester. The maximum was a function of the complexity of the interactions and group dynamics in an asynchronous, online environment: with more people, it would have been impossible to manage.

Team Building Factors that Affect Online Education
While online learning has become a standard mode of education at many institutions including Fielding, a unique factor of our Organizational Design seminar was the collaborative process, the interdependency of all team members, and the resulting evaluative structure in which the work of the team was more important than any particular individual's contribution. For such a course to be successful, we needed to consider not only online learning standards but also those relevant to the effectiveness of a geographically dispersed team.

Many elements of successful virtual teams mirror those of successful face-to-face teams: communication and collaboration are two of the most important factors in any team's success. While agreements about goals, policies, and procedures are necessary within any group working collaboratively, they need to be even more explicitly discussed and clearly defined by a team working solely in a technologically mediated environment. In their book Mastering Virtual Teams: Strategies, Tools, and Techniques that Succeed, Duarte and Snyder (1999) outline critical success factors for virtual teams. Standard organizational and team processes, organizational culture, and leadership are among those most relevant to designing an online course.

Standard Organizational and Team Processes
Though initially requiring a certain time commitment that could be seen by some as outside the project goals, setting standards at the beginning stages of a team's formation can actually reduce start-up time. By getting each team member's input and buy in on goals, methodology, and processes-as well as on what to do in the event of conflict or failure to adhere to the agreements-collaborative teams avoid having to negotiate these issues as they arise, which is distracting to the task at hand.

Organizational Culture
Developing comprehension of and mutual respect for differences of culture (whether national, organizational, or functional) helps to mitigate misunderstandings and disagreements based on style, expectations, values, and assumptions. In one of our classes, for example, we had students from several countries (including a variety of English speaking countries). It had already been established that English would be the language of the course. Since many students would be working on pieces of the final paper, one student suggested that all writing (even initial drafts) be created in "American English." An Australian student took offense to this as she found that having to edit her thoughts in real-time would significantly reduce her creativity. Quite a debate ensued and tempers flared. Eventually, the team decided that any English would do for drafts and that those for whom English was not their native tongue shouldn't worry too much about grammar and spelling. In the end, one person would be assigned the task of making the final paper read "in one voice." For virtual teams, cultural respect must be explicitly stated, and transgressions must be immediately addressed. While the anonymity of cyberspace erases certain biases of gender, race, age, and social strata, it also eliminates key indicators of intent, such as body language, facial expression, tone of voice, and intonation. In a text-only environment, a tongue-in-cheek comment can be easily misinterpreted, and the lag time between a posting and a response can cause emotions to simmer and resentment to build. Differences in language can also cause misunderstandings, not just among different nationalities but also among diverse functional roles. Terms may have narrower meanings among certain groups than they do among others. Common definitions must be discussed and agreed upon for a diverse collaborative team to function effectively.

Lipnack and Stamps (1997) emphasize the fact that virtual teams require stronger leadership than conventional teams. Co-located teams can sit in a conference room and circle around an issue until they come to consensus. With electronic communication, a discussion may never close when keeping it open is as simple as pressing the "reply" or "next" button on the computer. Leaders must manage the process of bringing the team to closure and consensus. They should ensure full participation of team members and help to keep the multiple dialogues straight and on task, creating structure and defining boundaries. This is not meant to control the members or restrain initiative or creativity, but rather to keep teams from becoming immobilized by the ambiguity of working in cyberspace.

Leadership roles must be defined and supported by the group. Whether practiced by one team member for the entire project or divided by task, leaders must fully support collaboration and virtual teams as a way of doing business. They must take advantage of the diversity of the team to develop and utilize each team member's expertise to the fullest potential; set and uphold realistic expectations; allocate the appropriate time (and, in real-world situations, money) needed to accomplish the project; and most importantly, model the collaborative behavior that will contribute to the success of the team.

Duarte and Snyder (1999) also list essential skills for both leaders and team members to develop. Of these competencies, two are crucial to online education: building and maintaining trust and using interpersonal awareness. As we explore our own course experience, we will highlight the tools we used to develop these skills among the group members. In addition, we will address particular situations that challenged us as facilitators and the students as a collaborative team, further illustrating the importance of trust and awareness in the distance learning environment.

Fielding Course In Organizational Design

Course Design
In order to use technological and other media to its greatest advantage for an online, team-based learning experience, the facilitator (instructor) must clearly articulate the design criteria for the course. As co-facilitators for the Organizational Design seminar, our goals were to provide an opportunity for learners to: 1) learn the basic concepts of and models for organization design, 2) work collaboratively as a team in an on-line environment, 3) experience doing organization design for a real organization, and 4) have a learner-centered learning experience in the Fielding tradition that required learners to take responsibility for their learning and the course environment.

The facilitator-who, even in a self-learning model, is acting in a leadership role-must have direct knowledge of and experience with the dynamics of work teams, how to create a collaborative work environment, and online facilitation. For our Organizational Design seminar, we drew on our extensive experience with both co-located and virtual teams to design an online environment that supported the learning goals we had set. Taking advantage of the structure of Fielding's computer-mediated conferencing (CMC) application (known as FELIX), we divided the course into seven distinct and interrelated phases: 1) reading assignments, 2) team start-up, 3) case development and selection, 4) development of a work plan, 5) project work, 6) documentation, and 7) evaluation. For each phase, learners posted messages and responses relevant to the topic at hand. FELIX tracked in an outline and topic-based format the discussion that occurred asynchronously. This enabled learners to keep multiple dialogues going at the same time, while maintaining a logically threaded discussion. It also allowed the next phase to begin while learners were still grappling with a previous phase, without interrupting the dialogue flow.

Another essential element in course design is to consider the time available (usually a semester or trimester in the academic environment) and to limit the coursework accordingly. Those experienced with virtual teamwork understand that GDTs typically require more time than co-located teams to perform similar tasks. Grappling with such anomalies as time differences, without the benefit of immediate answers to questions, team members can easily feel overloaded and get frustrated. We focused our course on the essential elements of organizational design to allow only the most relevant work within the limited period of time.

One of the greatest challenges for collaborative distance learning, or for any GDT, is defining the boundaries in which the work of the team will occur. In cyberspace, we are less bounded or constrained by the conventions that govern work done by groups. We must thus set concise, clearly defined goals, procedures, and boundaries to create a framework and context within which the team can feel secure.

As a kick-off to the course, we posted an initial greeting (including contact information for both of us) along with a detailed syllabus containing an overview of the course, a description of the methodology, rules for postings and frequency of participation, an outline for each assignment, the grading system, our role as facilitators, and the reading list. Regarding rules for postings and participation, we devised a new time standard: Fielding Standard Time, designated as midnight on any calendar day in Santa Barbara (Pacific Time). This was necessary to ensure that learners in different time zones were meeting the required deadlines. Because of the interdependent nature of the coursework, we asked learners to check in three or more times per week and not to save all their work for the weekends. We strongly encouraged them to bring a laptop computer when travel took them away from home base for more than a few days. We also directed learners to use the title field of their post to reflect the content of the message as an aid for tracking the flow of an interactive dialogue among multiple participants.

Reading Assignments
To provide learners with the conceptual underpinnings of organization design, we gave the group lists of required and suggested readings. The required readings included materials that offered an overview of organization design concepts and variables, specific models of organization design, and the history and evolution of the field. Learners were encouraged to augment the required reading with sources that were relevant to the specific case that they worked on and with materials and learnings from other courses they had taken. We expected learners to read the materials and to explore and apply them to the content or tasks as they progressed throughout the course. Our reading list comprised three required books and five required articles; in addition, we recommended eighteen other relevant resources.

Team Start-up and Development
The initial team start-up and development was the most crucial phase of the course. During this phase, the team set standards relevant to goals, created processes, and developed agreements for reaching consensus in the online environment, while also building the trust and interpersonal awareness that are so critical to successful virtual teams. The first assignment in the online space involved expanded introductions where we asked learners to post what attracted them to the course; their learning goals; their fears, concerns, or reservations; their experience in the Fielding program thus far; their role in their job and how they found it useful to the coursework; what they felt they could contribute to the team; and some information about themselves personally, e.g., where they live, what it's like there, their family, hobbies, and interests. We also asked each participant to respond by commenting on similarities and differences among the team members. This enabled learners to get to know one another on a social and professional level before diving into the coursework itself. It brought up common interests, topics for side conversations, and differences in writing style that helped learners become familiar with each other's ways of communicating.

Whereas this kind of communication usually happens in the hallways or before the bell in a classroom situation, in an online environment the facilitator must promote this interaction through a specified assignment and time allocation. In fact, the facilitator must be a model for interpersonal awareness and trust building. Early on, we addressed the participants' concerns and fears, reassuring them, for example, that they would not be penalized for technological failures; even the best applications and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) limit access at times. We encouraged casual conversation, even seemingly irrelevant musings, and we responded to each learner individually to make sure everyone felt heard. Humor, too, provides fertile soil for trust and human interaction. To ensure that comic moments were read as such, we modeled the use of electronic emoticons: symbols or words to express emotion, humor, or irony, such as ;-) and (smile!). Getting used to text-only communication can be difficult for some, and it was crucial that we permit enough time and nonthreatening content to allow the more reticent technology users to feel confident. Although this was neither their first distance learning course nor their first experience using Fielding's CMC application, we were asking our students to use-and stretch-the technology in a different way than they were accustomed to. In situations with new users, we believe that this start up time would require even more time, attention, and training.

After the "getting to know each other" topic was completed, we gave the team the task of reaching consensus in three areas: team goals, team agreements, and-as part of the meta-learning process-how to reach consensus. Mastery of this process is critical to the team's ability to work together successfully during its life together. During this phase, team members posted their ideas about team learning goals and working agreements (or norms) about such topics as decision-making; online participation; collaboration and interdependence; what to do if deadlines couldn't be met; how to allocate/manage the leadership role during the various phases of the project; and how to handle an unexplained, extended absence of a team member from the group. Respect for each person's opinion motivated the discussion that followed everyone's postings, which further developed the trust that the agreements were designed to foster. Then one person took on the role of the synthesizer or "weaver," taking the different strands of discussion and weaving them into a tapestry that reflected what seemed to be the consensus. The team then discussed and fine-tuned the consensus before polling to indicate their agreement.

As facilitators we stepped in to support good progress and express concerns related to, for example, limiting goals to what is reasonable and addressing what to do if someone falls short on an agreement. Some learners naturally gravitated toward the leadership roles during this process, e.g., sending up the "trial balloons" to define consensus and encouraging stragglers to weigh in with their opinions. We found that these were often the same people who took social leadership roles as well, supporting others, interjecting humor, and inquiring about team members who lapsed into "radio silence," not posting any messages for one reason or another.

Case Writing and Selection
During the case selection phase the team developed the content on which it would focus its collective wisdom and energies. We asked each member to write an organization design case study, including the current organization design, its appropriateness for the course, and the owner's (team member's) familiarity with or access to information needed to complete and test the design activity. Using a model outlined in one of the assigned readings, we also specified definitions for certain key terms-such as purpose, mission, objectives, and tasks-that would be used in the assignment so that everyone would have the same understanding of these terms. Explicitly defining a common language is more important in text-only virtual environments than in face-to-face situations where language can be immediately clarified through queries or accentuated with nonverbal cues.

When all the cases were posted, the team developed selection criteria by which they would choose a single case to work on together as a "consulting" team for the duration of the class. This was the team's first opportunity to make a major decision, thus testing the agreements that they had put into place in the previous phase of the class. It required that someone step forward as a leader to mediate the discussion and build the model for consensus. We suggested factors that the team take into consideration, including how the case fit the team's goals; the scope of the project (making sure it was manageable during the limited time period the team would be working); how much access the owner had to critical information; the availability of the owner (travel schedule, outside commitments such as family or job); the extent to which the information present in the case was clear, complete, and usable; and how well the case permitted the examination of all aspects of the model chosen from the required reading.

To assist in the analysis process-which left unaided could easily become unwieldy-we assigned each team member a review of two other cases, ensuring that each case would be reviewed by two people and that no one would review his or her own case. However, the actual criteria for selection and the process by which they would make the decision were left up to the team. Since this was the first real test of the agreements the team had formulated, it was often the first time these agreements were challenged. In one case, some team members posted reviews in a timely manner, while others lagged behind. This left some cases with two reviews and others with one or, in the worst case, no review, which posed a serious problem for informed selection. The person who had stepped forward as leader was charged with suggesting procedures and decisions to allow the project to move forward despite the fact that the input was incomplete. In one case, the leader asked other members of the team to do additional reviews. In another, he proposed modifications to the formal review process, based on the content of the unreviewed cases that had been read by all participants. The participating team members agreed, and the challenge was met without unduly slowing down the process.

Creating a Work Plan
The team planning activities, which occurred simultaneously with case development, asked learners to determine a plan for how they would best utilize the resources available to them to decide how they would choose and analyze the case, prepare and document recommendations for the redesign of the subject organization, and justify the solutions based on the resources they discovered and utilized. In the plan, the team developed a schedule for their work, determined roles and responsibilities, and addressed the leadership needs of the project.

As facilitators we found that a certain amount of structure was needed during this phase to keep the team on track and to assist them in dividing up the tasks. We suggested the following macro-level tasks that needed to be accomplished: analysis of the existing organization; understanding the contextual dynamics of the organization; understanding/researching issues, concerns, and opportunities mentioned by the "client;" redesigning each of the elements using the model from the required reading; testing the redesign and adjusting for overall fit and balance; and writing the final report. We asked the team to decide how best to divide up this work; to use the technology, FELIX, to produce the work; and to determine a timetable for delivering the work.

Typically, one person took the leadership role, developing an outline for the elements of the work plan and posing the essential questions that generated the discussion needed to flesh out the plan. The ensuing dialogue refined the outline, and individual team members volunteered to be the point person on a particular task. The leader frequently updated the team on the status of the plan, which informed everyone regarding who had volunteered for what and which tasks still required leadership. We checked in to support the progress and offer our assistance when concerns arose regarding participation of all the team members.

Project Work
The analysis of the current organization design in the selected case and the proposed redesign using the assigned conceptual model formed the heart of the course and the bulk of the work performed by the team. To provide a framework for the final report, we posted a description of the tasks/sections to be addressed with pertinent questions the team should consider when working on that task. We also stated our expectations for the final report, in terms of format, style, professionalism, consistency, accuracy, and attention to detail. In addition, we posted key questions the team should answer while developing the different elements of the organizational model we had asked them to follow, which included strategy, structure, people, processes, and reward systems (See Appendix). By specifically guiding the team's thinking for each of the tasks and elements, we reduced the chances that they would be led off track by the potentially overwhelming challenges of the project. The guidelines and boundaries set for a virtual team's work determines their ability to succeed in the project. A project that is too expansive will certainly lead them astray, as will sidetracking into irrelevant material.

However, it is critical that a certain kind of sidetracking be encouraged, to promote social interaction and provide relaxation from the stress of performing in an online environment. During one of our courses, after posting the material relevant to the topic, we would lapse into discussions of basketball and friendly rivalries over whose team had the better coach or more talented players. Not only did these conversations lighten the tone of the serious work we were engaged in, but also they served to strengthen the bonds among the team members that are so crucial to building and maintaining trust.

One issue that became apparent during this stage of the course was the fear of being misunderstood. While the loss of certain traditional communication barriers-such as anxiety when speaking in front of groups and lack of confidence in verbal skills-empowered some students to express themselves more freely than they would in a traditional learning environment, others found the lack of verbal and nonverbal response cues to be intimidating. Misunderstanding, either as a result or cause of conflict, is common in both intellectual content and interpersonal face-to-face exchanges. Moreover, misunderstanding and its subsequent resolution can contribute to group formation, synergy, and creativity. But when it occurs in a virtual team, learners are frequently at a loss for how to deal with it, and the problem becomes an obstacle. In an online learning environment, the fear of one's written message being taken the wrong way often surfaces as a long, unwieldy preamble to the main point of the posting in an attempt to predict and counter every possible interpretation of the text being written. Sometimes participants disengage from an activity or avoid dealing with situations that could contribute to conflict. The practical effect of this fear is reduced willingness to take risks, which can lead to gridlock in the group.

Conquering the fear of being misunderstood involves trust: accepting that team members will not judge one another negatively through their own misinterpretations. The acceptance of all viewpoints and voices, however deftly or awkwardly expressed, reduces misunderstandings that can stymie the group. Facilitators can mitigate these situations by modeling and encouraging clarification. When team members reflect back what they interpret from another's posting before making assumptions about the intended meaning, they give the originator a chance to further clarify his or her intent.

Documentation-The Final Report
The capstone of the group's work together was a final report that summarized the particulars of the case that they had selected, their analysis of it, the proposed design solution and rationale for it, and other recommendations for the client organization. Unlike most other courses-both on-line and classroom-learners did not write and submit individual work. Instead, consistent with the other elements of this course, the team was required to produce the final document jointly and interactively. This turned out to be the most difficult aspect of the course for several reasons. Common among all groups was the end-of-the-trimester time crunch. Underestimating the complexity of some of the earlier assignments and of the dynamics of the team and the medium, they began to fall behind and were unable to replan or make up for the slippages. Since the class had a definite end point, they had less time than originally allowed to produce the paper. Those teams who had a member with strong writing skills who drafted the document as well as a clear process for how others would participate in shaping and editing it produced the best papers. This typically occurred when a strong leader emerged who was willing to drive and manage the process to conclusion in a fairly directive manner-and others were willing to allow this while contributing fully and within the time constraints. In one case, the group allowed a team member to volunteer to draft and coordinate the editing of the report who was not well suited to this task-even though, as it turned out, others on the team were aware of this. In another, the writer was well qualified but by the end of the class did not have the personal bandwidth to complete the task. In neither case was the team able to manage themselves to a more satisfactory outcome. The result was that the papers did not adequately reflect the content or the quality of the work that preceded them, and many team members were disappointed by this anticlimactic end to their experience together.

In keeping with the learning goals of the course and the interdependence of the team, we created a process for evaluation that assessed both team performance and individual contributions. We outlined our system for grading in the syllabus so that there would be no surprises when evaluations were solicited and received. We based our grades on a system of 100 points: 25 for the quality of the team's plan, product, and process (everyone on the team received the same number of points for this component); 25 for a team member's self-evaluation based on how well he or she met personal and team learning goals; 25 for the evaluations each team member received from the other team members related to his or her participation in and contributions to the team; and 25 for the facilitators' evaluation of each team member's individual participation, contributions, intellectual and practical curiosity, and command of the subject.

What was unique about this system was that it reflected the interdependence of the team, not only for the accomplishment of the project but also for the evaluation of performance. We felt that it more closely mirrored a real-world work scenario where the outcome of the joint project determines the success of the individuals involved. A collaborative project is only as good as its weakest element, and part of the team's work was to determine how best to use the resources and talents they had at their disposal.

Several issues arose as a result of our interdependent evaluation model. Some team members had difficulty evaluating their peers or had fears about what others would say about their own contributions. Others expressed concern that their grades would be tied to the work of others, the quality of which they couldn't control. In order for the evaluative process to function correctly, we needed each team member to complete the evaluation assignment, which was the last task for the course and the one most likely to be neglected. Not all students gave the assignment the same level of attention: some contributed very high quality evaluations, while others provided only cursory responses.

This kind of group evaluation process proved to be quite time-consuming for us as facilitators. We had to merge all the comments while maintaining the anonymity of the contributors. For each student, we prepared a large packet with both quantitative (points) and qualitative (narrative) evaluations. Despite the great amount of work the evaluations represented for both the students and the facilitators, students indicated that these complex evaluations were much more valuable than merely receiving a letter grade and an assessment based only on the instructors' perceptions.

Elements Resolving and Accepting Contrasting Elements
One of the most surprising things we discovered in our Organizational Design seminar was how certain contrasting elements inherent to education in general presented unique problems to be solved or to be accepted as irreconcilable in the online environment. The traditional differentiation between faculty and student tended to blur in the online environment where there was no podium to stand behind or board to write on. All the postings, whether from facilitator or learner, were equivalent: each was given a number by FELIX and merged in with all the other postings. Apart from our initial syllabus and assignment postings, our commentary as facilitators resided alongside the discussion of the learners, which eliminated the hierarchy usually associated with the teacher/student relationship.

The synchronous vs. asynchronous nature of work could not be resolved within the context of our course, since nearly all the discussion was asynchronous and each individual participated at a time that best suited his or her schedule and local time zone. The same was true for face-to-face vs. virtual interaction. We had to accept that there would be no face-to-face meetings, and that interpersonal relationships were mediated by technology. The loss of face-to-face contact, both formal and casual, carries a great impact. Studies show that in face-to-face discussions, a message is conveyed 55% by body language, 38% by tone of voice, and only 7% by actual words. In telephone conversations, a message is conveyed 87% by tone of voice and 13% by actual words (Mehrabian & Ferris, 1967). In our course, students grappled with the limitation of communicating solely through written words. However, when severe problems arose, we used the telephone to have real-time discussions so that we could find appropriate solutions. But the standard practice was to use the technological medium to bring up issues, gather input, consider options, and make a decision on how to proceed.

As an example, one of the most consistent problems that teams face when using this medium as their primary means of interaction is "radio silence." Radio silence refers to a team member who goes for an extended period of time without participating, i.e. posting a message to the team space. ("Extended" is relative to the team's norms/agreements and the requirements for collaboration specific to the task or project.) It creates at least two obstacles for the team. First, effective teams typically have agreements or expectations about how frequently each member will participate; a project schedule with deadlines, interdependencies, etc.; and/or specific individual assignments or action items, and the non-participation of even one member can quickly bring the team to a standstill. This then forces the team to take time to decide what to do about both the person and the project in order to keep working and progressing. Second, once relationships are formed (implying some level of trust and concern for each other), team members begin to worry about the absent member, particularly since in a GDT, no one else on the team will run into that person in another setting, either to inquire about his/her absence or to verify a "sighting." In our course, we intentionally constrained the use of other media in order to test the limits of computer mediated conferencing as a tool for GDTs. However, in situations like the one described, we used other means to contact an MIA and to resolve the situation. The resolution was, typically, highly individual and ranged from one learner getting new equipment to the withdrawal from the course of another who could not keep up with the workload.

We resolved the issue of theory vs. practice by focusing our online learning model on practice. The theoretical base for our course came largely from the readings, and there was no formal review or discussion of these theories. Instead learners were expected to apply what they'd read to the practice of organizational design, which formed the core of the course. This practice occurred on two levels: the actual coursework in redesigning the case study they chose, and the meta-level of organizing themselves to perform the task.

One of the challenges in the practical learning model is how best to use the skills and experience of the group. For example, someone may volunteer for a task for which he or she is not well suited. This may occur at a time when others, including the faculty, are still unfamiliar with the participants' various strengths and limitations. When possible, it is up to the leader to diplomatically suggest that the talents of this person might be better used elsewhere, and to gain support for this deferral from the rest of the group. The person in question is much less likely to be offended by the suggestion if the rest of the team offers rousing support for applying his or her skills to another task.

Despite the attempts of the faculty to compensate, the relative lack of structure, the absence of face-to-face contact, and the reduction of familiar social cues can create considerable ambiguity in the group. As a result, a balance between autonomy and accountability must be struck by and among team members. This requires participants to find ways to make individual and original contributions to the work and learning of the team while also respecting the norms and agreements set by the team. Without the willingness of at least a few members to experiment with a range of behavior, the team may remain under-differentiated. At the same time, if even a couple of members are unwilling to adhere to the agreed-on standards and conventions, an almost unmanageable situation for the others can develop. A constant distraction from the main purpose of the team, behavior outside the "norms" requires extra attention to team dynamics and challenges others to confront the disruptive team members. Failure to face and resolve these issues can lead to anarchy in the group. While these dynamics also occur in face-to-face groups, they are more easily managed by such factors as the authority of the faculty/leader; non-verbal cues and other reinforcers of group norms; and informal, person-to-person interaction and feedback. For example, failure by one (or more) member to meet agreed-to deadlines for submitting work on which others are interdependent creates a situation that snowballs through the semester. It may cause the team to do rework when that member's posting eventually appears and can also result in the team running out of time on the final project or documentation.

Another issue that generated a certain amount of fear at the beginning of the course was structure vs. flexibility. As we've discussed, structure is essential to successful online teamwork as well as to distance learning in general. Tasks such as organizing or coordinating sub-tasks and integrating outputs of individual work almost always requires more leadership in a GDT than with co-located teams. While team members may recognize the need for such structure and manage themselves well under more conventional circumstances, their lack of familiarity with raising issues in a technologically supported forum may dictate the need for a leader to manage these tasks. If the leader creates the required structure-which includes identifying the need, recruiting/naming a person who will be responsible for managing the task or process, providing the necessary support and coaching, and holding both the task manager and the other team members accountable for engaging and reaching closure-team members are less likely to experience frustration and gridlock.

On the other hand, this increased structure needs to be balanced with a degree of flexibility, which is not to say that learners can disregard deadlines or offer one of the wealth of excuses with which most teachers are quite familiar (e.g., the dog ate my homework, my computer crashed, etc.). Backup systems, composing messages offline, and alternative means of communication (such as e-mailing a posting to the contact person at Fielding should access to FELIX be denied) provided the kind of flexibility necessary to keep the course moving in the event of technological failure.

The unique design requirements of this course relative to others in the program curriculum as well as other more traditional courses posed other dilemmas. Some learners found the work load, requirements for regular and frequent online participation, and demands of collaboration in an ambiguous medium to be more difficult than anticipated: it was not possible to succeed as an individual in this course, and there was no online version of cramming or pulling an all-nighter at the end of the semester. A manageable number fell behind, and over the space of several offerings of the course, a couple dropped out for various reasons. If too many had done either, the dynamics of the course would have been at risk, and with it the overall integrity of the learning experience. This was not, however, a situation that we had to confront.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Online Environment
Alongside these contrasting elements are sets of advantages and their corollary disadvantages that we discovered in our experience with interdependent distance learning. One advantage is that the working with geographically dispersed teams allows an international experience without traveling. But the disadvantage of the same is that there are sometimes surprising cultural and language barriers, even when one is diligent about trying to avoid them. We witnessed a certain amount of conflict during the editing of a written project where the contributors spoke different national styles of English, e.g., Australian vs. American. Even though we had specifically stated that both forms were acceptable, when it came to merging the two together, bad feelings arose among team members. This is an example where immediate conflict resolution was necessary to prevent wounds from festering and one or more participants from feeling disenfranchised.

One particularly agreeable advantage of the online environment is that age, gender, and race get neutralized, particularly for women and people of color who are often discounted in teams where they are a minority. This can, however, lead to loss of identity for some who base their view of themselves on those very things.

Another advantage and academic leveler is that people who are not quick on their feet can participate equally because they have time to think before they post. The disadvantage is that there is lag time before getting feedback, which can lead to feelings of not being heard. And, as we've mentioned already, when conflict arises, it may not be immediately addressed, and the delay can increase frustration and hurt feelings.

The Internet allows worldwide communication and access from almost anywhere, which is a great advantage in today's global market and mobile workforce. However, Internet Service Providers outside the U.S. can be unreliable, which puts some learners, particularly those in developing nations, at a severe disadvantage. Nevertheless, we successfully conducted the course with students living as close as Los Angeles and as far away as South Africa.

We discovered that a course design based on collaboration and assigned projects that require interdependence and teamwork can be successful in the online environment. A collaborative team can achieve high-quality results without face-to-face interaction. However, a team working in a virtual environment requires more structure than traditional teams, including agreeing on norms and procedures, setting realistic expectations and boundaries, and providing the leadership to keep the team on track and moving toward each goal.

In an online environment there is a strong social component through which participants form close bonds and true affection in their relationships. But it doesn't happen in the casual way that student-to-student relationships develop in the traditional teaching environment. Social interaction must be modeled and encouraged by the instructor/facilitator, and significant time and space should be dedicated to this task from the outset. And, where students whispering in the back of the real-life classroom would be a distraction to the instruction taking place, side conversations and chit chat on seemingly irrelevant topics are constructive toward building trust and interpersonal awareness in an online environment.

Finally, our experience with this course further emphasized that the online, collaborative work product has real world applications as the modern workforce becomes more geographically dispersed. By working together in a technologically mediated environment, learners developed a set of skills that are imperative in today's global marketplace. And by engaging in a double level of learning-learning to organize themselves in order to learn to organize another company or institution-members of collaborative teams gain twice the practice of learning by doing, the kind of active engagement that proves more successful in adult education experiences.

Guidelines for Final Project

The purpose of this assignment is for you to work as a consulting team on the redesign of the organization described in the case you have selected.

The outcome of this assignment is the completion of your case analysis and redesign recommendations and presentation of it to the other team.

The deadline for this assignment is December 1 FST.

Part I - A description of the organization being redesigned. Much of this can come from the original posting of the case. Bear in mind that the other team has not read all of the cases and will need some context and introduction to the organization. In addition to a summary of the organization, please ensure that you consider the following questions:

  • What are the **desired outcomes** desired outcomes of the design effort for the business, the organization, the people? (these can also be called "design criteria.")
  • What's the core work of the organization? What's the input-->transformation-->output that the organization must execute to deliver its products/services?
  • What are the primary **interdependencies within** interdependencies within the organization's boundaries?

Part II - An description of other contextual dynamics of the organization, i.e., culture, political forces, variables that affect the target organization that are outside the direct control of the management team, etc. that need to be considered in a design solution. In addition to others you will think of, please consider the following questions:

  • What are the primary **interfaces** interfaces with other organizations and entities **outside** outside this organization's boundaries?
  • What are the design constraints being imposed from outside?
  • What are the political realities/constraints?
  • Who, in addition to the client and the management team, must buy into or approve the proposed design? How easy or difficult is it likely to be to get such approvals? Why or why not?

Part III - An in-depth analysis of the existing organization design using Galbraith as your principal frame, supplemented with the theories and principles from other authors or sources, including each of the components of the model; the overall fit among the components; and the extent to which the current arrangement enables the organization's purpose, mission, guiding principles, objectives, and strategy. You will need to delve into the initial analysis provided by the "owner" in his/her case.

Part IV - A recommended redesign of each of the components of the organization that correspond to the Galbraith model ensuring an overall fit of all of the components with each other and with the strategy and guiding principles of the organization.

What follows is a set of questions to consider when evaluating the "fit" of an organization design. Please note that this is NOT an exhaustive list. It is meant to be a guideline for your team. You should add to and modify this list depending on the uniqueness of your particular case.


  • How do the various components of the organization as you have designed it relate to each other?
  • Why did you choose to differentiate the functions in this way and what mechanisms/processes have you designed for integrating them where interdependence is required?
  • What are the mechanisms/processes for managing interfaces outside the target organization?
  • Is the structure adequate to meet the demands of the required work/tasks?
  • How is power distributed in this structure?
  • What are the implications for interdependencies within this structure?
  • Does the structure enable the desired communication patterns?

Are there implications for work/job redesign?

  • To what extent do the tasks (i.e. the way the work is organized and designed into "jobs") provide opportunities for individuals to meet their needs and obtain the desired rewards?
  • To what extent do you have individuals on board with the skills and abilities to meet the task demands? If not where or how will you get them (see PEOPLE Section)?
  • Do you have enough management talent to fill all of the management needs? Do you have enough "technical" talent to fill all of the "technical" needs? If no, what are the plans to hire or grow this talent?
  • Will the tasks and work/job design specified meet both individual and organizational goals?


  • What implications does the design have on selection criteria for hiring?
  • What implications does the design have for recruiting and retaining people?
  • To what extend does the design facilitate the training and development of people? To what extent is it required in order for the new design to work?
  • To what extent does the design allow for promotion and transfers?
  • What implications does the design have for leadership and management styles?"


  • What information systems need to be in place?
  • What communication patterns and forums need to be established?
  • What planning systems need to be in place?
  • How will decision making, opportunities for initiative, and power be distributed in the organization?
  • How and by whom will decisions get made and communicated?


  • What implications does this design have for job classification and compensation systems?
  • How will people be rewarded in this system?
  • How will people be recognized in this system?
  • How will the reward system encourage or facilitate the desired outcomes and behaviors throughout the organization?
  • What obstacles are you likely to encounter in redesigning or modifying the formal and informal reward systems?

Part V - Implementation and communication plan. Assume that your proposed redesign has been approved. What is your plan for implementing this new design and communicating it throughout the organization?

We have created a topic entitled "Final Presentation." Please post your final report there, and we will ensure that it gets posted to the other team. We have not created any other topics for this assignment. We encourage you to do so in line with your work plan and the needs that will emerge as you continue to work on this project.

If your work plan provides for tasks to be delegated to individuals and/or sub-groups, please make sure that their work is available on-line (as a clearly identified Topic) to other members of the team for observation and input.

Please consider your final report to be a scholarly as well as a professional piece of work. You may choose to write as if your document were a report to the "client." In this case, however, it should also show attention to such things as style, format, organization, citations within the text, a complete list of references, etc. Barclay has posted a set of style and formatting guidelines (contained as part of his syllabi) that make the necessary accommodations to the medium we are using, and we encourage its use. Whichever style you choose, use it faithfully. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, logical organization, etc. "count" and are important in the discipline of being a scholar-practitioner.

Please remember, you are to work as a team and keep your team agreements. Try to keep your perspective and have some fun while working on this assignment. We will be logging on regularly and will help if we see you getting stuck. Please feel free to contact us if you need any further clarification/help.

Duarte, D. L. & Snyder, N. T. (1999). Mastering virtual teams: strategies, tools, and techniques that succeed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Lipnack, J. & Stamps, J. (1997). Virtual teams: reaching across space, time, and organizations with technology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Mehrabian, A., & Ferris, S. R.. (1967). Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 31, p.248-252.

Palloff, R. M. & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace: effective strategies for the online classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

For more information on this topic, contact Randi Brenowitz at
650-843-1611 or



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